Bake: Authentic Italian pistachio biscotti
Also known as cantucci, these nut-studded cookies make great home-made gifts
Biscotti: one of Italy’s often overlooked treasures
We’re all experts on Italian ice-creams and gelato these days but 30 years ago our knowledge of Italian fare didn’t stretch further than our annual Cornetto. On a recent trip to London I noticed many Italian pasticceria (pastry shops) on fashionable streets. With so few in Ireland, could this mean we might be a little oblivious to the treasures to be tasted in a typical Italian bakery?
Italy is famous for its delicious pizzas and wonderful pastas. However, a typical cookery school follows the classical French culinary techniques, hence many scrumptious Italian cakes and Italian pastries are lesser known.
At Christmas, many of those Italian treasures claim centre stage in speciality food shops and at festive markets where hampers are piled high with an array of beautifully wrapped panettone, cantucci and chocolate salami.
The best pastries and confectionaries in Europe such as French truffles, German stollen and Spanish turrón (nougat) share the familiar festive tastes of dried fruits, nuts and spices, yet it is testimony to their strong cultures and baking traditions that each retains its distinctive personality.
A gift will always be more special when it is hand baked. Biscotti (also known as cantucci) are nut studded, not-too-sweet Italian cookies with a distinctive half-moon shape. The name means twice-cooked, which is what gives them a dry, crunchy texture and long shelf life, perfect for edible gifts. While we like to dunk our biscuits in tea or coffee, our ever elegant Italian neighbours coolly dip their biscotti in a sweet dessert wine called vin santo (I think I’ll stick with the tea).
A traditional biscotti recipe uses just four ingredients, flour, sugar, eggs and almonds, but now baking powder is often used. And it is baked twice: first in a large log shape, and again after it has been cut into individual slices – the second baking determines how hard the biscotti are. Don’t feel limited by tradition.
I love the green colour contrast pistachio nuts give. Another popular variation is chocolate biscotti (just substitute some flour with cocoa powder). A luxurious touch is to dip the tip of each biscuit in cooled melted white or dark chocolate. If you can get your hands on little see-through gift bags, they look very pretty tied up with ribbon, or alternatively ask your local florist to sell you a metre or two of florist wrap which you can tie up into handy parcels.
250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
125g caster sugar
2 medium eggs, lightly whisked
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g whole unsalted pistachio nuts (not in shell)
optional: 1 tsp icing sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C fan.
2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar.
3. Make a well in the centre and stir in the eggs and vanilla extract with a wooden spoon to form a smooth dough.
4. Add the pistachio nuts and gently knead them into the dough using your hands.
5. Divide the dough in half and on a well floured surface roll each half into a thick sausage about 6cm wide. Place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment leaving space between them as the mixture will spread slightly.
6. Bake in the centre of the oven at 180°C for 20 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool down for 15 minutes.
7. Cut crossways into 1cm thick slices, return slices on to the baking sheet, cut side facing down. Reduce the oven temperature to 150°C and bake for a further 20-25 minutes until dry and crispy (I turn them over half way through for an even bake).
8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a wire rack. Store in an airtight container for up to 10 days.
The recipe is a great way to use up extra nuts in your storecupboard. Whole almonds, blanched hazelnuts and even peanuts go well. If you want to, you can add dried fruits.