The nut-filled, chocolate-frosted biscotti on your local café counter have little in common with their ancestors – rock-hard biscuits that kept Roman legions on the march and fed sailors on long sea voyages in the past. In those days, biscuits were baked twice to dry them out so they wouldn’t get moldy on a trip that would last for weeks.
Later known as hardtack, they weren’t sweetened or coated with chocolate either. They were made from a simple water and flour dough, and baked until they were hard. Really hard. They were made to last, not to enjoy.
Preserved Civil War era hardtack from the Wentworth Museum in Pensacola, Florida.
The name biscotti comes from the Latin panis biscotus, meaning twice-baked bread. Many different cultures made similar biscuits; they’re also called rusks and zwieback, which also means twice baked. Some were baked so hard babies could teeth on them. Today, grownups often soften their crisp biscotti by dipping them into a sweet wine such as vin santo for dessert.
Basically, biscotti were and are made by shaping the dough mixture into a loaf, baking it, letting it cool, then slicing it diagonally, and putting the slices back into the oven to bake for another ten or fifteen minutes to crisp them.
Over time, cooks began to add sugar or honey, butter, eggs, dried or candied fruits, nuts, and flavoring extracts such as almond, anise, or vanilla to their basic biscotti mixtures. Biscotti made with candied orange peel and almonds are a delightful combination. Dried cranberries and pistachios give biscotti the colors of Christmas. The variations are endless.
But not everyone wants their biscotti to be as crisp enough to dip, and they bake them just once to make a soft, light cookie. What do you call biscotti that are not baked twice? Una-cotti probably sounds too awkward to catch on. Most people just call them biscotti regardless of how many times they’re baked.
The first time I had these biscotti, I was surprised that they were baked just once and stayed soft, sweet, and delectable, and I loved them. My Aunt Jean gave me the recipe. She’d made them that way for years, and didn’t remember where they recipe came from or why they weren’t baked twice. But she said everyone liked them that way, so that’s the way she made them. Now, that’s the way I make them.
If you want a crisper version, just bake them for anther ten minutes after you slice them. But if you do go the soft route, don’t worry about keeping them for a long time. They’ll be eaten up right away.
Maraschino and walnut biscotti
½ cup butter
1 ½ cups sugar
Cream butter and sugar together and add –
3 ½ cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons anise extract
Mix all together then fold in –
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup stemmed, drained, and chopped Maraschino cherries
Mixture will be sticky. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for a half hour or so, and it will be easier to handle. Turn onto floured board and shape into two loaves. Leave some space between them as they will spread a bit.
Preheat oven to 350°
Bake on a parchment lined cookie sheet for 15 to 20 minutes. The tops should be golden and when you insert a toothpick into the loaf, it should come out clean.
Cut into diagonal slices when the loaves have cooled a bit.
The recipe makes about three dozen biscotti, depending on how you slice them.