I’ve been making and enjoying Biscotti, those singular long, crisp and crunchy Italian cookies, since they became an American favorite in the 1990s. It really started with my college kids who were enjoying pricey, individually wrapped biscotti with their late-night cappuccinos. The habit was becoming expensive so the question, “Mom, can you make some?”
Biscotti are one of the simplest, most versatile cookies one can possibly bake. They are made with simple, on-hand ingredients–butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and baking powder–with the addition of any likeable flavoring, spice or chocolate and/or enhanced with add-ins such as chocolate chips, nuts, dried fruit, and liqueurs for sweet or olives, herbs, and cheese for savory as perfect accompaniments to charcuterie boards. No special equipment is needed. And as it turned out, perfect for college kids’ snacks.
The word biscotti is derived from the Latin biscoctus, meaning twice baked or cooked which accurately describes the process by which biscotti comes about. The cookie dough is formed into logs, baked, cooled slightly, and baked again. Biscotti is thought to have originated in the Tuscany region in the 14th century in the city of Prato as a biscuit with almonds as a main ingredient since there was an abundance of almonds in the region. It was discovered that the second baking drew out moisture rendering it hard and resistant to mold making it an ideal food to store or for sailors to take to sea. However, there are indications that it may go back to the days of the Roman Empire. The British hardtack and German zwieback might be considered spinoffs of the biscotti as they, too, are twice baked. Incidentally, today Italians call biscotti cantucci and use the term biscotti to refer to any type of crunchy cookie.
So if biscotti are so simple, why doesn’t everyone bake them? There are no shortages of recipes for biscotti—name the flavor and there’s a recipe for that! And despite their long heritage, there is no perfect way to make biscotti as they are a remarkably forgiving cookie. They do require a little more baking time since it is done twice.
Here are some tips that I’ve learned:
- Have all ingredients at room temperature.
- If dough is too sticky, add a bit more flour. If dough is too dry and crumbly, add another egg. Bake on a less humid day if possible.
- Mix dough on low mixer speed to reduce cracking in the top during baking.
- Refrigerating the dough an hour or so helps with the stickiness when forming the log. Dough should feel like play-dough when it is handled.
- Preheat the oven with oven racks in the middle.
- Line the baking sheet with parchment paper and place only two logs on a baking sheet at a time.
- Logs are usually shaped 10-12 inches in length, about 2 inches wide, and about ½ inch thick. That can vary by individual taste.
- Allow the logs to cool 15-20 minutes after the first baking before slicing. If they sit for too long, they get too hard to slice.
- Use a serrated knife in a sawing motion to slice; this will reduce crumbling. If crumbling is a problem, lightly mist with water before slicing.
- Leave plenty of space between the slices for the second baking.
- Recipes differ on whether slices should be laid on their side or stood upright for the second baking. It doesn’t matter. If laid on their side, they should be flipped mid-way through the baking time.
- Bake at 350ºF for first baking and 300ºF for second baking. The longer they are in the oven for the second baking, the harder and crisper they will become.
- Cool biscotti slices completely before garnishing with frosting or melted chocolate or dipping in melted chocolate.
- Store biscotti in jars or tins to maintain their crispness. If stored properly, they will easily keep for a month. They also freeze well.
- If biscotti softens, place them in a 300ºF for 10-15 minutes to re-crisp.
So, next time cookies are in the offing, don’t forget biscotti. They’re easier than they look. They make impressive gifts and ship better than cookies! And as for how to eat them, anything goes! Dunking is my favorite.