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When my father finally retired he began cooking. Although years and miles away from his childhood in New York, he returned to the Italian-American foods that had nourished him as a child.
This was long before dry, tooth-endangering biscotti were a staple in almost every coffee shop. I took to all dad’s efforts but the biscotti became an enduring love. Those slightly crumbly, angular, not-too-sweet treats that are as good with a cup of tea as a glass of wine captured my palate and my imagination.
Many years and thousands of biscotti later I still make them every year for the holidays. Each November I gear up to make dozens to take to our family Thanksgiving gathering in Arkansas and then, in December, return to the oven to bake biscotti as gifts for friends and neighbors and, of course, to see our family through the holidays.
Like many traditions, the way I make them is highly ritualized. I always start with the hazelnut, which can be considered the classic biscotti. Then on to chocolate, a recipe that I tried when it appeared in the New York Times in 1989 (sorry, you have to subscribe to the Times’ cooking page to get it), then to the olive oil/pistachio that entered the hall of fame just a few years ago (by far the easiest to make as olive oil is more forgiving than butter in the handling) and then fig/walnut from the Babbo cookbook. (I think the recipe testers ran out of energy by that point in the book, as the baking time is way off … took me a few tries to get this one right.)
Most years, I try something new and this year it was my version of the white chocolate, rosemary and almond biscotti that appeared in the Washington Post. I was intrigued by the rosemary, which I have in abundance. The recipe calls for candied citrus peel but I used candied ginger instead and was pleased with the results. I’m waiting until my daughter, a veteran biscotti taster, gets home to determine whether it enters the regular rotation.
If you love biscotti, try making some. But be forewarned that this not an ordinary cookie production where you’re in and out of the kitchen in an hour or less. One of the things that makes biscotti distinctive is that they are baked twice.
First the dough is formed in long rolls and baked until firm, then those come out of the oven, rest a bit, are sliced on the diagonal into the distinctive biscotti shape and returned to the oven for the final toasting. This is time consuming and can’t be rushed. It’s a really good idea to have a book or a crossword puzzle to keep you occupied while you keep an eye on the biscotti.
Follow these tips to make the best biscotti
During my decades of biscotti making I’ve made pretty much every possible mistake and developed a number of personal rules to avoid them in the future.
Don’t be in a hurry and don’t try to double or triple task while making biscotti. They need your attention.
Make the dough then let it cool in the refrigerator at least an hour or over night. This makes it much less tacky and so much easier to shape.
Always reverse the baking sheets, top to bottom and front to back, halfway through the first baking. Some recipes specify this and others don’t but I think it’s a must.
As one recipe delicately put it, the partially baked dough is “fragile” when you cut it into the biscotti shapes. Let the roll rest about 10 minutes then lift it carefully onto a cutting board. Use your sharpest knife and wipe it down often with a paper towel (the dough is still a little sticky at this point). Cut four or five then place them on the wire rack (see next item), wipe the knife, and cut a few more. Some will crumble but just consider that the cook’s share.
Some recipes ask you to turn the sliced biscotti halfway through the second baking but instead I put wire racks on the baking sheets, allowing the hot, dry air to reach all surfaces.
Don’t trust the cooking times in the recipes. Trust your nose and your eyes.
All this may make biscotti making seem like more of a chore than a joy but once you start baking them, trust me, it can be hard to stop.
This story originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader.