Nancy Allen mug

Nancy Allen

Americans have a love affair with crunch. Breakfast cereal, roasted nuts, crackers and the ultimate crunchy, chips, give our meals texture and our mouths an entertaining sort of music. Salama Yusef, writing for ScienceABC.com says, “Studies have shown that stressed individuals prefer crunchy/salty foods as comfort. The loud sound of fracturing air pockets gives our brains a strange pleasure, even if it causes us harm … chips, especially broken ones, have many sharp edges. Chip shards tossing and turning in your mouth could easily scratch the soft tissue … Until saliva softens the chip, you’re at the chip’s mercy.”

Eons ago Italians foodists developed a crunch stratagem … and along with it a way to avoid the dreaded soft tissue damage. (Don’t Italians foodists think of everything?) Their inspiration is the beloved biscotti, a dry crunchy cookie, tailor-made for dipping and softening in milk, coffee, tea, wine or hot chocolate.

Biscotti have origins in medieval Italy. Bis (twice) cotti (cooked) began from twice-baked bread, a way to dry and preserve it for long land or sea journeys or war. The second baking draws moisture out and renders biscotti hard, sturdy and mold resistant. Other cultures, attracted to the satisfying crunch and utility of twice-baked biscuits, developed British hardtack, German zwieback and Jewish mandelbrot. When the word “biscuit” showed up in English in the Middle Ages (spelled “besquite”), it referred to twice-baked biscuits.

Biscotti have flourished throughout Italy. Each region created specialties including local ingredients like raisins, dried apricots, aniseed, hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts and sesame seeds. Tuscans who originated the almond biscotti in Prato call their oblong-shaped, dry, crunchy snackers, “cantucci.” Traditionally Tuscans love to dip cantucci in the local Vin Santo.

Not all biscotti are created equal. Despite their ancient history, as with most Italian dishes, there is no one correct way to make biscotti. To preserve crisp-crunch, traditional recipes call for eggs and no other added fat. Newcomer recipes slip in butter or olive oil, which yields a softer, more delicate texture and shorter shelf life.

Form dough into logs as long as your sheet pan. If dough is sticky, flour your hands before forming or wear plastic gloves. Leave room for logs to spread. After the first baking, the biscotti loaves should be firm, but not hard and sound hollow when you knock them with your knuckles.

Cool loaves to just warm (not cold) before cutting with a long serrated knife — use no pressure — let the knife do the work. Cut biscotti thick or thin, straight across or on the diagonal — however you like them. Lay them back on sheet pan and with a low oven heat (300 to 325 degrees F) and bake until cookies achieve consistency you like: soft or firm and slightly golden. Slow and low temperature is key for the second baking.

During these stressful times give the gift of calming, robust crunch. Add the elegantly rustic biscotti to your holiday cookie platter or gift them to loved ones. Biscotti are sturdy, outlast other cookies for freshness and will survive even the Post Office, UPS or FedEx.

Biscotti di Prato

Tuscans love to dip these biscotti (cantucci) into Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine. In Pistoia, Tuscany, bakers fold in almonds and hazelnuts.

— Adapted from “The Italian Baker” by Carol Field

4 dozen

3-3/4 C. all purpose flour

2-1/2 C. sugar

1 t. baking powder

1/8 t. salt

4 large eggs, room temperature

2 egg yolks, room temperature

1 t. vanilla extract

1-2/3 C. unsalted, toasted almonds, roughly chopped

Mix flour, baking powder and salt into large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in sugar, 3 eggs, egg yolks and vanilla. Whisk them together and then mix with flour. Knead until smooth. Knead in almonds.

Line two 15-inch baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Divide dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into 2 to 2-1/2-inch wide log, about 14-inches long. Place 2 logs on each pan about 2 inches apart. Beat remaining egg and brush tops of logs.

Place pans in oven and bake logs until firm, but not colored, about 35 minutes. Remove and lower temperature to 325 degrees F. Cool logs until you can handle them. Slice each log diagonally into 3/4-inch slices and lay them cut side up on the sheet pans. Return to oven to bake until firm and golden,about 15 minutes. Cool on racks.

Lemon Biscotti

These biscotti are more tender and moist because of the honey. You may double sheet pan them to keep them from browning too quickly on the bottom.

Adapted from “Cook’s Illustrated”

Yields about 4 dozen

2-3/4 C. all purpose flour

1 t. baking powder

1/2 t. baking soda

1/4 t. salt

2/3 C. sugar

3 large eggs

3 T. honey or maple syrup

1/2 t. vanilla extract

Zest of 4 lemons

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Set up a commercial sheet pan with a half sheet parchment paper. Mix dry ingredients except sugar together in a bowl. In another bowl, whisk eggs and sugar together until eggs are very light and lemon colored. This requires some strong-arm action or a mixer. Stir in honey or maple syrup, vanilla and lemon zest.

Fold in flour until just combined. (If you overdo it you’ll bring out the dread gluten and cookies will be tough.) Dough will be soft. Flour your hands or wear gloves to keep dough from sticking. Cut dough in half.

On a floured board, roll half the dough into a log roughly 2 inches wide and 12 to 13 inches long — the length of the sheet pan. Set on parchment covered sheet pan and repeat with remaining dough. You should have two logs, side by side about 2 inches apart. Bake, turning pan once, until cookies sound hollow when you knock them with your knuckles, but are not brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Cool loaves 10 minutes and cut on the diagonal into 3/8” to 1/4” cookies. Lay them on their sides back on sheet pan and back into oven. Lower heat to 325 degrees F. Bake until barely golden, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on rack. Keep in a tightly covered container up to one month.

Gingerbread Biscotti

Biscotti are very adaptable. Bake them to your taste: chewy, crunchy or somewhere in between.

— Adapted from Abigail Johnson Dodge,“Fine Cooking” Issue 75

Yields about 24 biscotti

10 oz. (2-1/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

1-1/4 C. packed dark brown sugar

2-1/2 t. ground ginger

1-1/4 t. baking powder

1 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. allspice

1/2 t. salt

1/4 t. ground nutmeg

1/4 t. baking soda

4 oz. (1 cup) pecans, coarsely chopped

1/4 C. molasses

2 large eggs

2 t. finely grated orange zest (from about 1 medium navel orange)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour, brown sugar, ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and baking soda. Mix on medium-low until blended. On low speed, briefly mix in pecans. Lightly whisk molasses, eggs and orange zest in a small bowl or measuring cup. With the mixer on low, slowly pour in the egg mixture. Continue mixing until the dough is well blended and comes together in large, moist clumps, 1 to 2 minutes. Place dough onto an unfloured work surface. Lightly flour your hands as needed. Divide into two equal pieces (about 1 lb. each). Shape each piece into a 10 inches long and about 1-1/2 inch diameter log. The dough will be sticky. Place logs on the lined cookie sheet about 4 inches apart.

Place pan in oven and bake logs until the tops are cracked and spring back slightly when gently pressed, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer sheet pan to a rack and cool until logs are just cool enough to handle, 5 to 10 minutes. Carefully peel biscotti logs off the parchment and transfer to a cutting board. With a serrated knife, lightly saw each log into diagonal slices 3/4 inch thick. Return slices to the sheet pan (no need for fresh parchment) and arrange them cut side down tightly, but in one layer.

Bake until the biscotti are dried to your taste, about 10 minutes (for slightly moist and chewy) to 20 minutes (for super-dry and crunchy). Transfer sheet pan to a rack and cool biscotti completely. The biscotti will still give slightly when pressed, but will harden as they cool. When cool, store in airtight containers.

For the best results, measure flour by weight instead of volume. (1 cup of all-purpose flour equals 4-1/2 oz.) If you don’t have a scale, be sure to use the proper scoop and level technique when filling your measuring cups.

French Chestnut Flour Biscotti (Croquants Châtaigne et Noix)

Croquants are one of the traditional treize desserts de Noël (13 desserts of Christmas) in Provence. Italian chestnut flour has a delicate smoky flavor that comes from drying chestnuts over an open fire before grinding. Look for it in Italian markets or online. You may make these with all chestnut flour.

Yields about 2 dozen

7/8 C. (1 cup minus 2 tablespoons) chestnut flour

1 C. ground almonds (or almond flour)

1/4 C. plus 1 t. sugar or brown sugar

1/2 t. salt

2 T. almond butter

2 eggs

2/3 C. nuts, toasted and chopped OR dried fruits, chopped OR a mix of nuts and fruits

1/2 C. bittersweet chocolate, chopped (optional)

Combine flour, ground almonds, sweetener and salt in a medium mixing bowl or a mixer on low speed. Mix in almond butter until combined. Beat or stir in eggs one by one until combined (the dough will be tacky). Fold in nuts and dried fruits (by hand, if you were using a mixer).

Cover, and chill dough one hour to make it easier to handle. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet. Divide the dough in two, and shape each half into a log (about 12-inches-by-2-inches) on prepared baking sheet.

Place logs into oven and bake until browned and lightly crusty, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, lower heat to 325 degrees F and cool logs 5 minutes. Transfer logs to a cutting board. Slice logs diagonally, about 3/4-inch thick. Return the slices to the baking sheet, one cut side up, and bake for until golden brown about 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.

To dip or drizzle in chocolate, have ready a sheet of parchment paper or silicone baking mat, placed on a cool baking sheet. Melt chocolate in a double-boiler (or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water). Dip one cut side of each biscotti into chocolate, transfer to the prepared sheet, and leave out in a cool, dry spot until the chocolate has hardened. For a thicker coating, dip again. To drizzle, dip a warm fork into melted chocolate and drip over biscotti.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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