Mona Talbott’s Biscotti Lucia

from Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome, p. 45.

Who doesn’t like cookies? My sister, for one, but practically everyone else does. They make a wonderful gift to bring to a party instead of or in addition to a bottle of wine. The friends at the monthly circulating cocktail party I belong to enjoyed these Italian almond cookies. Several people tried to pocket a few to take home at the end of the evening. A good sign.

My favorite cookie book is Martha Stewart’s. But, in this case, if the rest of the collection turns out as well as this first attempt, then Mona Talbott’s Biscotti is going to run a close second, a tie with Carol Field’s Italian cookies. Talbott’s recipes hint at how underrated Italian cookies are. My own impression, at any rate, had been that they tend to be bland. And in all the  years I visited Italy I ate nothing that dissuaded me of that impression. Good bakers are hard to find in Italy. Yet, when you find them, good Italian cookies are satisfying in a minimalist way.

I doubled the recipe proportions, because 1 1/2 egg whites seems a bit too fussy and I knew I’d find enough people to eat a double batch. So, the amounts below represent double proportions.

I have a couple of suggestions to supplement the simple and clear instructions…

For about 50 cookies

500g / 18 0z blanched almonds

400g / 2 cups granulated sugar

6 g / 2 tsp ground cinnamon

2 g / 1 tsp lemon zest

3 egg whites, lightly beaten

50 or a few more whole blanched almonds

Preheat oven to 180 C / 350 F.

Pulse the almonds and sugar in a food processor until the almonds are chopped medium fine.

Shadowcook: It’s okay if there are big bits of nuts. The pulsing took longer than I expected.

Transfer the nut-sugar mixture to a medium-size mixing bowl. Add the cinnamon and lemon zest and mix well. Gently fold in the lightly beaten egg whites until well incorporated.

Shadowcook: I put the egg whites in the Kitchenaid mixer with the whisk attachment. I turned the mixer on to medium and whisked the whites until they were frothy but not solid white, about 1 minute.

Roll the dough into 28 small balls (18 g / 3/4 oz) and top each cookie with a blanced almond.

Shadowcook: Rolling the balls is a lot easier if your hands are wet.

Transfer the cookies to cookie sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing them 2 cm / 3/4 inch apart.

Bake for 10 minutes. the cookies will be light in color and will form a nice crust as they cool.

Shadowcook: Be prepared to leave them in a oven longer than 10 minutes. You won’t be able to tell if the cookies are done cooking by touching them. If you want to be sure that you cook them the proper amount of time for them to finish cooking, try baking one ball on its own for 10-15 mins. My oven’s temperature is such that I wound up baking the cookies for 15 minutes.

And it’s true that cooling cookies on a rack is where the crust forms. Cooling is almost as important a step as baking in bringing a cookie to perfection.

These cookies will keep for up to 2 weeks in a sealed container.

Martha Stewart’s Earl Grey Tea Cookies

dsc00093from Martha Stewart’s Cookies, p. 231.

The feeling that I was getting stuck in a chocolate rut, I decided to try Martha’s Earl Grey Tea Cookies, after my friend Jonathan made a batch that pleased him so much that he took the artful photo you see above. The batch I made had tremendous potential. I really loved the delicate flavor. My tasting crew in my department seemed to enjoy them as well. But the balance of flavors in this cookie is crucial. Furthermore, it’s not the most clearly set-forth recipe I’ve ever read.

Here’s what I mean…

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons finely ground Earl Grey tea leaves (from about 4 bags)

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar

1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest

1. Whisk together flour, tea, and salt in a bowl.

2. Put butter, confectioners’ sugar, and orange zest in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture until just combined.

3. Divide in half. Transfer each half to a piece of parchment paper; shape into logs. Roll in parchment to 1 1/4 inches in diameter, pressing a ruler along edge of parchment at each turn to narrow the log and force out air. Transfer in parchment to paper towel tubes; freeze until firm, 1 hour.

4. Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut logs into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Space 1 inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment.

5. Bake cookies, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges are golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks. Cookies can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature up to 5 days.

What the….?

Frankly, Martha lost me a little at step 3. And then she had me thoroughly annoyed when I reached the moment where I needed to have on hand paper towel tubes — as in more than one. Not, mind you, that I had even one.

To begin, however, at the beginning, I bought a box of organic Earl Grey tea in bags at my local co-op. I believe it’s worth finding the right Earl Grey tea for this cookie. Some teas don’t contain enough bergamot, as this one did not. I know there is a particular British brand of Early Grey available in the States, but I can’t remember its name.

Next, the balance required in this cookie to make it sing is between the tea, on the one hand, and the orange zest, on the other. Just a few flecks more or less of zest disturb the complementarity of the flavors. When I make this cookie again, I’m going to err on the side of less zest — perhaps a scant tablespoon would be the best way to describe the amount.

I used Maldon sea salt. I’m not sure why this was called for. I ate just a few of the cookies. I felt the crunch and tasted the slight charge of a small chunk of salt in one cookie and nothing in the other. Next time, I will substitute kosher salt.

As for the beating of the butter, sugar, and zest, it pays to follow the directions regarding time. I noticed a difference in the creamed butter at 1 min and 2 1/32 mins. The longer you cream it, the fluffier it will be.

I confess I ignored those useless directions to roll the dough in parchment. Oh, I rolled it up into a log all right in parchment. But the ruler? Didn’t understand that. I squeezed the dough tightly. I’ll have to figure out how to squeeze out the air some way. You’ll see in the photo that one or two of the cookies Jonathan made have airholes.

After rolling the dough into logs that were smaller in diameter than 1 1/2 inches, I put the parchment-wrapped logs in the freezer. After an hour, I removed and cut off half of a log and put the rest back in the freezer for another time.  Slice and bake.

Very tasty cookies. I intend to have some with tea one of these rainy days this week. The essence of Earl Grey is subtle. The texture of the cookie resembles shortbread. It has a nice crumble to it. Tomorrow, I’ll have tea around 4 pm, shortly before I leave to leave for dinner and then the opera, The Marriage of Figaro.

Martha Stewart’s Chocolate Crackles

dsc04047from Martha Stewart’s Cookies, p. 68.

First, biscotti, now cookies. Sherry has inspired me to keep moving in a bakerly direction. I have learned from her that cookie-making is an art, not side-line to serious cooking. For instance, she maintains that no people understand cookies as well as the Italians. Perhaps when I post this, she’ll add a comment to explain what she means.

In the meantime, about a week ago, she brought over a few chocolate cookies with snow-capped surfaces that I went wild over. I am beginning to understand how satisfying a good cookie can be. They’re small, discrete, and, ideally, well-balanced between sweetness, moisture, and texture.

Among her favorite cookie books, Martha Stewart’s new book on the subject holds a very prominent place. It is easy to sneer at Martha Stewart — at least I used to find it easy. But now that I’ve tried a number of recipes from her books, she has earned my respect. I’ve skimmed through the new book of Martha Stewart’s Living recipes (seen at Costco in this season) and noticed quite a few recipes I’d like to try, including a number of interesting biscotti recipes. Her compendium of hors-d’oeuvres is very useful. I don’t often use it, but I’d never get rid of it. In fact, she has a recipe for a savory biscotti (browned-butter, lemon and capers) that I will attempt soon.

Here is her recipe for a beautiful lush, snowy, chewy chocolate cookie:

8 oz bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp coarse salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/3 cup whole milk

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

1. Melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring. Set aside and let cool. Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.

2. With an electric mixer, beat butter and brown sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Mix in eggs and vanilla, and then the melted chocolate. Reduce speed to low; mix in flour mixture in two batches, alternating with the milk. Divide dough into four equal pieces. Wrap each in plastic; refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

3. Preheat oven to 350. Divide each piece into sixteen 1-inch balls. Roll in granulated sugar to coat, then in confectioner’s sugar to coat. Space 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

4. Bake until surfaces crack, about 14 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Let cool on sheets on wire racks. Cookies can be stored between layers of parchment in airtight containers at room temperature up to 3 days.

When I made it…

First, only Valrhona chocolate will do. I used Dagoba’s cocoa powder. None of the cocoa powders I saw in my favorite fancy-shmancy market identified themselves as “Dutch process,” so I had to let that go.

I set a clear Pyrex bowl over a saucepan of water to melt the chocolate and then set it aside.

A hand-held electric mixer might work in a pinch, but this recipe really requires the heft and endurance of a counter-top electric mixer. However, the butter and brown sugar never got pale and fluffy. So, I let that go as well and forged on.

Dividing the flour into two additions allows for the smooth intergration of the dry ingredients. I found I had to stop the mixer a few times to scrap down the sides, because too much was adhering high up the side of the bowl.

Because of all the bread and biscotti I’ve been making, I was expecting a much more solid “dough” than what the recipe produced. The consistency resembled very thick frosting. It certainly was wetter than I expected, so I wasn’t sure how to divide the dough into four portions. So, instead, I transferred the entirety to a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and stuck it in the fridge.

The first rolling in granulated sugar is easy. The trick to the second in confectioner’s sugar is to make sure the sugar sticks to the balls at least in patches all over the surface of the ball.

The baking time was perfect. The cooling on the rack is what makes the surface of the cookie a touch crisp and the inside continue to be chewy.

If you prefer to keep some on hand, Sherry says they freeze well.

Next time I make these cookies…

I am going to confront the wet dough and divide it into four. It will make for uniform sizes better than I managed by eyeballing the amount between my fingers.