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Not All Biscotti Are Created Equal

 (Susan Russo for NPR)
(Susan Russo for NPR)

Sometimes a cup of coffee is simply not enough. Sometimes a cup of coffee needs a biscotti.

On a recent snowy afternoon in New England, I ordered just a cup of coffee at a cafe. That is, until the girl behind the counter asked me, "Would you like a biscotti with that?"

"Sure," I replied, without hesitation.

When the biscotti was placed in front of me, I was suddenly stricken with buyer's remorse. ... The real disappointment was the dunk. I flash-dipped the biscotti into my latte -- any longer, and I feared it would melt altogether. When I pulled it out, it was sadly soggy. I bit into it, and it didn't crunch. Not even a crackle -- there was silence.

When the biscotti was placed in front of me, I was suddenly stricken with buyer's remorse. It had more holes than a kitchen sponge. When I picked it up, it was as light as a meringue cookie. I counted three almond slivers in the whole slice.

The real disappointment was the dunk. I flash-dipped the biscotti into my latte -- any longer, and I feared it would melt altogether. When I pulled it out, it was sadly soggy. I bit into it, and it didn't crunch. Not even a crackle -- there was silence.

If I know one thing about good biscotti, it's that they're noisy little confections. That's because they're twice baked, resulting in a crunchy, firm, perfectly dunkable cookie.

The word biscotti is derived from the Latin biscoctus, meaning twice baked or cooked: The dough is formed into logs, baked, cooled and baked again. Whereas Italians use the word "biscotti" to refer to various cookies, Americans use the term to refer to the singular long, crisp, twice-baked Italian cookie.

The biscotti found in stylish cafes today have utterly common origins. The first biscotti, often referred to as Biscotti di Prato, were created in 14th-century Tuscany in the city of Prato and were made from almonds, which were abundant in the region.

Because the second baking drew moisture out of the biscuit, it rendered the biscotti hard, sturdy and, importantly, resistant to mold. Consequently, biscotti turned out to be the ideal food to store. They soon became a favored provision of sailors, including Christopher Columbus, who traveled at sea for months at a time with the crunchy cargo.

It didn't take long for other nationalities to discover the utility of these twice-baked biscuits. British hardtack -- a twice-baked, dry, hard biscuit made from flour, water and salt -- and German zwieback -- a twice-baked, crisp, sweetened bread -- are both spinoffs of the Italian original.

Biscotti continued to flourish throughout Italy as well, with various regions creating their own specialties from local ingredients such as pistachios and sesame seeds. Different regions in Italy also call biscotti by different names. Tuscans, for example, call biscotti cantucci.

It wasn't until the 1990s that biscotti became a treasured American favorite. We needed something to nosh while sipping our pricey gourmet coffees, so why not a pricey Italian cookie? Soon biscotti were everywhere: at elegant Italian restaurants, in hip cafes and even on humble coffee carts. Food writers dubbed biscotti the cookie of the '90s.

Today, biscotti come in an endless array of flavors. Classics such as almond, anise and hazelnut contend with flashier up-and-comers such as gingerbread, maple walnut and mint chocolate chip. There are also savory biscotti made with various cheeses and herbs that are lovely when paired with a charcuterie plate, an assortment of olives and cheeses, or even a bowl of soup.

Despite their centuries-old heritage, there is no one perfect way to make biscotti. Some recipes call for eggs only, which is the traditional method, while others swear by butter or oil. The choice is yours; just keep in mind that those made with butter or oil will have both a softer texture and a shorter shelf life.

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As for fillings and flavors, biscotti get along with a host of ingredients, including dried fruit, nuts, spices, liqueurs and chocolate. You can't go wrong with classic flavor pairings such as rum and raisin, chocolate and orange, or cranberry and pistachio. Of course, you can always make up your own.

Don't worry too much about ruining biscotti. They are a remarkably forgiving cookie. Is the dough too dry and crumbly? Add another egg. Is it too sticky? Add a bit more flour. Did you leave them in the oven too long? No worries. Mark them as dunkers only. Like most confections, the more you make biscotti, the better you'll get at it.

Biscotti are time-consuming, but they're also one of the easiest and tastiest cookies you'll ever make. No special equipment is needed; just a bowl, a spoon, a couple of baking sheets and some parchment paper.

As for eating them, anything goes. Enjoy a biscotti with a glass of milk for breakfast on the go, savor one with a glass of Italian wine for a luxurious afternoon snack, or dunk one in a cup of steaming milk for a late-night indulgence even Christopher Columbus would have liked.

And the next time you're at a cafe and the girl behind the counter asks if you would like a biscotti with your coffee, ask to see it first. Because no one should ever experience buyer's remorse when it comes to biscotti.


Baking And Storing Tips

  • Always preheat the oven. Check your oven temperature to ensure that it's correct. Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and rotate sheets halfway through the baking process, to ensure evenly baked and browned biscotti.
  • Baking requires precision, so unless you're an old pro, it's best to use the exact ingredients specified in a recipe the first time you make it, rather than use too many substitutions that can adversely affect both texture and flavor. Keep in mind that variables such as different-sized eggs, varieties of flour and quality of extracts all affect biscotti. So try to use the best ingredients you can afford.
  • Be patient. When mixing the biscotti dough, you may find that it's dry and crumbly. Persevere. Use your hands to gently squeeze the batter until it begins to form a dough. If it's really dry, you may need to add an extra egg or some other liquid related to the recipe such as extract or liqueur. Conversely, if you find your batter to be really wet and sticky, then you will likely need to add more flour. Add it in small increments, and test the dough as you go. It's OK if the dough is slightly sticky. Just keep both the countertop and your hands lightly floured as you form the logs.
  • Place no more than two biscotti logs on a baking sheet, since they will spread as they bake.
  • Try not to bake on a humid day when biscotti (as well as many other cookies) spread more and are softer. If you have to, place the unbaked logs in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes before placing in the oven.
  • After biscotti are baked once, allow them to cool for about 20 minutes. Too much longer, and they will become too hard to slice. When slicing biscotti, always use a serrated knife in a sawing motion, which reduces crumbling.
  • Place sliced biscotti on their sides back on the pans for the second baking. Here you have options: You can bake them at the same temperature for 10 minutes; you can reduce the temperature to 200-300 degrees and bake for 20 minutes; or you can turn off the heat completely and place the biscotti in the still-warm oven anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. The longer they stay inside the oven, the harder and crisper they will become.
  • Let biscotti cool completely before garnishing with chocolate or icing.

For storing and freezing biscotti, keep these tips in mind:

  • Cool biscotti completely before storing, preferably in a metal tin, which will help maintain crispness.
  • If stored too quickly or placed inside of a paper or plastic bag, biscotti will visibly soften. In that case, place the cookies in a 300-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes to crisp again.
  • When storing decorated biscotti, place them between sheets of waxed or parchment paper to protect them from bumping against each other. Most biscotti, when properly stored, will last up to one month.

Copyright NPR 2021.

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