Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Basic Biscotti

This weekend, I will once again be in the wilds of Southwestern Pennsylvania, this time at the annual family reunion. L. demands that we go, and since I have not seen my parents since my mother broke her wrist and then had a difficult time getting a doctor to agree to set it, I must venture off the beaten path. I do generally have a good time at these things, but I am forgoing tickets to see Hairspray in order to go spend the weekend in Finzel, a town that is even smaller than the tiny little town twenty minutes thence where my parents have a house. Springs is a suburb of the middle of nowhere. Finzel is a suburb of Brigadoon.

The family in question is my father's family, which means that they are mainly current or former Mennonites, which means that there will be lots of food. Most of the food is very good, if heavy, though the charm of some of it eludes me. There is, for example, a kind of trifle that is in great demand each year and that seems to be constructed mainly of graham crackers, instant butterscotch pudding, bananas and CoolWhip. I don't have any culinary WMDs quite that lethal in my arsenal, so I'll be bringing some biscotti.

I have had this particular recipe for a very long time, at least since the Gorbachev administration. I know this because the recipe comes from the Atlantic Monthly, and on the cover is a drawing of Mr. Gorbachev tied up in red tape. As far as I know, his supposed troubles had nothing to do with the biscotti from the same issue, but one can, of course, never be certain. For years and years, the magazine (because of the recipe; I didn't keep other issues of Atlantic Monthly around) went with me wherever I went, and I'm pretty sure that it's somewhere in the house right now, though for the first time in memory, I am unable to lay my hands on it. Fortunately, I have memorized the recipe.

The recipe was originally called Biscotti di Prato, after the town in Italy where the author first tasted the almond biscotti. The author was Corby Kummer, long (and perhaps still; I haven't read the magazine in ages) a contributor of food articles to Atlantic Monthly. I once saw Mr. Kummer on television, where he was a guest of Martha Stewart on one of her TV shows. It was immediately obvious that he and I have something in common other than our appreciation of biscotti. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Corby was showing Martha how to prepare some sort of coffee, and he was making it exceedingly complicated, from my point of view. Fortunately, this particular recipe, is very simple. My recipe is not exactly the one Mr. Kummer wrote, but the changes I have made are fairly minor.


1 cup unsalted whole almonds or pistachios
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
Grated zest of one orange (optional)
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and toast the nuts for eight minutes. Remove the nuts from the oven to cool and turn the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet or half-sheet pan.

In the bowl of your Kitchenaid, put the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. If you are using the orange zest, add it, too. Mix for thirty seconds or so at low speed.

In a bowl, combine the eggs and the vanilla and beat briefly with a fork.

With the mixer on low, pour the egg mixture onto the dry ingredients. Then add the toasted nuts. When the dough masses together, dump it out onto a lightly floured marble and knead to make sure the nuts are distributed. Cut the dough in half and roll each half into a log, about an inch-and-a-half in diameter and fifteen inches long. Transfer the two logs to the sheet pan, leaving at least five inches between them.

Bake the logs for thirty minutes. They should be starting to brown but they should still be fairly light. Remove the sheet from the oven and let cool for five minutes or so, then remove the logs from the sheets and let them cool for another fifteen minutes on a rack.

Place a log on a cutting board and cut slices at a thirty degree angle. Each slice should be approximately 3/4 inch thick. Either wash the original cookie sheet or use a clean one. In either case, do not grease. Lay the slices on their sides so that the cut side is now facing up (and down). Return them to the oven for another forty to fifty minutes, until they are dark brown.

Let the biscotti cool completely on racks, then store in a cookie tin or in plastic bags.

I tend to only use the orange zest when I am using pistachios. I made two batches this evening, one almond (no zest) and one pistachio (zested).

It is entirely possible to make this recipe by hand. Just whisk together the dry ingredients, then stir in the wet ones and knead in the nuts. For reasons that are entirely unclear to me, when I first made this recipe, years ago, it was significantly damper than it is now, and the logs spread more on the first cooking. Perhaps the measuring cups I have now are slightly larger, perhaps the eggs are slightly smaller (though what was in the refrigerator were extra large eggs), perhaps the oven is different, or perhaps I've forgotten or changed an ingredient (I am pretty sure, for example, that Mr. Kummer said to use 3/4 teaspoon of baking soda, and I can see how that might make the logs spread more when they cook, but not how it would make them more damp to begin with), though they still seem to taste the same. This is a fairly forgiving recipe, but you may have to adjust a bit in terms of how much, if any, flour you need when you're forming the logs if the dough is more or less wet than mine was.

I am not sure that there is a great deal that remains to be said about biscotti. When I first saw this recipe, relatively few people had eaten any biscotti, but they soon afterwards became very common indeed, and if they are somewhat less ubiquitous these days, they have still become part of the culinary landscape. You will often find them dipped in chocolate, and there's nothing wrong with that, either, but I prefer this very simple treatment. If you plan to dunk them in coffee (or Vin Santo, for that matter) when you eat them, do make sure that you don't shortchange the second baking. When they're properly cooked, they can be well dunked without falling apart. This will also fully restore them in the very unlikely event that they sit around long enough to get stale.

There are nowadays a zillion recipes for all sorts of biscotti (searching on "biscotti" pulls up forty-seven recipes on alone), and few of them now get by without putting butter in the dough, but I miss it not at all, and I'm a big fan of butter. This recipe seems like it calls for a lot of sugar, but the result is really not all that sweet. I will confess here and now that of late I have been wondering whether sugar and I are getting along as well as we used to, so tonight, for the first time ever, I substituted Whey Low for the granulated sugar, and I cannot taste the difference. I am still not entirely convinced that there is a difference, but people whose opinions I trust and who are fully conversant with the scientific method tell me that it's better for me than regular sugar, so why not?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is the recipe from Kummer:
Biscotti di Prato

Begin by roasting one cup (five ounces) of whole, un-blanched almonds in a 350° oven until lightly browned. This will take ten or fifteen minutes; start checking as soon as you can smell the almonds, because they burn easily. Set the nuts aside to cool completely.
Lower the oven temperature to 300°, and butter and flour a cookie sheet. You will need another sheet for the second baking ("biscotti" means "twice cooked"), and if your cookie sheets are less than twelve inches wide and fifteen inches long, you will need another for the first baking, too.

The ingredients for the dough are appealingly even: two cups of un-sifted flour, one cup of sugar, one level teaspoon of baking soda, a pinch of salt, three large eggs, and a half teaspoon of vanilla. The baking soda helps the cookies to become very brown and, with the long and slow baking, creates the porous and brittle texture I so admire in Tempesta's cookies. Making the dough by hand is sticky but requires no finesse. It is easiest to make the dough in an electric mixer that has a paddle attachment (the dough is too stiff for handheld and conventional mixers with two beaters), and also very easy to make in a food processor.

If making the dough by hand, stir the dry ingredients in a bowl just to mix. Put aside half a cup of the flour mixture. In a small bowl or measuring cup lightly beat the eggs and vanilla. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the eggs. Stir in flour from the sides. When the mixture becomes too stiff to stir, turn out the globs of dough onto a surface floured with some of the dry ingredients you put aside. With floured hands fold the dough over itself until it coheres. You will need the rest of the dry ingredients to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the work surface. Press the nuts into the dough and keep folding it over itself until they are evenly distributed. Let the dough sit for a few minutes so that the flour will absorb the liquid and make it less sticky.

If using a mixer, beat the egg-and-vanilla mixture into the dry ingredients at the lowest setting. The dough should cohere after a messy minute. It will be heavy and sticky. Pour in the nuts in two additions, beating just until the nuts begin to break up. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and fold it over itself three or four times to distribute the nuts. Then let it rest a minute or two.

In a food processor, mix the eggs and vanilla for five seconds. Stir together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and add them to the processor bowl a half cup at a time, pulsing about five times after each addition-until the dough almost incorporates the flour. '"'hen all the dry ingredients are in, the dough will not yet be in a ball. Add the nuts by halves, pulsing five times after each addition. The dough will still not cohere,
and the nuts will not be well distributed. Both problems are easily solved by turning the dough out onto a floured board and with well-floured hands folding it over itself a dozen or so times. Let the dough rest five minutes (the action of the processor can heat it, making it hard to work with).

Divide the dough into three equal pieces. Rolling with your hands, elongate each piece into a strip about an inch wide and from twelve to fourteen inches long. When cut, these will produce about four dozen cookies about three inches long. For a more dramatic shape you can make two wider strips of the same length, which will produce two dozen cookies about six inches long. Place the strips on the baking sheet, leaving at least four inches between them if you have made three and six inches if you have made two. If you choose the wider strips, flatten them with your hands to a width of about two inches.

Bake them for 50 minutes at 300° (and no higher-if you fear that your oven is hotter than it says, as most ovens are, set it at 275°.). Let them cool for five minutes. Remove the strips from the sheet with a spatula and transfer them to a cutting surface. Using a sharp knife and making decisive downward strokes, cut diagonal bars every half inch. Lay the cookies on their sides on the two baking sheets and put them back into the oven
to toast for 35 to 50 minutes, depending on how dark you want them. Let them cool on a rack.

I am told that the cookies improve greatly after being stored in a paper bag for at least five or six days. I have vet to find a storage space sufficiently inaccessible to enable me to verify this.
I am decluttering and I found a photocopy of the article from Atlantic Monthly - June 1987

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank You! Many, many thanks - I have been searching for this Atlantic Monthly recipe for years, since my copy of the magazine was lost in a move. I even searched at the public library to no avail. I am fulfilled and you are heaven sent.

7:43 PM  

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