It’s Christmastime, right in the thick of it, and these are almond biscotti that taste of sunshine and warm Tuscan summer evenings and not of (potentially) snowy days and icy cold winter weather that takes me ten minutes to dress the kids for in the morning before going to school – I’m aware of that. But they’re still cookies and it is Christmas and I don’t mind at all to have a little bit of sunshine to dunk in my espresso – or my vin santo, for that matter.
I have it on (italian) authority, that they taste authentic, though I must admit that I’m not too sure what that means, exactly, since it’s unwise and for sure the quickest way to commit culinary suicide to compare your own cooking or baking skills to Mamma’s or (an even quicker death) Nonna’s. So I’m taking that statement with a grain of salt and meanwhile I’m happy that my Cantuccini pass muster with those who matter: family and friends and the occasional stranger: my professor from university (who belonged to those, that got a steady supply of Cantuccini…) served them for some of her friends with some after dinner espresso and was asked where she bought them…and the answer was “they’re better than bought – they’re homemade. One of my students makes them”. The story still makes me grin, even though it happened a long time ago.
They’re not authentic in that they don’t require a second bake (bis-cotto really means twice cooked) to make them nice and crisp; they get sliced right after baking, when they’re just cool enough to not give you funny facial expressions when holding on to them for slicing – wait any longer and you’ll wind up with gigantic almond-anise seed grissini , that will send you to the dentist quicker than you can say “biscotti alle mandorle”.
The secret of these biscotti must be in the fat – pork fat, to be precise; not too much, just enough to keep them from going completely hard; still, they have a half-life of carbon 14 and it’s perfectly okay to bake now and eat later – we do it all the time, that is, when I have the foresight to hide the cookie box from my oldest son, who is a serious addict. I use orange and lemon zest and lots of anise seed for flavoring the cookies, so be warned from the get go: the whole house will smell like a trip to Italy and you won’t be able to hide what you’re doing from anyone…so ‘fess up and give some homemade Cantuccini this cookie Christmas season.
500 g (3 1/4 cups) flour
250 g (1 and a small 1/4 cups) sugar
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange
2 tbsp orange juice
2 tbsp vin santo*
2 tbsp anise seeds
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
50 g (3 tbsp) butter
30 g (2 tbsp) lard
200 g (1 1/4 cups) almonds, skin on
1) Put the flour on your work surface and make a well in the center, like you would for making pasta. Pour the sugar around the flour.
2) Crack the eggs into the well, grate the lemon- and orange zest over the eggs, add the juice and vin santo to the eggs.
3) Sprinkle the anise, salt and baking powder over the flour. Cube the butter and put it on top of the flour. Do your best with the sticky lard and distribute it over the flour.
4) With two fingers, start stirring the eggs around and incorporate more and more of the flour; finally, knead the mix until you have a crumbly dough.
5) Pour the almonds over and knead until they stop falling out of your dough. Form the dough into 5 -6 sausages that will fit your baking sheet and dust them with flour.
6) Bake at 190 C (375 F) on the middle rack of your preheated oven for about 30 min, or until golden brown and delicious.
7) As soon as the cantuccini sticks are cool enough to handle, slice them with a sharp, heavy knife into finger-wide slices. If you feel you squish the cookies while slicing, give them another minute or two to cool some more, then try again.
* About the vin santo: it’s an italian (tuscan) desert wine, that gets served along with Cantuccini for dipping into (= saturating them) before eating; at times, I found it elusive or expensive to get hold of or both – so if you live a place where it’s hard to find and you have dry sherry in the house, use that instead. I dare anyone to try to detect the difference in flavor after the Cantuccini are baked….