It may come as no surprise to you that I had rather odd eating habits as a child. Along with consuming entire jars of cornichons in one sitting, and mashing milk-soaked graham crackers to a pulp, I also dipped unlikely foods into unsuitable drinks. Quesadillas in lemonade was a favorite. My mother was appalled but I always felt right at home with my grandpa, whom my grandma called a ‘dunker.’ (I’m sure there’s a lewd joke in there somewhere.) At our weekly tea parties in the days before biscotti became popular here, I could dunk my unsuitably fragile cookies with abandon, and always ended up with an inch or so of dissolving cookie crumbs in the bottom of my cup.
It makes sense that I would, as a young baker, become enamored with biscotti, the ultimate ‘dunker.’
Before I go any further, I feel it necessary to point out that what we call biscotti Italians actually call cantucci, or ‘little nooks,’ perhaps referring to their uneven texture. Biscotti in Italy refers to any cookie (like British ‘biscuits’) which, in the middle ages where the word originated, were often baked twice so as to make them store longer, even for ‘centuries’ according to Pliny the Elder.
In any case, I’ve had this tiny jewel of a book since I was 14 or so. I have no idea where it came from, but I do know that it precipitated a severe cantucci phase which lasted many years. I baked biscotti in my mom’s kitchen, in my college dorm, at band camp over the summer. I brought them to friends, job interviews, and my art history professor, blushing the day I discovered that he had written in my official class evaluation, ‘…her homemade biscotti are unparallel.’
Of the many varieties I tried, from anise to lemon to chocolate hazelnut, my favorite began by caramelizing slivered almonds in a skillet with butter and sugar. The caramel provided an extra layer of flavor, the almonds leant a pleasing crunch, and the cookie part was just the right balance of sweetness and austerity, richness and sturdiness. Unlike traditional biscotti, these contain a generous amount of butter, resulting in a biscuit sturdy enough for dipping, should you be so inclined, but rich enough to eat on its own and not desperately go in search of a beverage. (Which mightn’t be such a bad thing, depending on the beverage, of course. Hopefully, not lemonade.)
Some time ago, I worked with a gal named Kelly at Petite Patisserie. Kelly also worked at a prestigious East Bay ice creamery, so our bakery shift often began with me grilling her for the latest flavors on offer. One day she described a rosemary pine nut praline ice cream, a combination that stuck in my mind; she later mentioned having baked rosemary caramel pine nut tartlets, which also sounded divine.
So when a large bunch of rosemary arrived in our box last week, I decided to try out that combination, which seemed so Italian that I decided to bake them into my old love, biscotti.
My base recipe for biscotti is based on Lou Seibert’s original that I like so much, but rather than creaming together the butter and sugar, I whip the sugar and whole eggs together to make a foam, then add in the melted butter. This creates a slightly sturdier cookie which crumbles less when sliced, but still has all the buttery goodness and delicate texture of the original.
As Pliny noted, biscotti are good keepers as well as dunkers, and will stay crisp for at least two weeks (I can’t vouch for how many centuries) when stored in an airtight container. They make a classy gift, and are a lovely not-too-sweet snack any time of day.
Makes 3 – 4 dozen 3-4″ cookies
3/4 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons plus 1 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup sugar
3 – 4 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary needles (from 2 or 3 sprigs)
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
In a medium skillet set over medium heat, melt together the 2 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons sugar, stirring occasionally, until the sugar just begins to caramelize, 3 – 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the pine nuts and stir constantly until the nuts are toasted and coated in caramel goo, about 2 minutes (watch closely, as pine nuts are delicate and burn easily). Turn out onto a plate or sheet of parchment, spread into a single layer, and set aside to cool. Break up into clumps of 1 – 3 nuts.
In the same skillet, melt the stick of butter with the minced rosemary and set aside to steep and cool slightly. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the eggs with 3/4 cup of sugar on medium-high until thickly foamy and lightened in color, about 5 minutes. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder into a medium bowl. With the mixer on low, add the infused butter, stirring until combined, then the flour mixture, and finally the caramelized pine nuts. Remove the bowl and give the dough a final fold with a rubber spatula, making sure it is homogenous. Chill the dough until firm enough to handle, about 1 hour.
Position two racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Divide the dough in half. Shape each piece into a log 14″ long, 1″ high and 2″ wide. Place longways on the baking sheet spaced at least 3 – 4″ apart. (you can use one sheet for both, but you will need both sheets for the cut cookies.)
Bake the logs until golden, firm, and cooked through, about 25 minutes, rotating once or twice. Let the logs cool on the sheets for at least 15 minutes. (At this point, you can wrap and freeze the logs to be baked later if you like.) Use a wide metal spatula to remove a log to a cutting board. With a large serrated knife, cut the log on a shallow diagonal into 1/2 – 3/4″ slices. (I like to saw once toward myself, then press straight down to minimize crumbling, but do whatever works for you.) Place the cookies on the lined sheets and repeat with the other log.
Bake the cookies a second time until dried and golden, about 15 minutes, flipping the cookies over halfway through if they are browning more on the underside. Let cool.
These biscotti keep well, in an airtight container, for at least 2 weeks. The rosemary flavor will become more pronounced as they sit. Serve with an espresso, or perhaps a bowl of olive oil ice cream for an unusual dessert.