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Monday, January 10, 2011

Post-Holiday Blues Biscotti: An after-holiday treat; our baking club

Today I am deviating from my usual savory recipes to present one of my very successful baking endeavors:  pistachio-cranberry biscotti, which I have dubbed Post-Holiday Blues Biscotti.  Although I made them for Christmas, I have still  been enjoying them in this rather dismal snow and cold filled post-holiday period and they have made me feel a bit more festive. I always found biscotti fascinating and never could figure out how they got that lovely crescent shape, which tells you what kind of a baker I am.  I found out that it actually starts out as a loaf, and is then cut in 1/2 inch sections when done!  Duh! 
Post-Holiday Blues Biscotti

And that brings me to this:  I do not consider myself a baker, at least not yet.  I find that baking can be unforgiving: one tiny error and it is overdone, or underdone, or the chemistry is not right and it falls, or does something else unexpected and strange, and you have just wasted two hours of your time.  No amount of scraping or re-baking will help the product. Trust me.  On the other hand, cooking allows for the occasional error...the dish can usually can be salvaged or re-purposed with the right ingredient or technique. I have had a lifelong fear of baking and I have tended to avoid it most of my life.

Venetians: Photo by Kelly Abel
Lately though, I have discovered that I do love to bake, however, especially when it comes out perfectly.  I love the yummy fragrance of sweet or savory oven baked goodies and I especially love tasting and sharing them with friends and family.  I especially love the tools of baking: my stand mixer is a thing of beauty, and I love my rolling pins, my cookie cutters, my whisk. I love to mix cookie dough, and taste it: I love mixing a cake and watching it rise in the oven (through the oven window, of course!). I love the complicated: I recently mastered the Venetian, or rainbow cookie: it was a personal challege that I set up for myself, and I was so proud to gaze at the completed little bars, standing so proud like little soldiers on the cutting board.  The proof was in the pudding as they say: they came out great.

Rome: Photo by Frank Rubino
I did a little digging into the the history of the biscotti, I found that like ice cream, pasta, and other vital foods, biscotti are an ancient food originating in Italy, from Roman times.  I found a fascinating history from According to this account, the word biscotti is derived from Latin and means "twice baked." Dating back to before the fall of the Roman Empire,  it was a staple of the diet of soldiers and other travelers. Apparently some inventive baker found that baking the biscotti first, and then slicing and baking them a second time to dry them out, made them perfect for long journeys. After the culinary drought of the dark ages, the biscotti were revitalized during the Renaissance when an equally inventive Tuscan baker re-developed the recipe and served them to be dunked in sweet wine. Today, biscotti, are made with a variety of flavorings and ingredients, from classic anisette,to chocolate, and other flavorings, and chocked with almonds or other nuts, dried fruits and extracts. Biscotti are  served in Italy with wine or espresso, and in the USA with coffee, a far cry from the utilitarian food of the Roman Legion!

Last year, my friends Nina, Josie and Pat were discussing how we don't see each other enough and realized we could get together once every couple of months and teach each other how to bake. So, that is how our "baking club" came into existence.  We rotated hostessing the club, and meet every few months. Two of our notable outcomes were a tiramisu, adapted from a recipe from a Patsy's Restaurant cookbook, and the recipe presented today, a holiday biscotti, adapted from a recipe created by Giada DiLaurentis. I have been making this biscotti recipe for the second year in a row, and so have my friends.

This biscotti is a lovely twice-baked little crescent, and has a festive Christmas-y look, with pistachios giving it some green, and dried cranberries giving it a bit of red. The cookie itself is sweet but not too sweet; it can be adapted for other flavorings such as anise to make classic anisette biscotti. It was very important to me to make the cookie, or biscotto, not as hard as commercial biscotti as I once broke a tooth on a particularly hard cookie.  Thus after the first bake,  they are sliced and baked only until they start to become lightly golden. Giada's recipe included a white chocolate dip and red and green sugar crystals to decorate them; this we felt was gilding the lily...there was no need!

My beloved mixer
Some tips: if you do not own an electric stand mixer, mix it by hand.  I burned out a perfectly fine hand mixer and had to cream the sugar and butter by whisk, and it came out fine.  The stand mixer is convenient and I love it and I did use it for my first batch,  but the hand mixer does not have a strong enough motor to mix the very thick cookie dough, which is what it actually is.

Lemon zest and microplane
Also, the lemon zest is an important part of the recipe. The best way to zest a lemon is to use a microplaner. There are hand zesters you can buy and they are alright, except some of them make these long strips which I do not think work as well.  A regular grater is kind of hard to use for zesting but it will do. Make sure you do not include any of the pith, or the white section of the lemon.  Usually one lemon makes one teaspoon of zest, which is what this recipe needs.

And here is the recipe:

Chopping those pistachios
Preheat oven to 350 degrees


2 cups all purpose flour.  I like Unbleached King Arthur Flour
1/2 teaspoons baking powder (not soda!!!!)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
Chopping those cranberries
3/4 cup pistachios, chopped. DO NOT use a food processor, it will create too much "dust"!
2/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped. Leaving them whole makes them too difficult to cut for the second baking. This was discovered by my friend Nina, in our baking club.

Whisking the dry ingredients
Mixing altogether
  • Line a large, heavy cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  • Spoon the flour into the measuring cup, use your hand to even it with the top of the cup,  and then sift using a sifter or a strainer into a medium bowl. Add the baking powder to the flour and use a whisk to blend.
  • Beat the sugar, butter, lemon zest and salt using a stand mixer or place ingredients in a large bowl and  use a whisk. Add eggs one at a time, beat until lemony yellow and blended. Add the flour mixture a bit at a time, and beat until just blended. Stir in the pistachios and cranberries.
  • Forming a loaf
  • Form the dough into a 13 inch log, about 3 inches wide, on the parchment covered cookie sheet. 
  • Bake until light golden for 40 minutes, or until it just begins to crack. If you wait too long, the cracks will be too large, although if you press it together after it is just done, it will be OK. 
  • Remove the loaf immediately from the pan and place on a rack or cool surface for about 30 minutes. You can use the parchment to move the loaf.
  • Baked and ready to slice
  • After 30 minutes, it should be fairly cool to the touch.  Using a sharp serrated knife, taking care not to ruin it by sawing too hard, cut into 1/2 inch slices. Arrange them cut side down  on the baking sheet, and return them to the 350 degree oven, baking for about 15 minutes until light golden.  Transfer them to a rack or cool platter and cool completely. 
Slicing after baking
These biscotti, if not overcooked, are tender-crisp, and will last in a tightly covered cookie tin for at least two weeks. They are delicious dunked in coffee or milk...somebody try the wine and let me know!

Variations:  Anisette almond biscotti:  Instead of the lemon zest, pistachios and cranberries, add 1 tablespoon anise extract, and 1 teaspoon fennel/anise seeds, and 3/4 cup chopped almonds.

Ready for second baking
A friend asked me about sugar free options. There are some substitute sugars on the market, such as Spenda, that measure cup-for-cup for granulated sugar. If someone would like to try it and give me a review of your results, please be my guest!

The completed product is such a delight: if this doesn't lift your spirits and get you past the post holiday blues, well, I just don't know what to tell you.

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