Biscotti di Meliga – another polenta cookie
Not too long ago I posted a recipe for polenta and elderflower cookies, a lovely little gem found in my go-to cookbook for inspiration, Artusi‘s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well from 1891. It will please those that need gluten-free recipes as it’s made entirely with polenta (or cornmeal as some like to call it), which gives it a gorgeous crunch but can be a little difficult to work with as there is (obviously) no gluten to hold the dough together (by the way, you should also look at Emma’s – aka Poires au Chocolat – attempt at and thoughts on this recipe). I had been wanting to try it with half regular wheat flour and half polenta (sorry gluten-free people), but then came across this classic recipe for biscotti di meliga, polenta biscuits, from Piemonte, Italy’s north west food heaven, which calls for both flours.
I have another favourite cookbook that I turn to for anything to do with Piemonte cuisine. She’s called Nonna Genia. I’ve tried her agnolotti, her glorious hazelnut and espresso cake, her truffle fondue, her torta di pasta frolla (jam tart) and took her advice on stuffed peaches. It’s all good, homely cooking. Things I want to make and eat over and over again. As far as I know, it’s only available in Italian. Note that it’s not actually written by a nonna but by Beppe Lodi, in what is essentially a collection of the most traditional recipes of the Langhe area of Piemonte, recipes that would otherwise be eventually lost because the nonne that made them never needed to write recipes down as they knew them by heart. The notes that accompany the recipes are wonderful snapshots of food memories.
The recipe for biscotti di meliga (melia or meliga is just the Piemontese name for polenta), more commonly found in a ridged ring shape made by piping the dough through a star-shaped tip rather than rolling it, is one born out of poor times – the price of wheat flour had gone up, so bakers substituted the cheaper polenta, ground very finely, for a portion of the wheat flour. It makes for a wonderfully short, delicate biscuit with good crunch.
Traditionally, there were a few ways the Piemontesi enjoyed these biscotti, the most wonderful (in my opintion) is serving them with creamy, freshly whipped up zabaione, and/or a glass of moscato d’Asti or dolcetto for dessert. Similar to the more robust Tuscan biscotti, you usually dunk them in the wine before eating them. There’s a story that Cavour finished every meal with biscotti di meliga dipped in barolo chinato. They were also considered a biscotto da colazione, baked at home and eaten for breakfast, but today, despite being so easy and quick to make, they’re mostly industrially made, bought pre-packaged in a supermarket or by the weight from a bakery. I’m thinking this might be my next tart base instead of my usual Artusi pastry. Like most biscotti, they also go wonderfully with a homemade espresso or a cup of tea.
This is based on the recipe from Nonna Genia. It’s so very simple to make, there’s really nothing to it. Note that the traditional recipe calls for a very fine polenta, one that is not usually used for making cooked polenta but is specifically for baking. If you can’t find that, go for the finest polenta you can find, even instant polenta.
Biscotti di Meliga
Makes about 30 biscotti
- 150 gr plain flour
- 50 gr extra fine polenta
- 100 gr sugar
- 150 gr butter, chopped
- 2 medium egg yolks (if using large eggs, one will do)
- zest of one lemon
Combine the flours and sugar in a bowl, add the chopped butter and process or, if mixing by hand, rub into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the yolks and lemon zest and mix until you form a smooth ball of dough. Allow the dough to rest at least 30 minutes in the fridge. Roll the dough on a well floured surface until about 8mm thick and cut out rounds with a cookie cutter (about 5cm in diameter). Place on a baking sheet and bake at 180ºC for about 15 minutes or until just golden.