The idea of baking twice to extend the freshness of pastries was conceived eons ago, in the days of the Roman Empire. Before embarking on long journeys, the soldiers of the ancient kingdom were equipped with sacks full of wafer-shaped cookies called biscotti (derived from the Latin words “bis” and “cotto,” meaning twice-baked).
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the shape of the pastry changed to a long, small loaf. After being baked for the first time at a high temperature, the loaf was sliced in half lengthwise (only at a later date was it cut into thin slices) and returned to the oven to be baked again at a lower temperature. The purpose of the second baking is to evaporate the remaining moisture trapped in the dough, enabling the pastry to stay fresh for a long time.
The welcome byproducts of baking the biscotti twice include an added crunchiness and an appealing tan color. Only in the 13th century, when sugar began to be traded in Europe, did it become moderately sweet.
Not only does biscotti go into the oven twice − it was apparently born twice as well.
In its sweet form, it appears to have been invented independently in Venice’s Jewish ghetto and in the Tuscan city of Prato, around the same time.
It also has dual religioous origins. Some think that it was originally a Jewish cookie whose name was altered to mandelbrot (Yiddish for almond bread). Others maintain that Christian monks are the ones who baked it for the Holy Communion ceremony.
It is known by two names − biscotti to some; cantucci or cantuccini to others. Either way, primogeniture evidently belongs to the Italians, and they are the ones who created the cookies as we know them today with added spices such as aniseed, bitter almonds, and hazelnuts. The ancient recipe did not contain shortening, so it was tough and condensed in consistency. It was consumed by dipping in hot sweet wine (vino santo) or brandy, and at a later time in coffee. Today some people add a little butter or oil to the dough to achieve a flakier texture. But naturally, and particularly when we are talking about a dual-fortune cookie, there will be those who will protest and claim that adding shortening to the biscotti dough borders on sacrilege.
Italian biscotti comes in a variety of versions and flavors, starting with the addition of bittersweet chocolate bits, ground coffee beans, orange or lemon zest, and all the way to chopped dried fruit, biting liqueurs, spices such as vanilla and cinnamon, and assorted nuts. After preparing the dough, it must be formed into a long and narrow log about 5 centimeters wide, so as not to yield overly large cookies. It is best to work with wet hands because the dough is sticky, and a little hard to shape. Logs should be baked one to a pan because they have a tendency to flatten out in the oven. After the first baking you let the biscotti log cool for an hour at least, then use a serrated knife to slice it as thinly as possible for the second baking. Biscotti will keep well for up to two weeks in an airtight container, but from long experience of dozens (if not hundreds) of biscotti batches, I will confess that they are usually gone before the fragrance of the baking has dissipated.
Turkish coffee, chocolate & Brazil nuts biscotti
The sweet warm fragrance that envelops every corner of the house when these cookies are baking makes all the effort worthwhile. These coffee-chocolaty-nutty biscotti are addictive, but will keep for up to a week in an airtight container. I bake them on quiet evenings after the kiddies are asleep, knowing that in the morning they will get up and ask, “Mom, what’s that delicious smell in the house?”
1 cup (140 grams) sifted white flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
75 grams bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
60 grams Brazil nuts or walnuts, coarsely chopped
60 grams room-temperature butter
50 grams (1/4 cup) dark brown sugar
50 grams (1/4 cup) cane or white sugar
1 teaspoon Turkish coffee powder
1.5 teaspoons cognac
Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
In a bowl, combine, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, chocolate, and Brazil nuts.
In an electric mixer, beat together (using a paddle attachment or beater) butter, two kinds of sugar, and Turkish coffee powder for 10 minutes. Add 1 whole egg plus 1 yolk and beat.
Add cognac; continue beating and lower mixer speed. Add the dry ingredients and beat for a few seconds.
Get your hands wet and shake off the excess water. Gather the dough from the bowl and work it into a loaf shape. Place the loaf on an oven tray lined with baking paper and continue, with moist hands, to shape it into a long and narrow log (4-5 centimeters wide).
The narrower the log, the smaller the biscotti will come out. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool for an hour at room temperature.
Lower the oven temperature to 160 degrees. Use a serrated knife to slice the log thinly.
Arrange the slices on the oven tray lying down. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn them over and bake for 10 minutes on the other side. Cool thoroughly and store in an airtight container.
Kids and adults with a kid spirit will be happy to dip the biscotti in hot chocolate sauce:
bittersweet chocolate dissolved in heated heavy cream and a little cognac.
Almond, lemon & white chocolate biscotti Because the dough does not contain any shortening, these biscotti come out slightly bigger than usual, since the log tends to expand during the baking. They have a wonderful sweet and sour taste, from the combination of lemon juice, lemon zest, and white chocolate. Divine.
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (160 grams) white spelt flour or white wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
100 grams white chocolate, diced small
70 grams whole blanched almonds, halved lengthwise, or raw almonds soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes, peeled and halved
1/2 cup (100 grams) cane sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
For brushing on:
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Heat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
Sift the flour together with the rest of the dry ingredients. Add the diced white chocolate, almonds, and lemon zest. Lightly mix.
In an electric mixer, beat the egg and yolks with the sugar until you get white puffy foam.
Fold in by hand 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and the mixture of dry ingredients.
Get your hands wet and shake off the excess water. Gather the dough from the bowl in two parts, because the dough is delicate. Join the two parts together on an oven tray lined with baking paper, and work into a loaf shape. Patiently continue, with moist hands, to form a long and narrow log (5-6 centimeters wide). Bake for 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, thoroughly combine lemon juice and powdered sugar. Brush the hot log with this mixture until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Cool for an hour at room temperature.
Re-heat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Use a serrated knife to slice the log thinly. Lay the slices down on an oven tray. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn over and bake for 10 minutes on the other side. Cool thoroughly and store in an airtight container.
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