It was with a sense of stultifying gall that I came to learn a dreadful secret of the baker’s dictionary. A biscuit is not a biscuit at all.
That’s right, the simple baked offering that you will render from your oven (or from your shopping trolley, perhaps) is a phoney, a false prophet, an imposter. You see ‘biscuit’ has a very specific meaning, and it seems that only the Italians were listening.
‘Bis-cuit’ derives directly from old French, meaning ‘twice-cooked’, and it referred to the more traditional technique of creating bakery confections that would last in an era when airtight packaging, refrigeration and anti-humectant preservatives were unheard of. By cooking a dough once until sweet and just set, then once more slowly until bone dry and crisp, a baker could ensure that his treats would last for weeks or even months. This was particularly important when they were shipped with travellers, or if you needed to survive a long and arduous winter.
It was in the town of Prato, just north of Florence, that a unique tradition of biscuit-making emerged. The Biscotti di Prato were in fact slices of a nut-rich cake, sometimes with fruits as well, that would be slowly dried in a low oven until tooth-crackingly delicious. The local called them cantuccini (meaning ‘little corners’), and solved the problem of their near-inedibility by dipping them in sweet dessert wine until they softened.
The Italians, it seems, are the true architects of the modern Tim-Tam slammer!
To make a great biscotti, you need to start with a great dough. Beat the butter and sugar until pale and creamy, take great care folding in the flour, then choose the finest nuts and fruits for flavour. Form into logs, then slice them while they’re still warm – that way they don’t crack as much.
Yes, it’s that simple. Great ingredients and perfect technique.
But that does leave us with one little problem. What to call our shortbread and the like, you know, the ‘biscuits’ of our lives? Well, in that matter our American friends were right. They’re ‘cookies’. That’s right, cooked, but only once!
Pecan cranberry biscotti