There are few things I love more than taking my breakfast on my front porch during these lovely days of mid-spring. I've recently started rotating hot tea into my mornings, and this led me to the consideration of one of the perfect matches for it: the biscotti. And as Jerry told us, this little Italian treat has quite a history.
The biscotti is a twice baked cookie, derived from ancient practice of twice baking bread so that it would keep. Something like a biscotti would be found in the knapsack of a Roman legionnaire or in the galley of a sailing ship.
The biscotti as we know it was developed in the city of Prato, in Tuscany, where they are also known as "cantuccini" (little nooks). The simple ingredients (flour, eggs, sugar, pine nuts or almonds) pretty much guaranteed that variations would be inevitable. Because the basic dough is relatively neutral, it's a natural vehicle for assorted flavorings.
The batter itself is a relatively dry batter, which is the whole point. Butter or oil, eggs, flour, baking powder, a touch of salt and a flavoring. It is mixed together, then formed into a long low loaf. The loaf is baked in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes. You then take the loaf out, and let it cool on a rack. Now comes the key step: with a thin, very sharp knife, you cut the loaf into 1 inch slices which you lay on the cookie sheet. Bake again on one side for 10 minutes then turn and bake for another 10 minutes, effectively drying the biscotti out.
Although we like biscotti with our tea or coffee, one of the classic pairings is with the Italian dessert wine Vin Santo. And of course, dipping is encouraged.
Almond is the traditional flavoring. You can add cocoa powder to the batter to take it in a chocolate direction. Or, blend a little espresso coffee into the batter. Here are some other options: using flavoring extracts - you can try lemon, orange, strawberry, rum, banana, or cherry.
You can also add a variety of solid ingredients to the batter, other than the almonds. Cut up dried fruit such as cranberries, raisins, dates, figs and cherries are great. Other nuts such as hazelnuts, pistachios and pecans also work well. Chocolate chips are a natural idea. Spices such as ginger, anise, cardamom, and cinnamon give you useful points of departure. Of course when it comes time to put your batter together, mixing and matching can yield some wonderful combinations.
Finally, you can coat your biscotti in chocolate sauce, or any other icing you fancy. But in our opinion, that may take them a little too far in the sweet direction. We prefer our biscotti off-dry.