Domenica Marchetti takes on biscotti

Domenica MarchettiDomenica Marchetti is a food writer, recipe developer, and cooking teacher who specializes in Italian cooking. Marchetti has written several cookbooks and her food articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. With her latest cookbook, Ciao Biscotti, she turns her sights to baking. The cookbook is a collection of 44 authentic biscotti recipes, both savory and sweet. (Enter our contest for your chance to win one of 3 copies of the book.) We asked Marchetti about her Italian roots and about the twice-baked cookies featured in her book:

Your previous cookbooks have all covered some aspect of Italian cooking - soups and stews, pasta, vegetables and general everyday Italian.  What are your connections to Italy?

My mother was born and raised in the city of Chieti, in Abruzzo. She came over to the U.S. as a young woman in the 1950s. Her three sisters stayed in Italy. They never married and they shared an apartment in Rome. I spent my summers in Italy at the apartment in Rome and at our beach house on Abruzzo's Adriatic coast. My dad used to plan wonderful trips around the peninsula, which is how I got to know the country. I have many friends from those days with whom I keep in touch, and I try to get back as often as I can for research and inspiration and, more recently, to lead culinary tours.

What inspired you to write a book about biscotti?

Here I must tip my hat to my publisher Chronicle Books, who came to me with the initial idea of a book on biscotti. The more I thought about it the more I liked it, and the more I worked on it the more I fell in love with these rustic cookies. I started with tradition and eventually let my imagination take over.

How many of the recipes are traditional flavor combinations and how many are new creations of yours?  What's the new creation you are most pleased with?

You could probably argue that there is only one traditional biscotti recipe and flavor-almond. But even in Italy, flavors such as hazelnut, anise, and lemon are considered traditional. One of my new favorites is the Chocolate-Dipped Toasted Coconut Biscotti from the book. They're delicately crunchy, and even if they sound far from tradition, I think they stay true to the spirit of true biscotti. The Crispy Pancetta Biscotti from the "Savory" chapter are pretty darn good, too.

Are biscotti baked all over Italy or are they confined to one region?

These days you can find commercially packaged biscotti all over Italy. And while you can find also them in pasticcerie (bakeries) in many regions, you won't find them in every one. Also, it's important to note that these twice-baked cookies are known as "cantucci di Prato" in Italy. The word "biscotti" refers to cookies in general, even though the word means "twice baked," which is what these cookies are. I know, it's confusing.

What's the history of the cookie?

Traditional almond biscotti (or cantucci) were first popularized by a Tuscan pastry chef named Antonio Mattei. He developed the cookie based on a centuries-old recipe and began selling them in his shop in Prato; thus the name "cantucci di Prato." Biscottifico Antonio Mattei still bakes biscotti according to Mattei's original recipe and sells them packaged in its signature blue paper bags.

I've had biscotti that are crumbly and biscotti that are rock hard (tooth-breakingly so!).  What do you think the ideal texture for biscotti should be?

It depends. Traditional almond biscotti (cantucci) have only flour, sugar, eggs, a little leavening, and almonds. They are meant to be very hard and crunchy, perfect for dipping in a glass of dessert wine. If you add butter or oil to your dough, the biscotti will be more tender. They will be crispy rather than crunchy after the second bake. I have a recipe in the book for Iced Triple Lemon Biscotti that calls for an entire stick of butter. The cookies are delicate and a little crumbly.

Because biscotti are baked twice they last longer than regular cookies.  What do you consider the shelf-life of biscotti?

Biscotti made without butter or oil have a longer shelf life than those with added fat. For example, the traditional almond biscotti in the book will last at least two weeks, probably longer. But don't forget that nuts will eventually go stale, too, so in general I think two weeks is a good amount of time. Biscotti made with butter or oil are best eaten within 10 days.

So, coffee or vin santo?  What's your preferred dipping method?

For traditional almond biscotti, definitely vin santo. But for others, it depends. In fact, I ended up including beverage suggestions for what to drink with your biscotti. For the chocolate-studded nut-free biscotti I developed for my kids (who didn't like nuts when they were younger) nothing beats a glass of cold milk. For those chocolate-dipped toasted coconut biscotti? A little glass of Bailey's Irish Cream. I'm not kidding. It's delicious.

Photo of Domenica Marchetti by Olga Berman

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