Monday, 23 March 2015

Cantucci (Italian almond biscotti)

Cantucci (Italian almond biscotti)

If you travel to the Italian region of Tuscany, you'll likely end most of your meals - especially if consumed in places where regional food is served, like trattoria, osteria, agriturismo - with some cantucci (or cantuccini), crunchy almond cookies usually served along with coffee, often with a glass of vin santo, a sweet wine perfect for dunking.
Cantucci are in fact the most renowned and representative sweet of the whole Tuscany, and in particular of the city of Prato where the original recipe was developed in 1858 by the pastry chef Antonio Mattei; due to their origin these cookies are also known as Biscotti di Prato. The 19th century original recipe for cantucci included not only almonds but also pine nuts and did not have any raising agents or butter, something that differs from almost all modern recipes.

The peculiarity of these cookies is the double baking process: in fact they are first shaped into a sort of flat log, which is baked then cut into thick slices and baked again, until dry and crunchy. 
This preparation technique is the origin of the Italian word biscotto, which comes from the Latin words “bis,” meaning twice, and “coctum” meaning baked or cooked. As the Latin name suggests this technique dates back to Roman times, when biscotti, thanks to their long durability, were a staple of the diet of the Roman Legions (and of course were more a convenience food for travelers and soldiers than a pleasant after dinner treats as they are nowadays). The famous Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder, referring to biscotti, said that the double baking technique would keep them edible for centuries.

Something curious is that now in Italian the term biscotti (plural of biscotto) is used to refer to any type of cookie, not necessarily double-baked, as the British use the word biscuit. In North America, on the contrary, biscotti is used as the ancient Romans did, to describe a oval shaped, dry, twice-baked cookie (and Americans have developed their own recipes for biscotti as well).
Cantucci (Italian almond biscotti)

How Roman biscotti evolved into modern cantucci is not officially documented. They somehow survived through the centuries, in several different ways and with different names all across Italy. 
As Tuscan biscotti were flavored with almonds from the plentiful almond groves of Prato, in other Italian regions other types of biscotti were developed, using ingredients locally available and sharing with cantucci the ancient double baking technique to help them keep longer. 
Typical of Umbria and Lazio regions are for example tozzetti, very similar to cantucci and usually flavored with aniseed (or anise liquor) and sometimes with an addition of hazelnut as well as almonds.
In my native region, the Marche, during the grape harvesting season, bakeries used (hopefully still use but I am not sure as I haven't lived there for a long time) to make a very simple kind of biscuit with grape must (before fermentation) in the dough in place of water or milk, plenty of aniseed and sometimes an addition of almonds and / or sultanas.
In Sicily, during Lent, the period preceding Easter, it's possible to find the so called biscotti quaresimali (cookies of the Lent), made with egg whites, almonds and a combination of wheat and almond flour.
Moving to the north of Italy, in Venice in particular, the local version of biscotti is baicoli, very thin and crunchy little cookies, created as a food for sailors during their long travels across the sea, which are made from a leavened bread-like dough, baked then left to rest for few days and finally sliced very thin and baked again.  

I have to stop the list here as it couldn't be complete based only on my personal direct knowledge, but there are many other versions of biscotti in Italy. As well as there are thousands recipes for the same cantucci: the one used by the Mattei pastry shop in Prato (descendant of the cantucci creator and still very famed) is of course kept secret but, as actually happens for all regional dishes and products, any bakery, pastry shop and even family has its own recipe. And also there are many original variations, with different or additional ingredients: some make use of other types of nuts (like pistachios or hazelnut or pine nuts), others add chopped chocolate, or substitute part of the flour for cocoa powder in order to have a dark dough, others use different flavors or even liquor in the dough, and so on.

Going back to the simplest and traditional version of cantucci, reading cookbooks, magazines and websites, I've found many slightly different recipes,  tried a few and found my favorite one that is now my recipe for cantucci and written below.
Cantucci (Italian almond biscotti)

But before going to the recipe let me say few more things.
The first comment is about almonds: since they are present in a quite generous amount, it is very important to use top quality and fresh almonds. A rancid or altered taste is not pleasant, even after a good dunking into vin santo or coffee or any other wine or spirit! Therefore I recommend to choose well your almonds and also to taste at least a couple of them before starting to prepare the dough, so as to be sure you're going to use a good product.

The second is related to baking time, in particular the second baking. In most recipes the second baking is quite long, 10 to 15 minutes, in order to have very crunchy and dry biscuits, perfect - or better calling for - a dunking into some liquid. 
As I prefer a softer cookie, I take my cantucci out of the oven sooner than they should be. But trust me they are anyway delicious and probably more pleasant in case you don't want to dunk them in wine. Or you can, at least the first time you make, do the second baking in two batches testing two different baking times in order to see whether you prefer very dry cookies (as Tuscans do) or lightly softer ones. 

Finally just few words about vin santo, that's probably not so renowned outside Italy (and if anybody knows whether it is available in UAE and where, please let me know!!!). Vin santo (the Italian for "holy wine") is a dessert wine, traditional in Tuscany, made from white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia which are dried on straw mats or racks (the so called appassimento step also used for passito wines) before their sweet juice is pressed and fermented. 
The pairing with cantucci is the most classical, but vin santo goes well with other desserts, with some cheeses (in the less sweet versions) or even on its own, and in fact it belongs to the so called vini da meditazione which means wine to meditate.
Cantucci (Italian almond biscotti)

Cantucci (biscotti di Prato)
makes about 45 cookies
350 g flour
200 g sugar, plus for sprinkling the top before baking
30 g butter
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp baking powder
200 g almonds whit skin on
3 eggs
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Arrange the almonds on a baking tray and put them into the oven until lightly toasted, about  5 minutes. Set aside to cool.  Melt the butter and let cool.
Meanwhile sift the flour with baking powder then place it in a bowl or on a working surface creating a "well" in the centre. Add all ingredients (reserving 1 tbsp of egg yolk to make the egg wash) a mix just to combine; you can do this by hand, like I do, or using an electric mixer ( in this case be careful not to over mix, stop when the mixture is just combined).
Divide the dough in three or four even parts , shape into flattish logs (about two or three fingers wide, depending on how large you want them) and place well spaced on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Add 1 tbsp milk to the reserved egg yolk, mix and use to brush the top of the logs; sprinkle some sugar on top (this step is optional but gives a nice golden top the cookies as well as a crunchier surface).
Cantucci (Italian almond biscotti)
Bake in the pre-heated oven at 180°C for about 25 minutes until golden. Remove the logs from the oven and while warm, slice them transversely (at a 45 degree angle) into cookies about 1-2 cm wide. Place these cookies back in the oven for few minutes. Allow to cool and serve with a small glass of vin santo or other sweet wine for dipping; they go well also with coffee. They keep well in an air tight container for several days.
Note: in many recipes, the second baking is longer, about 10 to 15 minutes, and gives very crunchy and golden brown cookies. I am not sure whether the very original recipe envisages a longer or shorter second baking, but as I tried and made both versions, I have to say that I prefer softer cookies than super crunchy ones. 

Cantucci (Italian almond biscotti)

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