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The Best Biscotti

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Everybody who has been to a cafe in North America knows biscotti. Dating back to the ancient Rome, where they were used as a non-perishable food carried by travelers, these crunchy dry cookies have since become widespread in Italy and throughout the world. In fact, the British biscuits take their name from Italian biscotti. Italians themselves use biscotti as a general term for a variety of cookies, and call the cookies we know in US as biscotti by the name cantucci. I will stay true to my region, though. The name biscotti itself derives from the Latin expression for a product backed twice, which indeed they are.

Being fond of biscotti, I embarked on a search for the perfect recipe. The first one I tried was from Patricia Well's Trattoria, but for all her erudition in international crookery, I felt cheated by that recipe. The result was mediocre at best. After some searching, I did find a superb recipe for the biscotti dough, which I then adapted to my taste. The key to this recipe is oil, which Patricia's recipe lacked. It prevents the biscotti from turning rock-hard, impossible to consume without a dipping agent such as coffee. Instead, these cookies are crumbly, crunchy and absolutely delectable on their own. They are relatively easy and quick to bake and can keep for a long time in an air-tight container.
What you need:
3 eggs
3.5 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups white sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 pinch salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
3 Tbsp Fra Angelico liqueur
1 Tbsp brandy
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 lemon
1 handful of dried sweetened cranberries
3/4 cup assorted chopped nuts (hazelnuts, pecans, almonds)

How to do it:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a large cookie sheet.
To make the dough you will need two large mixing bowls. In one bowl sift together all the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt. In another bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, oil, all flavorings. Continue whisking until the sugar is dissolved. Then, start adding flour in portions, mixing thoroughly with a wooden spoon in between each addition. When about half of the flour has been incorporated into the liquid ingredients, add nuts, cranberries and any other dry additions. Continue adding flour. When it becomes hard to mix with a spoon, use your hands instead. If the dough is still sticky and cannot be worked into a ball, add more flour and work it in, until the dough is in a nice soft ball. Do not spend too much time doing this. Unlike yeast dough, quick dough is time-sensitive and needs to be placed into the oven quickly.

Divide the dough into two or three equal pieces and roll each into a long roll (as long as your cookie sheet). Place the rolls on the cookie sheet and press them down to 1/2" thickness, no thicker. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
The dough will rise nicely and become golden brown. When done, remove the cookie sheet from the oven and transfer the loaves to a cooling rack for 5-10 minutes, until cool enough to handle.
Then, slice the loaves diagonally into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Place these face up on a clean cookie sheet and bake for about 6 minutes on each side or until nicely toasted. This is the second baking I was talking about.
When all done, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool thoroughly. Do not put these in a jar until they have cooled and dried completely.
Of course, you may choose any type of flavoring. Just some ideas are amaretto, almond extract, anise extract, walnuts, orange zest, orange oil.
Serve with coffee, tea, or dessert wine, - and enjoy!

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