Why I Forgive Biscotti

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Biscotti always remind of driving with my dad. Or, more specifically, of sitting in the passenger’s seat of his giant International truck, high above the road, engulfed in the smell of worn leather, stone dust, and coffee, dozing off to the grumble of shifting gears. Or, to be even more precise, of doing homework in the coffee shop of our small New England town, waiting for my dad to pick me up. Before I could drive, before cell phones, I’d take the bus from school on autumn afternoons and wait for who knows how many hours for one parent or another to eventually pick me up. I had no interest whatsoever in coffee, but always loved the smell. I’d drink hot chocolate as I worked, hoping vaguely that I’d be able to spot the car out the darkening window. By the time I left I exuded the scent of roasting beans.

My dad drank 3 cups of coffee a day. No matter what we did, where we were going, or how late we were, he’d stop for coffee. Occasionally, when he was feeling wild, he’d get a biscotti. If you asked me (which no one ever did) biscotti were a dreary, utilitarian cookie—a tool used by coffee addicts to aid their bitter consumption. I never understood the appeal and saw them as a last, rock-hard resort in the hierarchy of baked goods. It didn’t help that they always seemed to be placed in jars next to the cash register, an afterthought to your beverage; a grudging and austere form of barely-sweet indulgence. I gravitated closer to the pastry cases—brightly lit and full of bursting eclairs covered in smooth, dark chocolate, perfectly miniature pies, and elaborate tarts piled high with glossy fruit.

But the other day read a recipe for biscotti, and was overcome with the inexplicable desire to bake them! I’ve eaten biscotti for dinner for the past two nights. Here’s what I’ve learned: Biscotti are, in fact, quite the opposite of my grim youthful perceptions! They are friendly and forgiving, easy to bake, and a canvas for endless combinations of flavors: spices, fruits and nuts, both savory and sweet.

I started with a recipe from Food52, which called for orange zest and pistachios (who could resist that sultry combination!) The recipe does not call for butter, and being a novice, I assumed that applied to all varieties. My dough was heavy and dense, but easily malleable. I made a mistake forming my loaves, however, unable to visualize how to achieve that classic thick sliver biscotti shape. As a result, my biscotti looked more like slices of baguette. I experimented with dipping them in melted chocolate, both white and dark. On the spectrum of Break-Your-Teeth to Dissolve-in-Your-Coffee, I would say these fell somewhere near Use-Caution-and-Position-Teeth-Tactfully. They weren’t bad, and I would definitely make them again, this time paying more attention to size and shape as a sliced:

Pistachio-studded loaves, cooling

Pistachio-studded loaves, cooling

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What to do while while cooling: peruse a few pages of Anna Karenina

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Experiments with chocolate dipping

The next recipe I tried is from the Splendid Table website. The Splendid Table, a radio show hosted by Lynn Rosetto Kasper, is second only to Roman gelato in its influence on my food education. Lynn Rosetto Kasper is a cross between your favorite college professor, your grandmother, and Terry Gross. She is my guru, and The Splendid Table makes even the most endless, excel-sheet filled workdays bearable. But I digress! What caught my eye about this recipe was that it calls for butter. I’m no expert, but I believe the scientific equation goes something like

butter > no butter

This recipe took my biscotti from what Harry Potter readers might recognize as Hagrid’s rock cakes to something delightfully hard but crumbly, breaking easily in your teeth but able to hold up to a healthy dunk in your coffee.

Any baker who can resist tasting the batter is morally reprehensible

Any baker who can resist tasting the batter is morally reprehensible

Divide the dough and form two logs

Divide the dough and form two logs

 

Ready for baking part 1

Ready for baking part 1

Beautifully cool logs, ready for slicing

Beautifully cool logs, ready for slicing

Ready to be dunked into a hot cup tea...or coffee, if you insist.

Ready to be dunked into a hot cup of black coffee

I’d recommend the second recipe (click here), because if you’ve never baked biscotti before, these will most likely throw you headlong into an obsessive quest for the perfect nutty crunch.

Notes: I added orange zest and pine nuts! I also baked mine twice as long as the recipe suggests during the second bake. It may be my oven, but for my second bake I did 15 minutes, then VERY gently flipped them over and baked them for another 15. Just watch yours carefully—you want them to be golden and completely firm (no doughy-ness in the center), but not brown!

Finally, some tips for the Biscotti-Obsessed:

  • I roasted my almonds and pine nuts before adding them to the dough, to add that warm, toasted fragrance. Be careful, though! I practiced some yoga poses in front of the oven and shook and rearranged the tray of nuts to get an even golden color.
  • Be patient with cooling your logs—they really will slice better when fully cooled.
  • If you decide to use zest, rub it into the sugar with your fingertips until the sugar turns uniformly yellow.
  • I think quality of chocolate and nuts makes a difference—my Stop & Shop almonds weren’t the most thrilling specimens…
  • I was confused by the way several recipes described the “log” shape. Basically, you want a rectangle that is 12” long, 2” wide, and about 1” tall.
  • I plan on treating myself to a KitchenAid stand mixer when I turn 25, but for now, a hand-held electric mixer worked fine!

Happy baking!

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The Joy of Not Cooking

My mom’s copy of The Joy of Cooking is spineless. Most of the pages are an impressive shade of brown, and several corners are singed and torn. It’s more a collection of papers now; various sections sticking together with vestiges of ancient glue. You have to learn your way around it. For example, Chocolate Chip Drop Cookies are on page 705, which is usually sandwiched somewhere between the index and page 120. I never bothered to look at any other page growing up, satisfied with the task of baking cookies, too lazy even to cream the butter (I melted it).

I used to sit on a stool at the kitchen counter and leaf through my mom’s more glamorous cookbooks, like Nigella Lawson’s The Domestic Goddess, as one might peruse the glossy pages of a coffee table book on British manor houses of the 1800’s. I never read the recipes.

These days, I can’t decide if a recipe is more like a poem, a short story, a painting, or an opera.

Just like you don’t have to be Jan Van Eyck to appreciate the rich intricate beauty of a Renaissance painting, or Itzhak Perlman to revel in the cadenza of a Tchaikovsky concerto, you don’t have to actually cook or bake something to appreciate a recipe.

I always read slowly, envisioning the act of cooking in my head, imagining each ingredient. Orange zest: how it will stain my fingertips with its bright, heady scent, or the way finely ground almonds will become a paste between my thumb and forefinger. The sound the knife makes breaking through chocolate—that insatiably satisfying crack and thud. I imagine butter and sugar and eggs, beaten together into a light, pale frenzy or the smell  of toasting pine nuts.

In Eat, Memory, a collection of food writing edited by Amanda Hesser, each essay concludes with a recipe. After reading about one writer’s expatriate Parisian life, in which friends gather around the late night table of a tempestuous and brilliant chef, you get to immerse yourself in the candle-lit “drafty artist’s studio off the Rue du Temple” with a recipe for a Frangipane Pear Tart. It begins:

 

FOR THE PEARS

2 cups sugar

3 strips lemon peel

9 firm-ripe small pears, such as Seckel

 

…which, if you ask me, is a poem in itself.

I immediately wonder how the lemon peel will interact with the sugar. How will the pears transform? Will  they soften with heat or blend into a dough so that only their light, heady perfume remains?

Sugar, lemon peel, and pears. Somehow, I like to imagine, these three simple elements will transform in small ways to create a tart that smells of romance and tastes like the slanting light of an August evening.

 

Pie Lessons

I didn’t know how good I had it growing up. I waltzed around, completely oblivious, waiting expectantly for pies to appear at the ready. Rhubarb. Peach. Apple. Blueberry. Pecan. Pumpkin. They’d emerge and sit tortuously on the stovetop to cool.

We weren’t allowed anywhere near picking range pre-dinner. But if, by some miracle, any pie remained the next day, picking was another story. It became an art. We’d pull stools up to the counter, spoons in hand, and approach the pie with practical reverence. We strategized: where to begin? A flaky tear of the golden brown crust? A deep carving  of the filling? Or, in the case of rhubarb, a spoonful from the miraculous and perfectly pink pool of sugary liquid at the bottom of the dish. We’d plot our attack carefully, comparing tactics, until not a crumb remained.

My mom’s pies are show stoppers. You would think we’d get used to them over the years, but at every family dinner, there we are: stuffed, incredulous, and singing her praises.

Whenever people ask the secret of my mom’s crust, she always exclaims “It’s in the flick of the wrist!” Her demonstrations are always accompanied by a “ch ch ch!” sound affect I never quite understood.

My mom learned to make pie crust from her friend Michele Miller (who happens to be the creator of Bola Granola, the absolute best and most addictive granola there is). Michele’s mother is French, so bien sur, she is a master of all things butter. The proportions are Julia Child’s, but the secret is Michelle’s technique.

After all these years it felt like a rite of passage to learn. I called my mom and requested a formal lesson, as soon as her rhubarb, which grows wild out beyond the garden, was tall enough to cut. We opened the windows, poured some Rosé, and put on Ella in Rome.

This much is true—master this dough and you’re pretty much set for life.

Ingredients: for the Dough 

  • 1 3/4 C Flour
  • 10 T cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 T Margarine
  • Generous Pinch (more like 1 t) salt
  • 1/2 C ice water

 Ingredients: for the Filling

  • Between 6 and 8 C rhubarb, tips and roots removed, chopped into 1 or 2 inch pieces.
  • 2 T Arrowroot Powder
  • 1 Heaping C brown sugar

Make Filling:

Toss rhubarb, arrowroot powder and brown sugar in a large bowl so that all the fruit is evenly coated. That’s it! Put it aside while you make the dough

Make the Dough:

Preheat Oven to 425°

Cut butter into small cubes.

Mix Flour and Salt in a medium bowl.

Add cubes of butter and margarine and toss in flour mixture until butter butter and margarine are coated.

Pour the contents of the bowl out onto a large work space. Using a pastry blade, chop the butter/margarine until it resembles pea-sized crumbs. Don’t overdo it. Scrape into a pile.

Here’s the “ch ch ch, flick of the wrist” technique:

Using a rolling pin, gently flick and scrape the mixture so that you stretch the butter. Flick some of the pile under your pin, then roll down and out away from you. Repeat until the whole pile has moved to the front of your rolling pin and butter crumbs have turned into thin flakes.

Gently scrape the pile back into the bowl.

Add ice water a few splashes at a time, just until dough comes together (and starts to resist.) Depending on the humidity in the air, you may not need all 1/2 cup’s worth!

Once dough starts to come together, form into a round disc. Don’t overwork it, and don’t worry if it doesn’t hold together perfectly! You can always scrape up crumbs and hide them sneakily in a fold. Wrap in wax paper and chill for a minimum of 30 min.

Remove dough from fridge and cut in half. For a lattice top pie, make halves slightly uneven (you’ll use the larger half for the lattice strips).

Flour your work surface and roll out dough, alternating directions, until it is thin but not too thin. Place gently into pie plate and pat down into corners.

Pour rhubarb filling into dough. Roll out your second half of dough and, using a pastry cutter (or a paring knife), cut into inch-wide strips. The weaving pattern is simple once you wrap your head around it. Start with 2 strips in an L shape, and weave so that the pattern is over under, over under. Break off the excess dough a little past where it meets the side of the dish, and save for later. (You can always cheat and pinch two smaller strips together when you’re running low)

Pinch your lattice ends together with the dough shell so that you have a lovely scalloped border. I wasn’t very good at this, but my thumb, thumb and index finger pinching technique yielded acceptable results:

Sprinkle lightly with sugar and pop it in the oven! Bake for 25 minutes at 425° so that the top is slightly golden. Lower temperature to 350° and bake for another 25 minutes, or until top is golden brown and the rhubarb peeking through your lattice is bubbling.

Cubing the butter

Cubing the butter

Chopping the butter, flour and margarine mixture

Chopping the butter, flour and margarine mixture

Ready to become dough!

Ready to become dough!

Ready for 30 min. in the fridge

Ready for 30 min. in the fridge

Rolled-out dough

Rolled-out dough

Starting to look a lot like a pie!

Starting to look a lot like a pie!

Far from perfect lattice strips

Far from perfect lattice strips

Learning to weave

Learning to weave

Hopefully you can't see my ghastly weaving error.

Hopefully you can’t see my ghastly weaving error…

Enjoy!

Enjoy!

 

A Little Late to the Table

I was always a nuisance in the kitchen. I was known to perform song and dance routines dangerously close to the stove and chose dinnertime to perfect my masterpiece on the pantry chalkboard.

I grew up at the apron strings of my mom and my older sister, Bridget. I always seemed to be orbiting the periphery of the kitchen, getting in the way and being assigned any task that might remove me from the premises. “Why don’t you set the table?” was the inevitable sentence, issued when my dancing, singing, and sampling of crucial ingredients got too out of hand. I accepted my fate as table setter and went on through the years loving food, blissfully unaware of how any of it was made.

My selective eating habits, which emerged early on, caused both my mom and Bridget to pretty much write off any potential as a fellow foodie. “Anyone who does not like jam,” my sister once proclaimed, “does not deserve to eat.” (To which I no doubt responded by dissolving into a hysteric tantrum about how Bridget was mean to me.) But she was right! I didn’t like Jam! Or eggplant! Or calamari! Or mushrooms! Or dates!

I did, however, love salt. While most kids were eating fruit roll ups and Lunchables, I was slathering Carr’s crackers with taramasalata and finishing off a can of black olives with a healthy swig of that salty black brine. When anyone baked, instead of paying attention whatsoever, I’d swipe bits of dough and sprinkle them with salt before eating them surreptitiously.

We grew up eating from the garden. The first sign of spring was always rhubarb, and we’d ladle sweet compote over vanilla ice cream for dessert. Summer was full of sun-warmed cherry tomatoes and 9 PM dinners. Finding grass or the odd leaf of clover in one’s salad was not unheard of. Peach pies were considered holy. In winter, there was always a pile of butternut squash in a cold corner of the house.

I played cello and I always liked to practice an hour before dinner, so that 15 minutes into scales and arpeggios, smells from the kitchen began to waft in: onions cooking in olive oil, roast chicken or a rustic apple tart. It was never a question that whatever my mom cooked would be delicious. Even on school nights when things got really healthy, we ate fluffy brown rice and spinach drenched in garlicky soy sauce.

When we were 12 and 8 respectively, it became clear that my sister had inherited the kitchen intuition from my mom. While my brother and I were busy building forts or stacking firewood, my sister was experimenting with homemade pasta or learning how to make jam. My only claim to fame was quesadillas, which I mastered and stuck to for a solid 10 years.

But here’s what happened (and I know, it’s cliche.) This past summer, I went to Italy. I’d say there were three solitary bites of food that changed my life in a small but significant way.

  1. Hazlenut gelato. Specifically, in Rome, on a quiet street in the evening; a perfect cool creamy bite of soft nutty bliss.
  1. Lardo. Specifically, whipped into a mousse with salt and herbs, spread on an olive oil-drenched slice of bread, accompanied by a glass of red wine in Panzano.
  1. Pasta. Specifically, floating in a bright green haze of mint and pea pesto, accented by salty cubes of caramelized bacon, under an arbor in Volpaia.

I have not looked back to the Quesadilla Days since.