I’m sure most people have certain recipes which they are hesitant to re-approach for the fear of almost definite failure. Some such recipes are scary just to look through, because they’re so complicated that if one is successful it would seem to be by fluke! Then there are others which are very deceptive because at first (and second and even third) glance, the recipes seem so simple one cannot begin to understand how anything could possible go wrong.
I’m no different have a few such recipes that I’m quite hesitant to approach. From personal experience, I have also learned that never judge recipes by appearance. The simplest of them all could be the reason for one’s ultimate downfall!
Take the case of macarons. Really speaking they’re nothing more than some egg whites, sugar, almond meal and a lot of air! If you have tried making them, you will realise they can more temperamental than you could imagine, but then macarons are a bit of a hit or miss thing.
One of my kitchen nemeses has been the biscotto (plural – biscotti). Biscotti are somewhat elongated, thick crunchy and somewhat hard Italian cookies that are eaten dipped in wine or coffee. As their name suggests, from “bis” meaning twice in Latin and “cotto” which comes from “coctum” meaning cooked/ baked, making biscotti involves baking the dough twice to make them dry and crunchy. Biscotti can be made with and without butter, depending on the recipe so this makes this a great think to snack on with coffee, especially if you’re watching calories.
Biscotti are supposed to have their origins in early times when the Roman empire was dealing with the likes of Visigoths and Vandals! Apparently, unleavened finger-shaped dough was baked and then further baked once more so that they dried out and would not spoil. This meant they could be carried by travellers on long journeys and by the Roman soldiers during wars. Pliny the Elder seems to have claimed biscotti could last for centuries which probably what it felt like considering the Roman soldiers of those days seemed to be at war for ever!
However, biscotti as we know them today originated in Tuscany (Italy) and were made with almonds from Prato hence their more proper name “Biscotti di Prato”. I believe, in Italy, biscotti generally refer to any crunchy biscuit/ cookie and these are actually known as “Cantucci di Prato” and traditionally served there with a sweet dessert wine called vin santo. Biscotti are quite hard and need the “dunking” to make them soft and comfortable to eat, unless you have teeth on par with Jaws, piranha or a Tasmanian Devil!
So what’s the difference between biscotti, cantucci and cantuccini?
Turns out the biscotti generally refers to any biscuit/ cookie that are “twice baked”. Cantucci are twice baked biscuits/ cookies from Prato and always contain almonds. So biscotti, even one you’d like to say came from Prato, apparently cannot be called cantucci but remains biscotti if you’ve decided to put other stuff like chocolate, or fruit and what-else-have-you! And cantuccini are small single bite-sized cantucci.
One can also find crunchy and hard-enough-dip biscuits/ cookies in other countries across Europe. Jews make Mandelbrot , the British make Rusks, Germans bake Zwieback, the French like Croquets de Carcassonne, Russians love Sukhariki and the Greeks bake Paxemadia and Biskota.
So when some of us decided it was time to get back to baking together, biscotti seemed to the perfect thing to make. The past couple of times (a very long time ago) that I tried baking biscotti, all I had to show for my trouble was a huge mound of half-baked crumbs.
I did want to bake my biscotti when Arundati and Arundathi (same name, different spelling, and different people) did but my biscotti project got delayed by a couple weeks. I used a recipe I had book-marked from Saveur sometime back. I stuck to the recipe by and large as I didn’t want to tinker with it and once again tell myself, “That’s the way this cookie crumbled!”
Of course, I couldn’t resist adding some cardamom and spicing it up a bit and in my excitement I also forgot to sprinkle my biscotti with pearl sugar thought this did my biscotti no harm. Guess what? For the first time, I could bite into my biscotti rather than spoon in mouthfuls of crumbs! There’s also an interesting video which shows how to make biscotti, if you would like to see it.