The Origin of Biscotti (and My Love for It)

As you may already know, I love biscotti. That crisp first bite, the bitter/sweet contrast of a good dark chocolate, the nutty crunch—what could be better?

The word biscotti means “twice baked.” The first bake sets the loaf, and after cooling and slicing, the second bake dries the individual biscotto into a crispy cookie. I’ve made numerous attempts over the years at baking my own biscotti, with mostly abysmal results. They crumbled to dust every time I tried to slice them, and soon my favorite treat had become my nemesis. I was tempted to give up, but ultimately I rallied. I’m a culinary-school graduate after all—surely I could rise to the challenge. After many hours of online research and instructional videos, success was mine! Once I mastered that first batch, I was hooked.

So why my obsession with this curious cookie?

Biscotti are ubiquitous at this point—you can find them in just about any bakery or coffee shop you walk into. But the original biscotti weren’t quite as appealing as the version you can now munch with your macchiato. They were flat, very dry, and very hard. These cookies were pretty utilitarian: they were portable and kept well, making them easy to take on long trips. Some versions could last a year with no noticeable deterioration, though they got a little less mileage on the open seas due to animal and bug infestations. Yum!

Prior to the Industrial Age, there were few food resources available to travelers and military troops that were suitable for long journeys. Fresh foods were consumed first, and since there were rarely places to restock (especially for those at sea), biscotti became a standby. Because the original versions were hard as rocks, one had to dip the cookie into hot tea or a warm gruel to soften it up before eating. I imagine sailors gnawing on these like babies with teething biscuits!

Though the oldest recipe dates back to eighteenth-century Italy, twice-baked goods are not unique to that country. Other versions include English hardtack, Jewish Mandelbrot, the Dutch rusk, the German zwieback, and the Greek paximadia.

Happily, after the Industrial Age introduced canned and frozen foods, the original bland biscotti wasn’t discarded entirely but instead turned into a delightful, tasty treat with the addition of sugar, flavorings, nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate.

Biscotti can now be enjoyed at any time of the day: with a latte for breakfast, with tea in the afternoon, or with a glass of Vin Santo in the evening. They also partner nicely with ice cream, gelato, or sorbet. And fortunately, biscotti are still as portable as ever, so take a few with you on your daily travels!

Consider the biscotti’s humble history while baking one of my favorite recipes, the Coconut-Almond Biscotti, which was inspired by that famous portable American snack the Almond Joy! Pair it with a late-harvest wine like a Sauterne or a semisweet Riesling for a delicious after-dinner treat.

Coconut Almond Biscotti Dipped in Dark Chocolate

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