Although Italians use the word biscotti for almost any cookie (much like the British use biscuit), when referring to what we in America call biscotti, they say cantucci (or cantuccini for the smaller ones). How did this come about? Well, grab an espresso (or if you want to be even more authentic, a glass of Vin Santo) and a biscotti, and I’ll tell you the story.
The inventor of the modern biscotti was Antonio Mattei, a baker in Prato, just outside Florence, in the mid-nineteenth century. He became known for two products, which are sometimes mistaken for each other. Cantucci were made of a simple bread dough, flavored with anise and a little sugar, that was baked, sliced and then toasted. They were common among Prato bakeries at the time, and popular with the peasant farmers, who bought them as they came into town to sell their produce. Mattei received an award for his cantucci at an international exhibition in Paris in 1867.
His biscotti, on the other hand, were an original creation. While similar to cantucci in how they are baked, biscotti are made from a richer dough, featuring flour, eggs, sugar and the almonds that are grown in the area surrounding Prato. Mattei won an award for his biscotti at an international exhibition in London in 1862, but his cantucci were more popular at the time, because they were more affordable and his customers ate them every day. Biscotti, being more expensive, were reserved for special occasions.
Yet this same biscotti recipe was passed down to Antonio Mattei’s son Emilio, who passed it to Egisto Ciampolini and his wife Italia Piccioli, who passed it to Italia’s nephew Ernesto Pandolfini. The original bakery is still run by the Pandolfini family, and they still make Mattei’s recipe for biscotti, sold in a bright blue bag that has been trademarked to the Biscottificio Antonio Mattei. And they still call these twice-baked cookies Biscotti di Prato. But outside the city of Prato, biscotti are mostly referred to as cantucci or, more specifically, cantucci di Prato.
So what were the bakers in the Great White Tent charged with making for this signature challenge during biscuit week? Why biscotti, of course, although Flora did refer to her traditional Venetian wedding biscuits studded with fennel and sesame seeds as cantuccini. The judges were looking for 24 identical, crunchy biscotti which are “dry all the way through,” as Mary Berry explained, “and yet you’ve got to be able to get your teeth through it.” That is accomplished by baking the cookies twice — once in the form of a long, flat loaf and then again after they’ve cooled and been sliced.
For my part, I decided to go with an orange, ginger and almond biscotti, using candied ginger to give it a bit of chew and roughly chopped almonds for added crunch. Bringing the dough together was fairly simple. I used a technique I found in a similar recipe by Chef Lindsey Farr, where she uses a stand mixer to cut the butter into the flour until it forms very fine crumbs. I changed the ingredients, however, adding almond meal in addition to regular flour, and using orange zest instead of candied orange peel. I liked the idea of adding cardamom but wanted those few flavors to stand out, so I omitted the cinnamon that her recipe calls for. I topped my biscotti with pearl sugar — after the first bake, so it wouldn’t burn.
The only difficulty I had was cutting them. As you can see by the pictures, they aren’t all identical in size, and that’s due to my math skills (or lack thereof). I started cutting them ¾-inch thick, until I realized I wouldn’t be able to get 24 of that size, so I had to cut the rest of them smaller to make up for it. My preference is for a thicker biscotti, so it will hold up to being dipped in coffee, or wine, or even tea.
Other than that, they turned out just right. The texture was crisp and crunchy without breaking your teeth. The flavor was scrumptious, with the ginger playing off the orange, and a subtle hint of cardamom in every bite. These little treats are fun to give as gifts, and my friends were delighted. I’ve got to keep this recipe in mind come Christmas.
Orange, Ginger & Almond Biscotti
- 1½ c. all-purpose flour
- ¾ c. sugar
- 1½ t. baking powder
- ½ t. kosher salt
- ½ t. ground cardamom
- ½ c. almond meal
- 6 T. cold butter
- 1 c. blanched, slivered almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
- ¼ c. candied ginger, finely diced
- 1 T. orange zest
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 t. vanilla
- 3 T. whole milk
- 1 egg white
- 2 t. water
- 1 T. pearl sugar (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cardamom and almond meal. Add butter and mix until fine and powdery with no visible signs of butter. Add almonds, ginger and orange zest, and stir to combine.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla and milk. Switch mixer to the paddle attachment and, while the mixer is running, slowly pour egg mixture into flour mixture, mixing just until dough comes together.
- Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is uniform and smooth. Divide into two pieces and roll each into a log about 12 inches long. Logs should be lightly coated with flour to keep them from sticking. Slide each log onto a separate baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper. (TIP: If you have two silicone mats, you could form each log on its own mat, then simply slide the mats onto baking sheets and slip them in the oven.) Bake in preheated oven for 20-30 minutes until golden and firm to the touch.
- Remove from oven and transfer to a cooling rack to cool for at least 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300°F.
- When logs are cool enough to handle, whisk egg white with 2 teaspoons water and brush onto the top of both logs, then sprinkle with pearl sugar. Cut each log into ½-inch diagonal slices with a sharp serrated knife. Place slices back onto the lined baking sheets and bake 10-15 minutes until just crisp. (TIP: If you choose to cut your biscotti thicker than ½ inch, like me, they will need to bake a few minutes longer.) Allow biscotti to cool on the baking sheets. They will stay fresh in an airtight container for several weeks.