I first tasted biscotti long ago, when I was a cookie-loving child. I wondered how anyone could like such hard, dry, and boring so-called “cookies.”
Years later, my sister-in-law tucked some homemade biscotti into my Christmas cookie box. To my surprise, they were delicious. By then, I had grown up and become an avid baker, and I began trying biscotti recipes on my own. I discovered that these cookies are in fact fun to make and good to eat, and come with a long, interesting history, too.
From Italy With History
The word “biscotti” comes from Latin roots meaning “twice-cooked.” The cookies literally are baked twice, giving them their crunchy, dry texture.
The earliest recipes originated in Rome, and like many things Roman, they were very practical. Their twice-baked texture made them sturdy, resistant to mold, and able to be carried by travelers and soldiers over long distances as a sort of bread. Sailors, perhaps even Columbus, could tote them to sea.
The development of the biscotti we’re familiar with is often traced to the Tuscan city of Prato. No longer needed purely for sustenance, Tuscans began enjoying the cookies as a snack. They began adding the region’s abundant almonds to recipes, improving the flavor, and making the texture more palatable by dipping it in sweet wines, similar to their practice of dipping bread in oil. They called these cookies cantucci; note that in Italy, the word “biscotti” simply describes any twice-cooked, crunchy-textured cookie.
Travelers through Italy must have liked them, as many other countries baked their own versions. British hardtack, German zwieback, Jewish mandelbrot, and Swedish rusks are several close cousins. Italians continue to enjoy their versions with wine, and now coffee, and tea.
Of course, biscotti finally made it to the United States. The rise of gourmet coffee shops in the 1990s may have helped them gain popularity. Over time, Americans made them sweeter, richer, and more decadent than their European cousins. That explains why some of us who tried biscotti years ago may find it more appealing today.
Americanized biscotti may include a variety of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and gourmet extracts. We also enjoy savory versions with herbs, cheeses, and specialty flours and grains. Variations are almost endless! Even with these modifications, biscotti often have less sugar and fat than other cookies.
Tips for Baking
Homemade biscotti make a great project for new bakers. You need only basic skills and tools. The end product is quite forgiving and actually benefits from a rustic appearance rather than perfection. Most important is a reliable basic recipe that produces sturdy, pretty slices with great flavor.
On the other hand, experienced bakers may go gourmet. Extracts and other stir-ins are a matter of preference, experience, and creativity.
You’ll shape firm dough into logs, bake them into loaves, slice them, then bake the slices again. You can then decide whether to drizzle slices with melted chocolate, glazes, and more, or leave them plain.
You’ll need baking sheets. And be sure to have a serrated knife to slice the warm loaves. Use a sawing motion to avoid crumbling the slices. Note that stir-ins may prevent perfect slices, so it’s best to use small pieces that are not too hard.
If your biscotti lack crunch, you often just need more oven time. If your biscotti get too hard, a dip in coffee, tea, hot cocoa, or milk will save the day.
Biscotti can dress up yogurt parfaits and bowls of pudding; served with eggnog and whipped cream, they turn into a delicious, elegant, and easy holiday dessert. Thanks to their sturdiness, they ship well, if properly packed. Friends and relatives would certainly enjoy Christmas samples in the mail.
Most biscotti keep up to 2 weeks at room temperature in an airtight container, plastic bag, or metal tin. The fats, nuts, or dried fruits used in the recipe may impact shelf life.
I usually have biscotti of some sort on hand, and prefer to tuck them into the freezer so I don’t have to worry about declining quality. I use ordinary plastic freezer bags or boxes. To eat, simply take out what you need and let them thaw while you enjoy dinner or brew coffee. If, by chance, they have softened, you can re-crisp them by baking on a cookie sheet at 300 degrees F for 10 to 15 minutes.
Here is one of my favorite basic biscotti recipes, excellent in its simplicity. Please make it your own. Try different extracts, stir-ins, glazes, and garnishes. But mostly, have fun making, eating, dunking, and sharing!
Basic Vanilla Biscotti
Makes 3 dozen
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup chopped almonds (optional)
- 1/4 cup white baking chips, coarsely chopped
- 4 ounces melted white and/or dark chocolate (optional)
- Chopped nuts or sprinkles (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and lightly grease a baking sheet.
In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt.
Place butter in large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until creamy. Add sugar and mix well. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Add flour mixture. Mix well. Stir in nuts and chips, if using.
Divide dough into 2 parts. On baking sheet, shape each into a 12-by-1 1/2-inch log. Position at least 3 inches apart.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden and firm to the touch. Cool for 5 minutes.
With serrated knife, slice logs diagonally into 1/2-inch slices. Place cut side down on baking sheet.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden and crisp, carefully turning after 10 minutes. Cool on baking sheet.
If desired, dip one end of each cookie in melted chocolate or drizzle with chocolate. Add nuts or sprinkles. Allow chocolate to set.
Katie Wollgast, a self-taught home cook, lives in rural Missouri. She loves baking and cooking, using seasonal ingredients, making recipes healthier, and saving money on food. She believes good food is good for the body, mind, and soul.