Once an obscure Italian cookie from Prato, biscotti are now a common addition to many cookie plates. Classically, the cookie is made with pine nuts and almonds, but it's possible to find all sorts of additions these days, from bacon and cornmeal to drizzles of chocolate, both dark and white. Usually, I like to stick to a simple almond biscotti — unless it's the holidays when I show no shame in pulling out the pistachios and cranberries. Really, basic biscotti like our recipe here can be tweaked to suit whatever you fancy!
History and Tradition
Biscotti are an old cookie, with origins in medieval Italy. The word translates to "twice cooked or baked," and it is believed that they were originally more of a bread that was twice-baked to dry it as a way to preserve it, especially for long journeys and in times of war.
The original recipe was rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century in Prato by the Italian chef Antonio Mattei and consisted of flour, sugar, eggs, pine nuts and unroasted, unpeeled almonds. Today there are many variations of biscotti, some of them quite sweet and chock full of flavors such as chocolate, all matter of dried fruit and nuts, and spices such as cinnamon and anise seed.
In Italy, biscotti are traditionally served after dinner with a sweet, fortified wine such as vin santo. But elsewhere they have become a coffeehouse staple where their popularity rose with the latte and cappuccino. Either way, the dry cookie (biscotto, singular) is often dunked into its accompanying beverage.
Making biscotti is relatively simple and straightforward. A dough is made, formed into one or two long, thin loaves, and baked until it is just set and beginning to color. It is cooled slightly and then sliced into thinnish cookies, which are returned to the oven to bake further, turning golden and becoming dry.
You have some leeway in the size of the cookie, depending on if you create a big single log or two smaller ones for the first baking. The angle and thickness of your slices is also influential. You can create long, thin biscotti by making a single mound of dough and using a very deep angle when you slice off the cookies. Or you can make two smaller logs and cut them with hardly any angle. Either way, a very sharp knife is required, preferably with a serrated edge.
There are two things to watch out for when making biscotti. The first is texture. While biscotti are indeed a hard, dry cookie, they can be too hard and dry sometimes. I've known people who have broken a tooth on a biscotto, which is not the desired outcome! The recipe below produces nice, dry biscotti that still has a tenderness to its crumb, making it possible to eat without worry of dental ruin.
The second thing to watch out for is overly-complicating the flavors of biscotti. Really, the best ones are simply made with almonds and maybe a bit of almond extract. Pine nuts or walnuts are also great. I do admit that when the holidays roll around, I cannot help but make my mother's famous pistachio-cranberry biscotti which is pictured here.
The most difficult thing when making biscotti is that the dough is often sticky and a little hard to work with. Working with slightly damp hands to quickly mold the dough into its log shape is the best way to go. A bench knife or scraper also comes in handy to pat and coax it along.
Biscotti make great gifts because they can last up two two weeks if kept in a well-sealed container, so they're perfect for shipping. You can also keep them for several months in the freezer, again in a well sealed container.
Delicious crisp biscotti are easy to make!
How To Make Biscotti
Makes approximately 2 dozen cookies
What You Need
1/4 cup mild olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 3/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups nuts such as whole unpeeled almonds
(optional: 1/2 cup dried fruit such as currants)
Stand mixer or mixing bowl and wooden spoon
Measuring cups and spoons
Sharp knife (serrated preferred)
Prep: Preheat oven to 300°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment.
Mix the wet ingredients: In a stand mixer, mix the olive oil and sugar on medium speed until blended. Switch the machine to low, and add the vanilla extract, almond extract, and eggs, and continue to mix until well blended.
Mix the dry ingredients: In small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder. With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture and mix until blended.
Add the nuts: Stop the mixer, add the nuts and optional dried fruit, and pulse until the nuts are evenly distributed throughout the batter. The dough will be sticky.
Shape into logs: Using a spatula, give the mixture a final stir to be sure that everything is incorporated from the bottom of the bowl and well blended. Scoop out roughly half the dough and place it in a rough log shape lengthwise on the cookie sheet, leaving enough room next to it for the second log of dough. Dampen your hands and quickly shape the dough into a long, thin log, about 12 inches long and 2 inches wide. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Par-bake the logs: Place the logs of biscotti in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, or until the dough is just cooked through and very lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, turn the oven down to 275°F.
Cut into cookies: Carefully pick up a log (or use two spatulas) and place on a cutting board. Using a sharp, thin, preferably serrated knife, cut the log into 1/2-inch slices. Repeat with the second log.
Bake until lightly browned: Return the slices to the baking sheet, arranging them cut side down. Bake for another 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned.
Cool and store: Cool biscotti on a rack. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks or freeze for several months.
This recipe can easily accommodate other flavors. For the holiday biscotti pictured here, I used 1 1/2 cups of salted shelled pistachios and 1/2 cup dried cranberries. Additional flavors include:
- Lemon or orange zest: 1 tablespoon
- Currents, raisons, dried cranberries, dried cherries, dried apricots (chopped), candied orange or lemon peel: 1/2 cup
- Anise seed: 1 tablespoon
- Five spice powder, cinnamon: 1 teaspoon
- Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios: 1 1/2 cup.
- Pine nuts: 1/2-3/4 cup
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(Image credits: Dana Velden)