Biscotti: History, Ingredients, Tips and processes
Biscotti are twice-baked, very crisp Italian cookies, similar to European "kamishbrot" or "mandelbrot" (which translates to "almond bread"). Mandelbrot is usually oil-based, to honor Jewish dietary laws. Mandelbrot is filled with walnuts or almonds and flavored with a bit of cinnamon. Biscotti are usually crispier than mandelbrot due to a longer second baking. Biscotti can be baked so hard they have to be dipped into coffee or wine to eat them! Biscotti are usually slices of a flat loaf returned to the oven and baked very crisp, but a few types are rectangular or figure 8's slowly baked to intense crispness. Nuts are a traditional flavor, fruits are not, but New Age biscotti often have dried fruit or chocolate chips or candy bits.
To get traditional crunchy texture, the first issue is the ratio of eggs to flour. Some recipes use only one egg or egg yolk per cup of flour; others use close to two. The lower proportion is more traditional: more eggs made the biscotti softer and more crumbly.
Biscotti can be butter-based or oil-based and can be made 'low fat'. If shortening is reduced, flour content is also reduced a little in comparison to the other ingredients. This results in a crisper but still tasty cookie. Some traditional recipes use olive oil, which adds flavor, so usually you would choose the lighter, rather than the greener oils. Recipes calling for butter can made with canola or vegetable oil without a noticeable difference in taste; you may need a bit more flour to get the dough just right. Most recipes I have seen use roughly 2 tablespoons of butter/oil per cup of flour; this is a good proportion. Some recipes also call for creaming the butter and sugar together; soft or melted butter or oil beaten with the eggs and then the sugar works fine and is easier.
Increasing to a slightly higher proportion of sugar to flour (3/4 to 1 cup sugar for each 2 cups of flour) than usual in Italian recipes helps to make the cookie a little more tender without becoming crumbly. Brown sugar, packed, can be substituted for white sugar, and I generally use at least 1/2 brown sugar. For a few recipes, you use molasses or honey instead of all or part of the sugar, for this use soft butter and the lower amount of eggs to avoid making the dough too soft. Make these changes after you have made the butter recipe a few times and know the texture of the dough you want, so you can add a little extra flour if needed.
Use room temperature eggs and softened butter for better batters. Recipes were tested with unbleached all purpose flour which is recommended for biscotti. Unbleached all purpose flour is recommended for most all cookie baking. Mix cocoa powder, cornstarch, dry herbs and spices, etc. into the flour thoroughly before adding the flour to the wet ingredients. Biscotti use a very small amount of baking powder, or none at all, I usually omit it and I also omit salt.
Use pure vanilla. Pure vanilla extract ties in flavors and rounds out simple tastes. Many traditional recipes use flavored liqueurs, 1-2 Tablespoons for each cup of flour.
ALWAYS toast the nuts before use, you can put them in the oven when you start to preheat, they should smell really good when you take them out. Let them cool before you add them, Almond slivers are nicest texture, the slices are easier to cut through when you prepare the cookies. Hazelnuts and pistachios are also traditional and pecans are a delightful modern alteration.
A 2 cup flour recipe will use 1/2 to 1 cup nuts or toasted oats or granola, 1/2 to 3/4 cup chocolate bits, 4 to 8 ounces cut up candied or dried fruit. Dates are tastier if cut up from whole.
Lots of recipes talk about kneading the dough, or making it very stiff. This is too sticky and tedious. I use a food processor or dough hook to mix, adding the chunky stuff (fruits, nuts) after the rest is mixed smooth. Looking for dough to be thoroughly mixed but just a little firmer than biscuit dough, I add the flour last, in a recipe of two to three cups flour, the amount of the flour needed may vary 1/3 cup!
Shaping biscotti for baking Chilling the dough for 5 minutes or longer before shaping relaxes the gluten and makes the cookie log easier to shape, but if it is too soft it probably needs some added flour.
To shape the "log" or loaf for baking, I ease it out of the bowl onto the sprayed wax paper on the cookie sheet. I use a spatula to push it out of the bowl onto the sheet, 16 inches long and 3/4 to 1 inch thick, and however wide it ends up, generally about 4 inches. You shape it with high straight sides, like a domino, and a smooth flat top; the sides round out as they cook. You smooth it with the spatula (it can be moistened with water), then sprinkle on sugar or seeds or nuts if used. It will spread almost double as it bakes. Another way to vary biscotti is to change their sizes by making narrower loaves, reducing baking time for the smaller ones.
Waxed paper or parchment paper is ESSENTIAL for fast, fustration-free handling of the loaves. It makes for less work (spray both pan and paper with no-stick spray instead of pan greasing) and ensures biscotti won't stick to your baking sheet or even more common, break apart as you move them to the slicing area. It can be used for the first and second bake and beyond. Air-insulated cookie sheets or other commercial quality baking sheets are recommended. They provide for even heat distribution and are nice and roomy. For gourmet size biscotti, make one large loaf of dough. The cookies end up 7 inches or more in length for that "gourmet" look.
Baking biscotti Bake biscotti in the upper third of your oven to prevent overcooking the bottoms of the loaves. So the heat will be very even, preheat the oven for a full 15 minutes before starting the first batch, and put the whole batch on one shelf with 1 INCH of space between the edge of the pan and the stove wall . Don't bake two first batches on different shelves; it is OK to put the second bake on the lower shelf , you can start both at the same time and take the second bake ones out first.
Amount of time for the first baking varies slightly, depends on how wide and thick your dough log is. Not less than 25 minutes for a double row, 35 minutes is about right for a recipe with 2-3 cups of flour made into one wider log. Underbaking biscotti on the first bake gives a heavy doughy texture in the middle, but do not overbake your biscotti. The loaf should be firm, even across the center, with an even golden color.
Slicing and the second bake is the distinguishing feature of the biscotti. The loaves are sliced into 3/4 inch slices while still warm. If you wait, you will NOT be able to cut through fruits. Use a LONG serrated knife and make one straight smooth cut down to the waxed paper. This is why it is sitting on the BACK of the cookie tin. Don't saw back and forth. As you slice each one, cut it away from the paper underneath using the knife blade, using knife to lift it to the waxed paper on the second baking sheet. Wipe off the blade with a wet paper towel every four slices or so, to get off the sticking fruit or crumbs.
To avoid crumbling if you want to make very thin biscotti (for the second bake), you can wrap the whole baked dough loaf and freeze it overnight. The next day, a serrated knife will cut thin slices. This technique is especially useful when the biscotti contains whole nuts.
If you have a firm enough dough and shape as I suggested, when you cut straight across, you will only have two small end pieces for test eating. Narrower loaves are often sliced on the diagonal, these are pretty but fragile and hard to package. You get pretty big waste pieces, which all of my kitchen visitors gobble up. They do look bigger- these Italian cooks are pretty smart!- and if you are serving many kinds, diagonal slicing makes a handsome variation.
Regular directions say to place them on one side for the second bake, turn half way through. I place them on their bottoms so the heat gets both cut sides, this seems to reduce the baking time slightly and you don't have to turn them. If your bottoms get too brown, reduce the temperature from 350 to 325 for both bakings.
Biscotti continues to crisp as it cools. Place on a rack as soon as they are out of the oven. Unless you plan to soak yours in coffee or wine before trying to chew it, take sliced biscotti out of the oven as soon as it appears lightly colored and dry to the touch, 10-15 minutes; it will still have a slight "give" in the middle of the slice until it cools.
Glazing, Icing, or Sprinkles Before the first baking, the biscotti loaf can be sprinkled with any coarse sugar. Biscotti can also be glazed with chocolate or white chocolate.
Dipping in Chocolate, Method 1
Melt 8 ounces of semi-sweet or white chocolate (white chocolate wafers work best). Use ONLY a little shortening, not water, liquor, or butter to melt. Using a small icing knife, spread melted chocolate on one side of each cookie. Cool on rack for 2 to 4 hours until thoroughly firm. Otherwise, simply dip one end of each biscotti in melted chocolate - or, 'double dip': dip one end, cool, then make a second "shallow" dip - or make one end dark, one end white. You can freeze glazed biscotti but the gloss of the chocolate will dull. You can also streak dark chocolate with a white chocolate squiggle or drip, or add color sprinkle to white chocolate for a color theme.
Tempering Dipping Chocolate, Method 2
Melt semi-sweet chocolate squares or chips, beginning with 5 ounces or squares, til smooth, either in a double boiler, or in the microwave.
Remove from heat, and add three more ounces or squares, allowing to melt. This tempers the chocolate, and brings it to a good dipping temperature.
Repeat the process when you run low, but don't let yourself run all the way to the bottom of the bowl, as it causes streaks in the chocolate. I like to keep my chocolate bowl sitting over hot water in the bottom of the double boiler, to keep it
from cooling too fast.
Dip the biscotti, and place on wax-paper-lined cookie sheets. Do not let them sit with direct sun on the cookies, or in a warm place like the top of the fridge! When finished with a pan, allow to dry in the coolest room in the house.
Storing biscotti I package six or seven cookies of the same flavor in each quart ziploc baggie, but never package until they are completely cool. When dry, place in ziplocks and store in a tightly closed tin, in a cool place (warmth will separate the chocolate, turning it white--it's fine to
eat, but doesn't look so pretty!) Dipped biscotti store best in the freezer for long term. Biscotti will hold well in an airtight container since they are relatively low in fat (about 1 week). They can be stored in airtight plastic bags in the freezer for about 2 months. A single biscotti can be crisped up by ten seconds in the microwave.