by Gina DePalma
Walk into any hip coffee joint in America and you are likely to find biscotti displayed among the selections of sweets. Their long, slender shape makes them the ideal candidate for dunking in a steaming cup of coffee or tea, but a Tuscan may think it crazy not to want to dunk a crunchy biscotto into a glass of Vin Santo instead. This month’s culinary journey to Arezzo inspired me to learn more about the origins of Tuscany’s favorite cookie.
Tuscan cuisine is endearingly simple, and elaborate desserts do not play much of a role in the culinary landscape. It is no wonder that biscotti became popular in Tuscany then spread throughout the peninsula. Although they became a staple in the Tuscan cities of Florence and neighboring Prato, both the name and the methodology have roots in the Roman Empire. “Bis,” Latin for twice, and “coctum” or baked (which morphed into “cotto,” or cooked). The original biscotti were more about function than flavor; unleavened wafers were baked first to cook them, then again to completely dry them out, making them suitable nourishment for the long journeys which were part of the life of a Roman soldier. Pliny boasted that they would be edible for centuries, though I hope nobody actually tested that particular theory.
Eventually the cookies became known as a specialty of Tuscany, and in Prato, they were made with fragrant almonds from the local almond groves. There, the cookies became known as cantucci, and their dry, crunchy texture was discovered to be the perfect medium for soaking up the sweet, local Tuscan wine. Cantucci di Prato are ubiquitous in Tuscany, proudly displayed in the window of every pasticceria. Over the years the word “biscotti” has come to encompass the broad category of any crunchy Italian cookie from a number of regions, but most of us associate the word with the traditional long, sliced shape. Biscotti range in texture from very hard to somewhat spongy and more cakelike, and their qualities as good keepers and ideal dunkers holds as true today as for centuries past. The technique of forming the dough into logs which are then sliced means even a small recipe makes a nice-sized batch that will last you for months, if you can manage to keep them around that long.
The following recipe is my favorite for simple, crunchy biscotti, spiked with the flavor of toasted anise seed and a shot of anisette liqueur. Use whole almonds, and chop them roughly with a knife, rather than a food processor, to keep them in large pieces, which will look beautiful when the biscotti are sliced. You may also substitute half or all of the almonds with hazelnuts, using Frangelico or Amaretto instead of the anisette.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar until light, about 2 minutes; the mixture will look somewhat curdled. Beat in the vanilla, anisette or amaretto, and anise seed. Beat in the dry ingredients, then the chopped nuts.
Preheat the oven to 325F degrees. Lightly grease two heavy cookie sheets, or line with parchment paper. Divide the dough into four portions. On a lightly floured board, shape each portion into a flat log, just about the length the cookie sheet. Place two rolls on each cookie sheet. In a small bowl, beat the egg white with a fork until frothy. With a pastry brush, glaze each log with some egg white and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the logs are lightly golden brown, firm to the touch and just beginning to crack slightly.
Allow the logs to cool on the cookie sheet until cool to the touch, about 40 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 200F degrees. With a serrated knife, slice the biscotti, slightly on the bias, into ½-inch slices. Lay the slices on the cookie sheets in single layer; Return the biscotti to the oven and cook for 20 more minutes, or until the biscotti are toasted and crisp.
Store the biscotti in an airtight container. They will keep up to about 2 weeks.