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Twice Baked, Forever Popular

Malgieri is the author of the newly released "How to Bake" (Harper Collins)

Espresso bars and cafes are becoming more prevalent on our streets (one firm is rumored to be opening 1,000 units in the next five years). Simple cakes and cookies, of the type that caffe latte addicts favor, are in great demand--and, of course, biscotti are among the most popular.

Although biscotti is a generic word that encompasses all cookies in Italian, we use it in a way closer to its original meaning. It signifies the types of cookies that are twice baked--in late Latin and Italian “bis” (twice) and “cotto” (cooked; “cotti” is the plural).

After the dough for biscotti is mixed, it is usually formed into long, fat cylinders that bake to form loaves. After cooling, the loaves are sliced and the slices baked again, to color and dry them. Originally, this second baking must have been necessary to ensure complete doneness in ovens that heated somewhat unreliably. Now we re-bake biscotti to give them their characteristic crisp crunch.

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Biscotti and cookies as we know them today probably originated in the late Middle Ages when the use of spices and sugar became more prevalent. Classical Roman works refer to certain small cakes used for marriages and fertility rites (the cakes were often made in shapes appropriate to the occasion), and these are the direct ancestors of our cookies and biscotti.

Today, to a population that regards anything firmer than a chocolate chip cookie as dry and hard, authentic biscotti may come as somewhat of a surprise. By tradition fairly low in fat (not for health, but for economic reasons), most biscotti are crisp and even sometimes hard. In Italy, most people dip biscotti into sweet wine--the Tuscan vinsanto (holy wine) is much used for this--or into some type of espresso drink, like a caffe latte. If you have an aversion to dunking, stick to chocolate chip cookies.

The assortment of biscotti here is typical. Biscotti all’anice are anise-flavored and a homemade version of the industrially made toasted anise cookies. Although these are not hard, they are somewhat dry and are always best when dunked.

Biscotti di Prato are the classic twice-baked biscotti and the ones most often seen in Italy. Named for a hill town outside Florence, these are a famous Tuscan specialty.

Biscotti Napoletani are wonderful honey-flavored cookies. The name is a mystery--it means Neapolitan cookies but the recipe is a Sicilian one, given to me by Salvatore Maggio at his pastry shop in Trapani, near Marsala, on Sicily’s west coast.

The all-corn biscotti is a flourless and gluten-free version of the biscotti Napoletani in response to many requests for this type of cookie.

Biscotti are perfect baked goods: They’re easy to make, quick to bake, fairly low in fat (especially in comparison to some other cookies), and if you keep them in an airtight tin at room temperature, they’ll stay perfectly fresh until the last one is dipped into a cup of hot coffee or tea.

ANISETTE BISCOTTI (Biscotti all’Anice)

3 eggs

2 teaspoons anise extract

1 teaspoon anisette or other anise liqueur

3/4 cup sugar

Dash salt

1 1/2 cups flour

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Beat eggs, anise extract, anisette, sugar and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, 6 to 7 minutes. Stir together flour, cornstarch and baking powder. Sift over egg mixture and fold in by hand in 3 additions. (Batter will be fairly stiff.)

Using pastry bag with 3/4-inch opening, but no tube, pipe batter onto parchment-lined baking sheet in 2 (1 1/2-inch-wide) logs. Or you can use large spoon to form logs. Bake logs at 350 degrees until well risen and firm, about 20 minutes. Cool on pan. Cut logs diagonally in 1/2-inch slices. Stand up biscotti on baing sheet 1/4 inch apart and bake until lightly colored and dry, 15 minutes.

Makes about 5 dozen biscotti.

CLASSIC TUSCAN BISCOTTI (Biscotti di Prato)

2 1/2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

Dash salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup whole unblanched almonds

Stir together flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda to mix. Beat eggs and vanilla in separate bowl and add to flour mixture. Using hand or rubber spatula, draw dry ingredients gradually into eggs, turning bowl and working from outside to center to form soft dough. When mixed, let dough rest 1 minute so eggs are absorbed.

Scrape dough out of bowl onto lightly floured surface and flatten into rectangle. Scatter almonds over top and fold dough over on itself 4 to 5 times to distribute almonds evenly. Dust dough and working surface very lightly with flour to prevent dough from sticking.

Divide dough into 3 pieces and roll each with palms into 12-inch cylinder. (Flour hands rather than dough or dough will slide rather than form cylinder.) Transfer cylinders to parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees until cylinders are well risen and an even deep golden color, about 20 to 25 minutes. (Biscotti should feel firm when pressed with fingertips.) Remove baked cylinders from pan and place on cutting board. Cut cylinders at 45-degree angle at 1/2-inch intervals. Stand up biscotti on baking sheet sheet 1/4-inch apart. (Arranging this way for second baking keeps biscotti light in color. Placing them cut-side down will color them deeply.) Bake 15 minutes longer or until they are very dry.

Makes 5 to 6 dozen biscotti.

SICILIAN HONEY, ALMOND AND CINNAMON BISCOTTI (Biscotti Napoletani)

2 cups flour

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup whole, unblanched almonds, finely ground

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 cup whole, unblanched almonds

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup water

Be careful with the first baking of these biscotti. Even though they are baked a second time after being cut, if they do not bake sufficiently the first time, the biscotti will have a hard, heavy core.

Mix flour, sugar, ground almonds, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and whole almonds in mixing bowl 1 to 2 minutes. Add honey and water and stir until firm dough forms.

Remove dough from bowl and divide in half. Roll each half into log about 15 inches long. Place logs, well apart, on parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until well risen, firm and dark golden color, about 30 minutes.

Remove from oven. Cool logs slightly and place on cutting board. Stad up biscotti on baking sheet 1/4 inch apart and bake until lightly colored and dry, 15 minutes.

Makes about 5 dozen biscotti.

ALMOND-CORN BISCOTTI

2 cups whole, unblanched almonds

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 egg

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

A wheat- and gluten-free version of Biscotti Napoletani, these biscotti are delicate and crunchy. Be sure to let them cool after the first baking or they will be difficult to cut into individual pieces.

Grind 1 cup almonds in food processor fitted with metal blade by pulsing repeatedly until almonds are fine. Mix well in bowl with remaining 1 cup whole almonds, cornmeal, cornstarch, baking soda and cinnamon.

Beat egg in separate bowl and whisk in sugar, honey, butter and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and stir with rubber spatula to form stiff dough. Scrape dough onto baking sheet lined with buttered parchment. Press with palm of hand into even layer about 1/2 inch thick, completely covering bottom of pan.

Bake at 350 degrees until well risen and firm, about 30 minutes. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then invert onto cutting board and cool completely. Cut into 3 (3x13-inch) strips. Cut each strip into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Arrange biscotti on baking sheets and bake about 15 minutes longer.

Makes 6 to 7 dozen biscotti.


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