Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Annual Biscotti Gesture

The first biscotti were an accident of timing.

It was December, 1995, and Maida Heatter's Brand New Book of Great Cookies had just been published. The NY Times had published a recipe from it, and then it made the annual round up of the year's best cookbooks. (You can read the rave here.) That summer, I had moved to Northampton, after a year and a half in India, and at the time of my move, I had no job, no money, no place to live and a broken heart. By December, I had a place to live, at least, and sort of a job, but still not much money and my heart had not mended. But even though I was feeling generally glum, I wanted to be able to do something for the holidays, and so I decided to give Maida Heatter's biscotti a try.

Little did I know then that it would become an annual event. But here it is, 13 years later, and I'm still making the biscotti. And all these years later, I'm still making the same recipes. I've branched out over the years--sometimes I make lemon cranberry, for example, and this year, I'm pondering the possibility of maple biscotti (I can't decide whether that's a good idea or not). But I always make Maida Heatter's chocolate chip almond biscotti, her bittersweet chocolate biscotti and her gingerful biscotti. In recent years, I've added chocolate to the ginger biscotti, and while they were delicous before, they are even more delicious now. If I ever get ambitious enough, I may figure out how to dip the ginger biscotti in chocolate, but for now, I'm content to throw a ground up chocolate bar in the batter and enjoy.

The book, unfortunately, is out of print. Every year, I take it out of the library, and I know that at least some of the stains on the pages are from me. I've photocopied the recipes, of course, and you can find them online, but I always like to have the book on hand, for inspiration. (This year, for example, I'm thinking I might make some skinny peanut wafers in addition to the biscotti, just for the hell of it.) (I'm also thinking I should just buy the damn book already.)

A few words on the process. Biscotti are not hard to make, but they're time consuming. Maida Heatter makes you do lots of steps, and she is a bit bossy, but it's totally worth it. You need to be around to switch the baking sheets in the oven at the appointed times and to slice the loaves while they're still hot. The bittersweet chocolate and ginger biscotti both have very wet dough, and you need to wrap them in plastic and freeze them for at least an hour before you bake them. This actually makes them more convenient to make, since you can, as I just did, do the first steps on one day and bake them another day.

The other thing about these biscotti is that there is no butter in them. The dough is held together with eggs and sometimes some honey or perhaps some liquor. This means that the dough can be harder to work with while you're making them, but the finished biscotti are very hard and crunchy, ideal for dipping. It also means that they last for a really long time, so you can make them pretty far ahead of time if you need to.

If you can find blanched whole almonds in the store, go for it. I found them once, at Trader Joe's, and never since. (You can get blanched almond pieces, but one of the pleasures of the biscotti is the chunks of whole almond, so you need whole ones for the best effect.) Although I hate blanching the almonds--my fingers get all wrinkly, and it's boring, to boot--I consider it part of the gift.

This link to the Fresh Loaf website conveniently has the recipes for both the bittersweet chocolate and chocolate chip almond biscotti right next to each other, saving me a lot of typing.

I am posting my version of the chocolate ginger biscotti, partly because last year, these were more highly praised than anything I'd ever made before. I'd sent some to a friend, and the ginger ones were almost instantly purloined by her husband, who was then in the midst of writing a large book. According to my friend, he not only said, "I am certain that I can write more intelligently while eating these," he seemed to truly believe it.

I can't promise you will write more intelligently, but you never know. And even if you don't, you will at least have some delicious biscotti to eat while you're working on it.

Chocolate Ginger(ful) Biscotti

Adapted from Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies.
  • 4 ounces (1 loosely packed cup) crystallized ginger
  • 7 ounces (1 1/4 cups) blanched (skinned) or unblanched whole almonds
  • 3 cups sifted unbleached flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons finely and freshly ground white pepper (or 3/4 to 1 teaspoon packaged ground white pepper)*
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs graded "large"
  • 1/2 cup mild honey
  • 1 bar good semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate

Cut ginger into thin slivers and then crosswise to make pieces about the size of small green peas; set aside. (I like the little crystallized ginger discs from Trader Joe's--very easy to chop.)

Toast the almonds in a shallow pan in a 350 degree Farhenheit oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly colored, stirring once during toasting. Set aside to cool.

Break chocolate into pieces, then chop in food processor until it's mostly fine, though some small chunks are okay.

Into a large bowl strain or sift together - just to mix - the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, pepper, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard, cloves, and sugar. Stir in the crystallized ginger, then the nuts. Add chocolate. In a small bowl beat the eggs and honey to mix and add to the dry ingredients. Stir until the dry ingredients are completely moistened.

Place two 18 to 20 inch lengths of plastic wrap on a work surface. You will form two strips of dough, one on each piece of plastic wrap. Spoon half of the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls in the middle - down the length - of each piece of plastic wrap, to form strips about 13 inches long. Flatten the tops slightly by dipping a large spoon into water and pressing down on the dough with the wet spoon. Rewet the spoon often.

Lift the two long sides of one piece of plastic wrap, bring the sides together on top of the dough, and, with your hands, press on the plastic wrap to smooth the dough and shape it into an even strip about 13 to 14 inches long, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches wide, and about 3/4 inch thick (no thicker). Shape both strips and place them on a cookie sheet.

Place the cookie sheet with the strips of dough in the freezer for at least an hour or until firm enough to unwrap (or as much longer as you wish).

To bake, adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with baking parchment or aluminum foil, shiny side up. (If you have a Silpat, this is the perfect time to use it.)

To transfer the strips of dough to the sheets, open the two long sides of plastic wrap on top of one strip of dough and turn the dough upside down onto the lined cookie sheet, placing it diagonally on the sheet. Slowly peel off the plastic wrap. Repeat with the second strip of dough and the second cookie sheet.

Bake for 50 minutes, reversing the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during the baking to insure even baking. These will turn quite dark during baking.

Then reduce the temperature to 275 degrees and remove the sheets from the oven. Immediately - carefully and gently - peel the parchment or foil away from the backs of the strips and place them on a large cutting board top down. Slice the strips while they are still hot. Use a pot holder or a folded towel to hold a strip in place. Use a serrated French bread knife. Slice on an angle; the sharper the angle, the longer the cookies, and the more difficult it will be to slice them very thin- but you can do it, and they will be gorgeous. Cut them about 1/4 to 1/3 inch wide.

Place the slices on a cut side, touching each other, on the cookie sheets. Bake at 275 degrees for about 25 minutes.

Reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking. Bake just until dry. (You have to cool one to know if it is crisp). Do not overbake.

When done, cool and then store in an airtight container.

*Confession: While Maida Heatter discusses the importance of that white pepper in this recipe . . . I have actually never used it. They're still delicious. So if you don't have any white pepper on hand, don't despair.

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