Thursday, December 15, 2016

Biscotti my way with roasted almonds and chocolate brandy beans

I'm not Italian. I'm from a French mother and a Canadian father and born in Germany where I spent half of my childhood. Of all the foods and treats that got my full attention in life, biscotti was not one of them. I never cared to try them at cafés and never thought I would care to bake any. Yet, somehow, during the Holidays one year, it became a thing and it sort of never stopped. It was around 1997 or 98, after baking up a storm for the holidays. I found myself with a bit of extra time and leftover ingredients before cleaning up and packing to join my boyfriend at his parents' home in Kingston. I flipped through the pages of my big Christmas book, looking for a quick recipe. Maybe something I could take with me as a present to offer. There was this recipe that I always saw but never bothered to try and it seemed to fit the bill in terms of ingredients and time I had. In the book it wasn't even called Biscotti. It was simply called Crispy Almond Cookie (in French). It was also described as an Italian style cookie to enjoy with warm drinks.

I had all that was needed and that was all that mattered. I unfortunately nibbled on almonds as I read and found myself a bit short when I noticed that it asked for 3/4 cup. I was missing a good 1/4 cup. The next decision I made started a tradition that lasted almost 2 decades! I figured that the empty space in the cup could be replaced with dark chocolate brandy beans (chopped up). Chocolate brandy beans are part of an other story but I always have them when the holiday season comes. Always. It should probably be served at room temperature but I find them amazing when cold and hard from the fridge. I love the way the thin dark chocolate shell breaks under the tooth, giving way to the sweet and strong brandy liqueur, slowly warming up the throat and mouth as the flavour lingers. If you're like my husband you will think it sounds cheesy and I agree but it's the truth! :)

Okay, back to the low count of almonds, I needed about 7 to compensate. I froze them while I gathered my ingredients (it makes the chopping easier and less messy) and added them to the recipe. I'm not sure how the Grand Marnier joined in (I was probably running out of vanilla or almond extract) but the idea stayed. It's amazing with the orange zest and I'm not even a big fan of zest. Whenever I whip the wet ingredients my nose gets excited. Brandy, orange, almonds, vanilla, melted butter, sugar and eggs... To me it just smells like sweet Christmas in a cookie! I followed the biscotti recipe with the few minor changes and couldn't believe how easy it was. I kept checking to make sure I didn't miss a step. I brought those with me to my in-laws, not expecting much but the biscotti were a big hit. It was requested again so I made more and shared more and now even my own mother (the master of German butter cookies) expects them every year.

It became something we all look forward to when December comes. For years the smell became part of a tradition. My boyfriend became my husband and as Christmas got close, we would prep and create and get ready for the big day. I would bake biscotti and he would create sculptures out of polymer clay that he would also have to bake before painting. They were specific smells in the house that would set the mood. It would join the smells of the Christmas tree and it would mingle with Christmas music and excitement as we got busy for the Holidays. It's associated to great memories shared with my oldest daughter and now my youngest.

Below is a series of pictures that show step by step, how it's done every year. If you don't have the patience to look at them, too bad. The pictures are pretty and I went through a lot of trouble to stop, clean my hands and snap them with each step. I'm joking. Just scroll all the way down for the recipe. I really hope you try them and enjoy them as much as we do.

I'm interrupting this pretty picture show to explain that things are about to get frustratingly sticky at this point. This is the part where I might gradually add 1/4 cup of flour to the mix if things are not cooperating. I will also generously cover the counter with flour. Heavily. Don't be shy, flour that counter! A lot! See this below? Not enough.

I also use a genius contraption that my mother came up with. Rubber spatulas are nice but when it comes to greedily scrape a bowl clean to the last sticky drop, I use a plastic lid from a big yogourt or ice cream container. It's amazing! Just cut the edge off with scissors and make sure you get a good sized circle to hold in your hand. It bends super well, and picks everything up! It evens scrapes my wooden spoons extra clean. I dip it in flour and make short, fast scraping movements as I gather the mass of dough with it. Everything comes out in a ball as I scrape it out of the bowl. When it gets too old, throw it in the recycle. Easy. Now back to work!

The book doesn't mention this but it's worth getting some parchment paper to line your cookie sheet. Seriously. Things won't stick and it's easier to clean after. I appreciate this when I have 4-6 batches to bake. Also another tip that works for me is that I mark on the paper the length of the log required (in this case 12 inches) before I place it on the sheet. It helps me keep the same length with each batch I bake.

Once the dough has been shaped, brushed with egg wash and slipped in the oven, the waiting game begins. With my oven it's 20-25 minutes to start till it gets firm and golden. Then it needs to rest 10 minutes at least to cool off and firm up before slicing. Some people will disagree with that and claim the opposite. The slicing made me curse many times through the years. Especially because they were presents. It would squish the delicate logs and push down the almonds, driving me nuts along the way and ruining the end result and mood. Turns out a very sharp knife is required. Mine has sharp teeth that could cut through frozen food, bone and can. Yep. Dull knife will make this pointless so get yourself a sharp one. This slicing gets done guillotine style. I don't saw my way through them. I find that if you do, you'll wreck the almonds and fragile dough.

Place the sliced biscotti like in the picture with enough space in between to cook a bit more and brown. Another 20-25 minutes of waiting. Usually by this point, the smell will tell you if they're ready. You might have to check early if you want to keep them golden but we like them on the brown side. They just taste better!

I'm sharing those 2 pics to show how efficient a sharp knife can be when it comes to cut slices that are chock-full with almonds and chocolate. The truth is, I can't resist the juicy colours of those cutting boards! :) Sadly, I lost the red one (the pic is from last year) but my guy surprised me with this bright yellow one below which is even better and more stable with it's rubber ends.

What it looks like after the first 20 minutes of baking.

What it looks like after the 2nd baking.

The size will vary between batches. I sometimes get short ones and sometimes very nice long ones. Some are cut 3/4 inch wide, we prefer a generous 1/2 inch.

Approved by the youngest who had to taste one or two or three or four...

Biscotti with roasted almonds and chocolate brandy beans

Heavily adapted from Le Livre de Noël - Coup de Pouce

1 3/4 cup flour (might need an extra 1/4 cup)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 to 3/4 whole almonds (with skins and toasted in pan or in oven)
1/4 cup chocolate brandy beans (stored in freezer to make chopping easier)
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted (for this recipe I use salted butter)
2 tsp pure vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 tsp Cointreau or Grand Marnier (not necessary but man, it's worth it)
1 1/2 tsp grated orange zest (it's the equivalent of 1 orange. I use a rasp for this)
1 egg (for egg wash)

Crank oven to 350˚. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. You can draw guide lines to help you guess how long the logs will be (in this case, 12 inches). Roast your almonds. It's quicker and easier for me to do in a pan set on medium high. I can keep a better eye on them while I shake the pan around. Shake the pan until the almonds are fragrant and toasted. You might have to lower the heat to medium. Or you can put them in your 350˚ oven, on a cookie sheet and check every few minutes till satisfied. Careful, they burn fast. Let them cool in a cold plate while gathering the rest of the ingredients.

In a big bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add your almonds. In an other bowl, whisk eggs with sugar, melted butter, vanilla, almond extract, orange zest and if you have it Cointreau or Grand Marnier. Chop the chocolate brandy beans into 5-6 pieces each and add them to the wet mixture. You can use the chocolate brandy beans at room temperature if you forgot to freeze them but with the years I found that keeping them in the freezer makes the syrup thicker and the chocolate more brittle. I personally find that it breaks into better rough pieces. It's up to you. Whisk one more time till all is well amalgamated.

Scrape the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and mix till it becomes a supple sticky mass. With a rubber spatula or with the help of that smart plastic container lid I mentioned above (see the pics), scrape away onto a very well floured counter. It's sticky so make sure there is plenty of flour. Flour your hands too. With your hands, shape the dough into a smooth ball. Cut in half. Take each half and gently roll into a log of about 12 inches. You can adjust the length by smoothing it out on the cookie sheet with the help of the marks you made on your parchment paper. If not, you can use a ruler as a guide. Overall it's not important, it just helps to keep the size consistent when baking many.

Beat your egg to make an egg wash and brush the logs with it. Bake in a 350˚ oven for 20-25 minutes. The extra 5 minutes depend on your oven. I often have to add that extra time to get the logs golden. Remove the logs from the oven and let them cool. The original recipe suggests 5 minutes but I struggled too often with the cutting when it was too warm and soft. I find that 10-15 minutes is ideal (if time allows). When ready cut in 1/2 inch slices. You need a very sharp knife to cut through the almonds  without breaking the dough. A sharp serrated knife works for me. I keep the point of the blade on the cutting board and cut down guillotine style with each slice. Once in a while the blade gets sticky and it can affect the cutting so it's good to wipe the blade clean halfway through to get nice clean cuts. Put the slices back on the baking sheet with a bit of space in between to let them cook and brown a bit more. Bake for 20-25 minutes more. Your house will smell amazing.

Let them cool on a rack. I always get 36 slices but we always eat the short ends. When ready to store, gently shake off the crumbs of each slices and layer in a big hermetic cookie tin with pretty paper in between to keep the layers neat and from getting messy. Hey, I said it was going to be my way. It's the extra special touches that makes this extra pleasant. Especially if it's a gift.  It's up to you. :) The biscotti will keep well for a few weeks. The flavours also seem to improve with the days. Hope you get to try them. We really enjoy them but it's always better if we can share with others! Happy baking!