Hazelnut, brown sugar and espresso biscotti
I do love a happy accident in the kitchen – that pleasant surprise when something you didn’t mean to do turns out marvellously well. It happens all the time, a missing ingredient that you forgot or didn’t have, for example, that makes the dish even better than the original. Of course, this might just be luck. The same thing can have the opposite effect too, depending on the circumstance and the ingredients. My sister in law famously prepared some cream and strawberries marinated in sugar for a family gathering only to discover in horror that she’d poured salt over the strawberries instead.
They say chocolate chip cookies were born out of a mistake and although this is much contested as a fact, it’s imaginable. Other kitchen accidents with happy endings include crepes suzette with that burnt orange, caramelised sauce, eton mess (of course), cornflakes, popsicles and waffle cones, or so the stories go. Tarte Tatin, too, was supposedly created in the 1880s after the owner of a French hotel, Stephanie Tatin, overcooked the apples for an apple tart and tried to rescue it by putting the pastry base on top.
I like to think that good recipe inventions happen all the time out of accidents, in regular kitchens everywhere. It’s what gives us a chance to create and really “cook”, when we are aware of the changes we are making to a dish. And when we’re not, well, it’s sort of a bonus. A serendipitous bonus.
Something similar happened with these cantuccini – or biscotti, if you prefer. I had all intentions to road test a quite traditional Florentine recipe for cantuccini, twice cooked biscuit fingers, bulging with whole almonds. They are the must have to end the ultimate Florentine meal, dunked in a little glass of amber coloured vin santo.
I’ve made them before plenty of times, always using a recipe my mother in law gave me, a recipe that is good and very Tuscan. But in the search for perfect recipes, I thought I’d try out a slightly different recipe. Things are a little crazy around here these days, what with an 18 month old toddler ruling the house and a steady flow of freelance work to organise around her. So when I get a chance to cook (or shower or do anything “normal”), while the toddler naps, there’s no messing about. I’m usually a good recipe reader and an organised cook. Or at least I used to be.
I started pouring flour into a bowl, making a well and cracking eggs into it. Before I knew it, I was halfway through the recipe and missing the vital ingredients. The conversation in my head for the rest of the recipe went a little bit like this:
Where are the almonds?! No whole almonds. Blanched, yes, but no, they won’t do. You need to see the outline of those dark skins. Oh. Well I have this bag of fresh hazelnuts. I do love hazelnuts. (Actually, we have hazelnuts pouring out of our pantry after having gone hazelnut picking at a wonderful truffle farm – the hazelnut trees are used for growing truffles – but more on that another time).
Ok. What happened to the sugar? No white sugar left in the house. Ok, brown sugar will have to do. (That soft, caramel-like sugar that slumps its way out of the bag.) Hm. It’ll look different. Oh well. No time to think about that now.
Now, a splash of vin santo (this was my mother in law’s mother’s touch). Vin santo? Do we have any left? How about I just use the rest of the coffee sitting in the moka (that’s what Italians call their stovetop percolators)?
In the end, I even forgot the butter. 40 grams of melted butter that goes in there with the eggs.
My final recipe may have included just two of the original ingredients, the flour and the eggs. And even then I think I might be missing half an egg after allowing my toddler to do the cracking (her favourite thing) and one of them exploding on her.
But the result? Some of the most delicious cantuccini I’ve had in a while. Not as traditional as I had hoped for, but lovely, not overly sweet but with that deep, caramel hint from the brown sugar and a waft of coffee. And I need no convincing to eat cookies that have hazelnuts in them. Great for dunking into coffee as much as dessert wine. This accident will become a permanent fixture.
Hazelnut, brown sugar and espresso biscotti
- 300 grams of flour
- 3 eggs
- 250 grams soft brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch salt
- 150 grams of whole hazelnuts
- 40 ml espresso
Sift the flour into a bowl and create a “well” in the centre. Crack the eggs into the centre and beat the eggs incorporating the flour little by little, much the way you make handmade pasta. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until just combined.
Shape the dough into two or three logs about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) wide (it may be quite sticky; in this case, do this with 2 spoons, placing blobs into a long, log-like shape) on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. They don’t have to be perfect – they will smooth out and expand a bit in the oven, but leave plenty of space between logs on the baking sheet.
Bake at 180°C for about 20 minutes or until golden on top. Remove the biscotti from the oven and when cool enough to handle but still slightly warm, slice the logs at a 45 degree angle into cookies about ½ inch (1-2cm) wide. Place the sliced biscotti back in the oven for another 10-15 minutes or until dried out and crunchy. Allow to cool and serve with a small glass of vin santo or other dessert wine for dipping. Keep them in an air tight container to keep their crunch.