By Barbara Mahany
They could be the oldest cookies known to civilization.
The ancient Romans, we know, were nuts for ‘em. Pliny the Elder claimed they would keep for centuries — quite a plug given that it would be a couple of millennia before anyone dreamed up the zippered food bag or the click-top plastic tub.
Christopher Columbus, we’re told, tucked a stash in the hull of one of his three sailing ships, though he didn’t let on as to which one — the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria — was the floating cookie jar.
We’re talking here about the sweet that boasts its twice-baked status, so much so that it has made the return trip to the oven a part of its name. It’s the biscotti (literally, “bis,” twice; “cotti,” cooked), a nibble so fine it has morphed into cultures far and wide, passed down through generations of nonnas, bubbes, whatever it is you call your grandmamas. From the British rusk, to the Ukrainian kamishbrot, all the world, it seems, wants to bite down hard and dunk.
Its stiffest competition, however, might come from the much-loved mandelbrot (“almond bread”) of Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews.
No matter what name you put to it — mandelbrot, biscotti or beyond — you might call it one tough cookie. And besides its knack for staying crisp, the dippability is decidedly a draw.
“Not to get too T.S. Eliot, but I think the dipping quality lends itself to conversation,” said Jayne Cohen, author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” “You sit, you dip, you punctuate what you’re saying with that well-timed dip.”
Cohen, who makes a “cakier, thus homier” mandelbrot, vividly recalls her bubbe, Becky, pressing down the almond-studded dough, tap-tap-tapping the loaf that’s baked once, then sliced, and baked again.
Be it the biscotti or the mandelbrot, the double-baked variations are “innocent desserts, really grandmotherly,” said Cohen.
Traditionally, biscotti is made without oil or butter; eggs serve to bind the dough. The lack of added fats boosts the shelf-stability. Mandelbrot is typically made with oil, for a softer, cakier cookie.
Given the porous European borders, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe likely carried home from Italy the notion of biscotti, and then made it their own, Cohen said. Adding oil to the fat-free biscotti would have made the dough easier to work, and it was an everyday ingredient in an Ashkenazi kitchen. Almonds are traditional to both cookies, but today you might find walnuts, pistachios or other nuts.
And no one ever said that inheriting a treasured family recipe was as simple as riffling through grandma’s recipe box.
Cori Bruscino, who is 86 — and whose daughter, Maria Bruscino Sanchez, not only sells dozens of biscotti at her Connecticut bakery, but wrote an Italian baking book, “Sweet Maria’s Big Baking Bible” (St. Martin’s Press) — worked hard to get her mother-in-law’s biscotti recipe on paper.
Chasing behind her in the kitchen, as her mother-in-law scooped up an eggshell half of sugar, a fistful of flour, Bruscino worked fast to dump each ingredient into a measuring cup before it hit the mixing bowl. Over the years, her daughter has refined the recipe even further and taken it to places her Nonna Mary never would have dreamed.
“I can make a biscotti out of any ingredient you tell me,” she boasted, then went on to list crushed red pepper and pecorino cheese as proof of what a girl can do with a double-baked blueprint that goes way, way back to ancient Rome.
Psst, these tips come from kitchens that know from biscotti. Or mandelbrot.
The ancient Romans couldn’t keep it under wraps. Word got out, it seems, that the twice-baked slice o’ cookie — now called biscotti or mandelbrot — was one that had a shelf life of, oh, some thousand years. Millennia later, we still can’t dunk enough.
So, we tiptoed from kitchen to kitchen, gathering all the twice-baked secrets we could find, determined to turn out the finest double-baked dipper of the 21st century.
Here, from baking nooks across the map, a batch of tips usually shared only in whispers as flour flies, and Granny shapes the loaf, pats it like a baby’s bum, then slides it not just once but twice into the oven.
Rule No. 1: Don’t overhandle the dough, or it’ll be so hard you could crack a tooth. Do everything by hand, the old-world way. So said Patti Jonker, of Biscotti d’Amore, a bakery in Fairfield, Conn.
Rebake just till golden brown, said Doris Schechter, owner of My Most Favorite Food, a kosher cafe/bakery in New York City, and author of “At Oma’s Table: More Than 100 Recipes and Remembrances From a Jewish Family’s Kitchen.” The second bake, she said, is everything. It’s during the second bake that all the flavor comes out.
Because there’s little or no fat in biscotti, the flavor depends on pure ingredients, writes Maria Polushkin Robbins in her cookbook, “Biscotti & Other Low-Fat Cookies: 65 Tempting Recipes for Biscotti, Meringues and Other Low-Fat Delights.” If you don’t often use your unbleached all-purpose flour, be sure to give it a sniff to make sure it’s not gone rancid. Similarly, make sure your baking powder is up to snuff; replace every six months.
It’s all about the nuts, said author Jayne Cohen, who wrote “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Start with good nuts, she insisted. Make the most of the nut flavor by toasting (at 350 degrees till the aroma rises from the oven, she says). You want a nut flavor throughout so add a nut extract, or a nut liqueur. Best nut-booster of all, she says: Substitute part of the flour with ground almonds, a tip she gleaned from Robert Sternberg’s “Yiddish Cuisine.”
Finally, says Cohen, who calls herself “an inveterate futzer,” be sure to make the loaf compact. Pat it solidly, so when you cut it into slices, the cookies won’t crumble.
CRANBERRY ALMOND BISCOTTI WITH MANDELBROT VARIATION
Prep: 30 minutes Cook: 30 minutes
Makes: 30 cookies
Adapted from a recipe by Maria Bruscino Sanchez, author of “Sweet Maria’s Big Baking Bible”
1 ¼ to 1 ¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon each: cinnamon, salt
1 cup each: dried cranberries, chopped almonds
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons amaretto or 1 teaspoon almond extract
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in large mixing bowl; stir in cranberries and almonds. Beat eggs, sugar and amaretto in medium bowl with a mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Pour egg mixture into flour mixture. Beat just to combine.
2. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Knead to make soft, slightly sticky dough. If dough is too sticky to roll, knead in about ½ cup more flour. Divide dough into three equal pieces. Form each piece into a loaf about 8 inches long. Place loaves on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, 4 inches apart.
3. Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes; cool slightly. Slice loaves diagonally into ½-inch slices. Lay slices on cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake until well browned, 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven; let cool. Store, wrapped in wax paper, in cookie tin. Or freeze, double-wrapped, for up to 3 months.
Mandelbrot variation: To the recipe above, add 1 ¼ cups more flour to the flour mixture; beat in ½ cup brown sugar and 1/3 cup vegetable oil to the egg mixture; eliminate the cinnamon, if you like.
Per cookie: 72 calories, 29 percent of calories from fat, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 51 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Prep: 40 minutes Cook: 40 minutes
Makes: About 40 cookies
Adapted from “The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook,” by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. With an added tweak or three from author Jayne Cohen.
¾ cup dried chopped apricots
1 cup chopped pistachios
3 eggs, room temperature
½ cup each: granulated sugar, packed brown sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 ¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Soak apricots in hot water until plump, 30 minutes; pat dry with paper towel. Toast pistachios on baking sheet in oven until aromatic, about 10 minutes. Cool.
2. Beat eggs and sugars in large bowl with mixer until light and fluffy. Add oil and vanilla; mix thoroughly. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in another bowl; add to sugar mixture. Mix until blended; stir in nuts and apricots.
3. Briefly knead dough on floured surface. Divide into two pieces; firmly shape each piece into a log, 3 inches wide. Place logs on parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Bake until golden, 30-35 minutes. Remove from oven; let stand until cool enough to handle.
4. Cut logs into slices on slight diagonal, ½- to ¾-inch wide. Bake 10 minutes (longer if you like more crunch), turning cookies over after 5 minutes. Cool. Store wrapped in waxed paper in a tin for up to one week. Or freeze, double-wrapped, as long as three months.
Per cookie: 97 calories, 34 percent of calories from fat, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 41 mg sodium, 1 g fiber