Saturday, June 8, 2013

Biscotti di Prato or Cantucci

A biscuit by any other name...

Informative wikipedia tells us that the word biscotto which means simply twice-cooked (bis called at the end of a performance means encore and a bisnonno is a great grandfather) has its origins in the crunchy, almond-filled biscuits from Prato which can trace their roots back at least as far as the 18th century. Hence the cantuccis' correct name is biscotti di Prato; the Anglo shortened version is not so far off. However around our parts they are called cantuccini or cantucci, (double cs are soft, ch as in chew) which means little corners.

Etymology aside, there is much debate about the correct way to cook cantuccini. The name biscotto appears to dictate the crisping in the oven that takes place once the hot, fresh-baked sweet loaves have been sliced into fingers.

There are those who beg to differ, including the proprietor of a small grocery store in Greve in Chianti who makes the biscuits twice a week and sells them at a considerable mark-up compared to the packaged version. But there are those who claim that it is worth it. In any case, he bakes his cantucci but once and they are certainly very good.

I have made cantucci both ways and I dispassionately believe that it is simply a matter of taste: do you like your biscuits crunchy or cakey? The cakey version still has a crisp crust, thanks to the large amount of sugar used, while the crunchy version can afford to be less sweet as it derives its character from its second baking.

home-baked cantuccini or biscotti di Prato

You can make up your own mind if you care to try the two versions of this recipe. Either way, you will enjoy them: their 'best death', (see post on olive oil) as they say here, is drowned headfirst in a glass of vin santo or failing that, a cup of good coffee.

3 large eggs
325g sugar 
(this is the canonical amount but I suggest experimenting with less)
a pinch of salt
4 generous handfuls of unblanched almonds 
(about 200 grams or more but the more the merrier)
325g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
finely grated lemon or orange rind (optional)

preheat oven to 170C

Beat the eggs and sugar until creamy white. Add salt, almonds, flour, rind if used, and baking powder. Amalgamate well. The dough will be very runny and sticky.

Line oven tray or trays with baking paper and scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture to form fat snakes of dough. This amount will make four small or two large snakes.

Bake for 25-30 minutes until nicely browned. Remove from oven, tip loaves onto cutting board and cut into fingers diagonally across the loaf  immediately. Allow to cool or, for crisper, harder biscotti, return to oven for 5 minutes.

Enjoy with vin santo or coffee. 

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