Sunday, November 12, 2006

Biscotti Biscotti

I bet you never ate a biscotti. And I'd win my bet. That's because if there is only one of those crunchy subtle Italian cookies around, it's a "biscotto". More than one give you the plural word, "biscotti". I guess that's somewhere between precision and pedantry on my part, but I'd always prefer more than one biscotto anyway. And if you make your own, you can afford to eat all you want!

With the rise of coffee shops in the 1990s with their Italian-styled coffee specialities, biscotti, previously an obscure “ethnic” cookie, gained great popularity. For me, getting a recipe to produce a dry, crispy, and slightly hard almond-filled pastry required a lot of trial and error. The few recipes I could find in cookbooks (the ones around a decade ago, at least) made dry, cakey, eggy bars like those dreary packaged "Stella" brand biscotti from my childhood in Italian-drenched southern New England.

The tricks for making really good biscotti include replacing some of the egg yolk with egg white, using part bread flour, and being careful with the heat. The almonds and almond essence make the most typical (and still my favorite) biscotti. But it is easy to replace the almonds with hazelnuts, add a little mace or cinnamon (whole anise seeds are traditional in Italy) and change from almond essence to vanilla, add some candied orange rind, or dip or smear one side of the cookie with melted chocolate chips.

Almond Biscotti Tim

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg whites (reserve 1 yolk for the glaze)
2 teaspoons almond extract
1-1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsifted bread flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 cups whole raw almonds

Preheat the oven to 340 degrees (or 330 convection bake). Lightly oil a large, preferably non-stick baking sheet. So the biscotti do not brown too much on the bottom, use an insulated baking sheet, or place a second sheet under the first, or better yet, lay a sheet of baking parchment paper on the cookie sheet.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter, sugar, eggs, and almond extract for about 2 minutes, or until very smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix until a soft dough forms. Mix in the almonds until they are evenly distributed.

For long biscotti, work with all the dough; for shorter ones, divide the dough into two halves. On the baking sheet, working with floured hands, form the dough into a flattish log or logs (separated by 3 or more inches) about 2 inches shorter than the baking sheet. Mix a reserved egg yolk with a tablespoon of water, and cover the log(s) with this glaze, using your fingers as the brush and shaping the log(s) smoothly at the same time.

Bake until lightly brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven, and cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes. Reduce oven to 290 degrees (280 for convection bake). Run a sharp knife under the cookie log(s), and transfer to a cutting board. Slice the log(s) crosswise (or diagonally if narrow) into 3/4-inch wide slices. Arrange the biscotti cut-side down on the baking sheet and bake 15 minutes. Turn the cookies over, and bake another 15 minutes. Remove the biscotti from the pan to a cooling rack.

Once they have cooled, store the biscotti in airtight containers (zip-lock plastic bags work well) for up to 2 months. Makes 1 to 2 dozen biscotti, depending on their length.

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