My mother used to make these biscotti in the 80's and she had never been to Italy. In fact, I've come to think that she traveled by cooking. Dinners were feijoada from Brazil, dal from India, empanadas from South America and Polish stuffed cabbage and she had never been to any of those places. If she had, I'm sure she would have been like me, eager to try and adapt local dishes, incorporating all of those flavors, foreign and familiar, into her life.
Biscotti means twice cooked, and these cookies are indeed baked twice to gain the perfect crunch for dipping in tea or coffee. Here in Italy, they go by different names (cantuccini or biscotti di Prato) and can incorporate different nuts, spices and sometimes candied or dried fruits. They are also shorter than we are used to seeing in the United States by about 1/3 the length. Twice baked cookies and breads were a staple of the Roman Legions because they kept well. There is a long history of these types of cookies all over Italy and parts of France and Spain. My mom's recipe called for only hazelnuts, but I had only 5 ounces, so I added 3 ounces of almonds. The nuts are toasted in the oven before they go into the cookies and this brings out a lot of flavor. The cookies themselves are satisfyingly simple, rather mild tasting, begging to be dipped into a hot cup of morning coffee or an afternoon tea or hot chocolate.
Biscotti con Nocciole
8 ounces shelled hazelnuts (or almonds, or a mix)
4 ounces butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the nuts from the oven and while they are still warm, wrap them in a clean dish towel. Let them steam for 1 to 2 minutes, then rub the nuts together vigorously in the towel to remove as much of the skins as possible. Coarsely chop the nuts, leaving some whole.
Increase oven temperature to 350. Cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Lightly beat the eggs with the vanilla, add to the butter and sugar and mix well. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt, add the nuts and coat well with the flour mixture. Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture until well blended.
With lightly floured hands, form the dough into two strips, each about 12 by 3 inches. Place the dough strips on a baking sheet coated with a silpat or parchment paper (or simply butter the baking sheet.) Bake for 30 minutes or until the dough is set and slightly colored.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 275. While the strips are still hot, with a sharp knife, slice the strips of dough on the diagonal into 1/2 inch thick pieces, or thicker if desired.
Place the cookies cut side down on the baking sheet. Toast in the oven for 13 minutes on each side or until light golden in color and slightly dry. Stored in airtight containers, they will keep for up to two weeks.