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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