Why is it that the Italians are so adept, so inspiring, and so effortless when it comes to the little things in life? It seems like they pass off most of the world's grand troubles with a disarming shrug of the shoulders and infectious dash of brio. And then, true to form for a people who can indulge unselfconsciously in pleasure and hedonism (la vita con passione sounds so much better), they come up with these gems, one of life's true little pleasures - biscotti.
In Italy, the word biscotti has come to mean almost any biscuit¹, usually sweet, but on occasion savoury. Abroad however, biscotti have come to mean one delicious thing - sweet and crunchy nut biscuits (or cookies, depending from whence you came). If you have never had the pleasure of trying these fabulous treats before, this is what you can expect. They are roughly semi-circular in shape, like little golden half moons. They are fairly chunky - at about 2 cm in width, and they are seriously, delectably crunchy. Nuts are almost always used in biscotti, and almonds are the most usual suspects. The crunch in biscotti makes them perfect for dunking into drinks, such as coffee.
So just why are biscotti so crunchy? A quick look at the name should shed some light on the matter. You may, just like I did, leap to the conclusion that biscotti is simply the Italian word for "biscuit" - this seems like a fair enough conclusion - but it just isn't the case. Biscotti translates roughly from the Italian as "cooked twice", and indeed they are. You see, biscotti are first cooked in a loaf shape, until the dough has just set, but is still soft. They are then sliced into thick wedges and returned to the oven so they dry out and attain their trademark crunch.
The Italian culinary authority, Antonio Carluccio explains that biscotti has its origins with twice cooked, dried bread preparations such as frisella. These totally moisture-less styles of bread have been made for centuries in Italy, and could well have been part of the marching diet of Roman armies. Without moisture, frisella kept without spoilage for extended periods, and were simply soaked in a little water before they were to be eaten.
Fortunately, biscotti are not nearly as frugal as this, instead of hard, plain bread simply for sustenance, they are addictive delights intended solely for pleasure. Tuscany is credited with being the birthplace of modern biscotti, and some sources point to the town of Prato, providing dates of around the 13th - 14th century as the origin of the sweet. While these dates are a little hard to confirm, the sheer abundance of products named Biscotti di Prato adds a lot of credence to the geographical origin.
Commercial biscotti can be found in any good Italian delicatessen, and some of these products rise to the lofty quality of "good". If however, you want superb biscotti, the best you will taste will always be made at home. Need more convincing? - Then hear this. They are devilishly easy to make. If you have made biscuits or cookies before, you won't even break a sweat. And even if you have never before baked sweets like these - a little patience and a lazy Saturday afternoon will see you through. Still not enough? Well, they simply last for ages. Remember the bit above about frisella and Roman soldiers - well the same principal applies to biscotti. They will last in an airtight container for months. And if they do go a little soft on you after a while, simply return them to a low oven for 15 minutes to crisp them up again.
I have used the traditional almonds in the recipe below, but you can feel free to substitute. Try pistachios or hazelnuts or any other nuts that you dig. And what to do with them? Well, they go sensationally with coffee, but if you want a super easy, and super elegant dessert to finish an Italian meal, simply send out a plate of biscotti, alongside glasses of Vin Santo to dunk into. If you can't find this Italian dessert wine, just use any Sauternes style, late harvest, or botrytis affected white wine. This sweet finale is deceptively simple, but then, the Italians have long known how to take the simple things and make them the best.
Preheat your oven to 170° C (340° F). Place the almonds onto a baking tray and roast until they are lightly golden and smell irresistible. Roughly 10 - 15 minutes. Chop the almonds into small pieces, not too small, as you won't taste them - yet not too large, because they will cause the biscotti to shatter as you slice them. How about half your pinky nail in size? Can do?
Place the butter and sugar into the bowl of a mixmaster, and beat ruggedly and thoroughly until they are well creamed together and quite pale. Add the egg, vanilla and brandy (if using) and beat at high speed for a few minutes. Make sure it is all nicely combined. All this can be done by hand with a whisk, but be warned - you will need no small amount of elbow grease.
Turn this mixture out into a large mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, gently, very gently fold the flour into the butter mixture. This is the only stage that you will really need to pay very close attention. If you over work the flour at this stage, your biscotti will end up chewy and dense, instead of crunchy and light. Fold the flour until it has only just been worked in, and you have a cohesive dough.
Divide the dough into halves and shape into 2 small logs. Line a baking tray with non-stick parchment paper and place the logs on top. Bake - once again at 170° C, for somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. An exact time is hard to provide, as this step relies heavily on feel. The biscotti logs are done when they are lightly golden on top, and slightly soft to the touch. They shouldn't feel gooey soft (undercooked), nor should they feel hard (over cooked). When they are done, remove from the oven and cool to a temperature that you can comfortably pick them up.
Using a sharp serrated knife, slice the biscotti into 2 cm thick wedges. If the dough has cooled down too much at this stage, they have a tendency to be brittle and shatter easily. Try and slice them while they are still warm. Place the biscotti back onto the baking tray, in a single layer, and return to the oven for a further 20 minutes, or until they are crunchy and golden. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
¹ tdent has alerted me to the fact that biscuit means, "cooked twice" in French, and hence English as well. I was at first puzzled by this because most biscuits and cookies are cooked only the once. Larousse Gastronomique, as always, sheds some light on the matter. Apparently, the Reims biscuit was originally a flattened cake that was returned to the oven for a second time to completely dry it out. This was used in exactly the same manner as the frisella mentioned above, as a non-perishable staple for soldiers and sailors.
ideath has reminded me that biscotti can also be delicately, and sometimes not so delicately flavoured with spices. One traditional variant has the sharp flavour of black peppercorns punctuating the sweetness. Odd as it sounds, the gentle heat of pepper actually has a surprising affinity with sweet flavours, especially when combined with citrus, which pepper biscotti often do.