Biscotti are all-day cookies, just ask any barista at Starbucks. The crunchy, often almond-studded oblong cookie is America's favorite coffee submersible, whether it's dunked in the day's first cup or last. In fact, biscotti's vogue is tethered to this country's unabating coffee-mania. • "Coffee houses have helped develop a love of the cookies," says Lou Seibert Pappas, reflecting on the steady sales of her 1992 cookbook, Biscotti (Chronicle Books). • But it's more than an infatuation with dark-roasted beans that has popularized the biscotto (pronounced bee-SKAW-toh, that's the singular). It is a low-fat, low-calorie, low-sugar treat with a long shelf life.
A biscotto is the furthest thing from shortbread, the greatest Scottish export without gills. Shortbread is, as Laurie Colwin said in More Home Cooking, "the essence of butter," whereas a biscotto is often the very absence of butter.
Still, there is much variation in the composition of biscotti. "I find there are two styles," says Pappas. "The very dry ones with no fat besides nuts, and others that have a bit of butter so they are more tender." Biscotti can be savory or sweet, simple or packed with nuts and fruits, unadorned or drizzled with swirls of white and dark chocolate.
The one unifying characteristic is that biscotti are always baked twice ("bis" is twice and "cotto" is the Italian word for cooked). Baked first as a log, the dough is then cut on the diagonal and individual cookies are returned to the oven to dry out and crisp up.
Pappas is quick to point out that whipping up a batch at home is inexpensive, takes only 15 minutes and "you get four dozen cookies that you don't have to freeze. They crisp back up with a fresh taste if you stick them in the oven for a bit — they're real keepers."
Today, Italians call all cookies "biscotti," but these twice-baked sweets go back many centuries in Italian history. Sailors, shepherds and army troops availed themselves of biscotti on lengthy journeys for much of the past millennium. In her book, Pappas notes that Christopher Columbus relied on biscotti on long sea voyages. These rusks kept for up to six months without molding, and unlike history's other traveling foods, hardtack and beef jerky, they didn't need to be reconstituted mid journey, just dunked in a cup of tea or a little vin santo.
The cookie that seems to have sparked our enthusiasm in this country is the traditional Biscotti di Prato, a simple, hard cookie of flour, eggs, sugar, leavening and whole toasted almonds, sometimes hazelnuts.
To this simple cookie Americans have crammed in dried cherries, apricots and cranberries, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, coconut, candied ginger, pistachios, pesto, lavender, currants and whatnot, all with a certain amount of success. And even after nearly two decades of biscotti experimentation, the public is enthralled.
Making biscotti is a very low-tech endeavor. Mixing, shaping and cutting can be done by hand, leaving the oven time as the only bow to technology. According to Maria Polushkin Robbins, author of Biscotti and Other Low-Fat Cookies (St. Martin's Griffin, 1997), parchment paper is a help, because it cuts down on cleanup and unnecessary fat added to the cookies in the form of greased baking sheets. The paper can be used for both the first and second baking.
Heavy, lipless, light-colored baking sheets make cooking more even, and raised wire racks allow air to reach all sides of cooling cookies. Michael Rose, owner of Semifreddi's bakery (a producer of fabulous biscotti in Northern California), suggests cookie tins for storage, because they protect cookies from light as well as air. He also notes, "One tool I like is really inexpensive: a plastic dough scraper the size of an index card. You can push against that to shape the dough. It's flexible and great for scraping out bowls."
Beyond that, a good knife for smooth slicing is imperative. Pappas and Robbins suggest a serrated knife. Rose advocates using a sharp chef's knife.
Recipe for success
The lower the fat, the harder and dryer a biscotto will be and the longer its shelf life. Use softened, unsalted butter, olive oil or canola oil if you want a softer cookie that won't require a serious jaw workout.
Eggs should be at room temperature, and some bakers swear that beating the
egg whites and yolks separately yields a more flavorful cookie.
As with any recipe, choosing quality ingredients will result in a better product: fresh unbleached all-purpose flour, pure vanilla extract, Dutch-process cocoa and fine melting chocolate, freshly ground sea or kosher salt (salt brings out the flavors in other ingredients) and fresh, unsalted toasted nuts. The thick batter is very accommodating, so nuts may be used liberally. To remove loose skins from hazelnuts, toast them, cool slightly, and rub them in a clean kitchen towel. For ground nuts, a tablespoon of sugar will prevent the mass from becoming sticky in the food processor.
Michael Rose suggests, "In building up flavor, use both natural extract and dried, ground flavoring — cinnamon and cinnamon oil, anise extract and crushed fresh aniseed." After mastering a basic biscotti recipe, experiment with citrus zest, spices and other flavorings.
Make and bake
Mix dough just until it clings together (do not overwork). Then shape dough into 2-inch by 12-inch loaves with clean, lightly floured hands. For dramatic, extra long biscotti, form dough into one really wide and long log and slice the cookies into 7- to 10-inch lengths.
For thin biscotti that are easily sliced for the second bake, slice while still warm or wrap log whole and freeze overnight. Slice thinly and bake the second time. This is especially helpful if the dough contains lots of whole nuts.
top two-thirds of the oven, switching the position of the baking sheets halfway through
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.