Biscotti strike me as the perfect adult cookie. The Italian provenance gives them a slightly cosmopolitan aura, but it is the crunchy, sandy texture, its not-too-sweet flavor, its unusual shape, which makes it perfect for dipping into coffee, tea or cappuccino, that gives it its allure.
I have occasionally tried commercially made biscotti, but often they are too hard to crumble easily, the texture does not have the attractive sandiness that is essential, and now and then I have even found something touted as biscotti that’s soft and chewy. No, I am sorry, but biscotti are not meant to be a chewy cookie. They must crunch and crumble when bitten into–unless, of course, they are first minimally softened by a quick dunk into your biscotti-accompanying beverage of choice.
So, I eschew store-bought biscotti because my efforts at baking them myself have been so satisfying, both in process and results. Biscotti dough is easy to put together, easy to handle, and even enjoyable to manipulate, in forming into logs for the first baking, in slicing the cooled logs to the size you wish, and arranging them for the second baking, which give them their characteristic attractive color and crunch.
The vanilla biscotti recipe below is a template that can be altered to accommodate other sophisticated flavors, such as mocha and orange. The amount of flour is approximate, depending on the size of the eggs and amount of other flavoring liquids added. Once you make a few batches, you will get a sense of the proper density and moisture of the dough–it should be soft but not sticky–and how much flour is needed.
Making biscotti is a perfect project for a snow day, (dip them in hot chocolate), but having them around to much on with an iced coffee on the deck in August is fine, too. Biscotti make a much-appreciated gift, and keep quite a while in an air-tight container.
(Originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Food & Dining)
Master Biscotti recipe:
The proportions in this recipe make the kind of biscotti I most enjoy: a cookie that will be hard and crunchy but crumble easily when chewed. The texture will be pleasantly grainy, and the taste just barely sweet, with subtle notes of the added flavors.
For the vanilla biscotti, follow this recipe, including using sugar flavored with the seeds of a fresh vanilla bean. The emptied bean halves can then be added to a container of plain sugar, to sit there for several months to flavor the sugar subtly, which can then be used in baking other kinds of biscotti — or flavoring your coffee.
You can use plain sugar in the variations I give, or the vanilla-scented sugar from the depleted bean.
For Vanilla Biscotti
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
1 stick butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup slivered almonds or pine nuts
Heat oven to 350 degrees and position rack in center.
Carefully split the fresh vanilla bean lengthwise with a small knife and, using the tip of the knife, scrape out as many seeds as you can into a small bowl filled with the sugar. Then, using your fingers, toss the sugar and vanilla seeds to distribute the vanilla evenly throughout the sugar.
With an electric mixer, cream the butter, then add gradually the vanilla sugar and beat well. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla extract.
Add the flour, baking powder and salt, beat until the dough stiffens, and finish mixing with a large fork. Stir in the almonds or pine nuts. (You may first toast the nuts in a skillet if you wish, but be careful not to burn them, especially if using pine nuts, which char easily.)
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide dough in half and work with one half at a time. Knead dough lightly, just enough to have it come together. Shape dough into a flat log, as long as your baking sheet, about 1 ½ inches wide and ½ inch high. Place on one side of the baking sheet, prepare the other half of the dough the same way, and place on other side of the sheet.
Bake for 30 minutes. Remove sheet and let cool 30 minutes. Slice each log on the diagonal into ½-inch wide slices. Place cookies cut side down on baking sheet and return to oven for 10-12 minutes, until lightly browned on the edges. Turn cookies over and bake 10-12 minutes longer, until nicely browned. Cool and store in air tight container. Makes at least two dozen cookies.
Brew a scant quarter cup of strong espresso (or coffee). When cooled, beat into the batter of the master recipe before adding flour. Add more flour if needed to balance additional liquid, and keep the dough from being too sticky. Reduce vanilla extract to 1 teaspoon. Stir in 1 cup chocolate chips and 1/2 cup slivered almonds. Shape and bake as above.
Orange Spice Biscotti
Using the master recipe, reduce vanilla extract to 1 teaspoon. Add 1 tablespoon grated orange rind to batter, and 1/2 teaspoon orange oil or orange extract, if you want a more assertive orange flavor. Stir 1 teaspoon cinnamon into flour mixture. Nuts are optional. Shape and bake as above.