They could be the oldest cookies known to civilization. The ancient Romans, we know, were nuts for 'em. Pliny the Elder claimed they would keep for centuries — quite a plug given that it would be a couple of millennia before anyone dreamed up the zippered food bag or the click-top plastic tub.
Christopher Columbus, we're told, tucked a stash in the hull of one of his three sailing ships, though he didn't let on as to which one — the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria — was the floating cookie jar.
We're talking here about the sweet that boasts its twice-baked status, so much so that it has made the return trip to the oven a part of its name. It's the biscotti (literally, "bis," twice; "cotti," cooked), a nibble so fine it has morphed into cultures far and wide, passed down through generations of nonnas, bubbes, whatever it is you call your grandmamas. From the British rusk, to the Ukrainian kamishbrot, all the world, it seems, wants to bite down hard and dunk.
Its stiffest competition, however, might come from the much-loved mandelbrot ("almond bread") of Eastern Europe's Ashkenazi Jews.
No matter what name you put to it — mandelbrot, biscotti or beyond — you might call it one tough cookie. And besides its knack for staying crisp, the dippability is decidedly a draw.
"Not to get too T.S. Eliot, but I think the dipping quality lends itself to conversation," said Jayne Cohen, author of "Jewish Holiday Cooking." "You sit, you dip, you punctuate what you're saying with that well-timed dip."
Cohen, who makes a "cakier, thus homier" mandelbrot, vividly recalls her bubbe, Becky, pressing down the almond-studded dough, tap-tap-tapping the loaf that's baked once, then sliced, and baked again.
Be it the biscotti or the mandelbrot, the double-baked variations are "innocent desserts, really grandmotherly," said Cohen.
Traditionally, biscotti is made without oil or butter; eggs serve to bind the dough. The lack of added fats boosts the shelf-stability. Mandelbrot is typically made with oil, for a softer, cakier cookie.
Given the porous European borders, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe likely carried home from Italy the notion of biscotti, and then made it their own, Cohen said. Adding oil to the fat-free biscotti would have made the dough easier to work, and it was an everyday ingredient in an Ashkenazi kitchen. Almonds are traditional to both cookies, but today you might find walnuts, pistachios or other nuts.
And no one ever said that inheriting a treasured family recipe was as simple as riffling through grandma's recipe box.
Cori Bruscino, who is 86 — and whose daughter, Maria Bruscino Sanchez, not only sells dozens of biscotti at her Connecticut bakery, but wrote an Italian baking book, "Sweet Maria's Big Baking Bible" (St. Martin's Press) —worked hard to get her mother-in-law's biscotti recipe on paper.
Chasing behind her in the kitchen, as her mother-in-law scooped up an eggshell half of sugar, a fistful of flour, Bruscino worked fast to dump each ingredient into a measuring cup before it hit the mixing bowl. Over the years, her daughter has refined the recipe even further and taken it to places her Nonna Mary never would have dreamed.
"I can make a biscotti out of any ingredient you tell me," she boasted, then went on to list crushed red pepper and pecorino cheese as proof of what a girl can do with a double-baked blueprint that goes way, way back to ancient Rome.
CRANBERRY ALMOND BISCOTTI WITH MANDELBROT VARIATION
1 1/4 to 1 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4teaspoon each: cinnamon, salt
1 cup each: dried cranberries, chopped almonds
2 teaspoons amaretto or 1 teaspoon almond extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in large mixing bowl; stir in cranberries and almonds. Beat eggs, sugar and amaretto in medium bowl with a mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Pour egg mixture into flour mixture. Beat just to combine.
Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Knead to make soft, slightly sticky dough. If dough is too sticky to roll, knead in about 1/2 cup more flour. Divide dough into three equal pieces. Form each piece into a loaf about 8 inches long. Place loaves on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, 4 inches apart.
Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes; cool slightly. Slice loaves diagonally into 1/2-inch slices. Lay slices on cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake until well browned, 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven; let cool. Store, wrapped in wax paper, in cookie tin. Or freeze, double-wrapped, for up to 3 months.
Makes 30 cookies.
Adapted from a recipe by Maria Bruscino Sanchez, author of "Sweet Maria's Big Baking Bible."
Mandelbrot variation: To the recipe above, add 1 1/4 cups more flour to the flour mixture; beat in 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/3cup vegetable oil to the egg mixture; eliminate the cinnamon, if you like.
Per cookie: 72 calories, 29 percent of calories from fat, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 21mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 51mg sodium, 1 g fiber.