Cookie cutters are one of those single purpose kitchen tools that are cluttery and take up a lot of room, but more than make up for it when the occasion calls for them. Spring has brought with it the usual cloudy days, and cutting dough into cheerful shapes passed the time as we waited for the dampness to lift and the skies to clear, to get back into the garden and soak up some sunny rays.
Here and in the cookbook it’s from, biscotti refers to small cookies in general, rather than the twice-baked biscuits we’re more familiar with. This cornmeal version has qualities that I think of as particularly Italian — crunchy and on the dry side, a bit of tender sweetness, and as comfortable paired with a cup of coffee as with a glass of wine.
I came across this gem of a cookbook, Biscotti, after running into a colleague with whom I share a love of Rome. He’d just returned from a residency at the American Academy, and raved about the food being served there. Founded by Alice Waters as a model of “collaborative dining,” the Rome Sustainable Food Project provides the Academy community with meals based on seasonal and local ingredients, while also serving as a teaching kitchen for interns who work alongside the Italian and American staff. For a lovely account of the people behind the program and what it’s like to dine there, visit Rachel, who also offers a look at the next book in their series, Zuppe.
I’ve given the recipe much as it appeared originally. I found that leaving out the cinnamon and cloves, and skipping the sugar coating gave me a biscotti closer to what I was looking for — a friend tells me it tasted exactly like his nonna’s — but feel free to follow the recipe as is, and imagine yourself in Rome.
Biscotti al Mais
1½ cup + 1 teaspoon (200g) finely ground cornmeal or corn flour
1⅓ cups + 2 tablespoons (200g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons (8g) baking powder
1½ teaspoons (3g) ground cinnamon (optional)
½ teaspoon (1g) ground cloves (optional)
Pinch of salt
⅔ cup + 1 teaspoon (150g) butter, softened at room temperature
⅔ cup + 1 teaspoon (140g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons (13g) granulated sugar, for coating (optional)
– Sift together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, spices (if using) and salt in a medium-size mixing bowl. In a mixer, cream together the butter, sugar and eggs at high speed. Reduce the speed to low, add the dry ingredients and mix until well combined. Place in a sealed container and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
– Lightly dust a work surface with flour and roll the dough out to an even ¼ inch (5mm) thickness. Cut out preferred shapes with cooke cutters, re-roll the scraps and repeat. At this point the cookies can be layered between parchment paper, placed in a container and stored in the freezer for up to 2 weeks. Allow the dough to come to room temperature before baking.
– To bake, heat the oven to 350°F (180°C). If desired, coat one side of each cookie in the reserved granulated sugar. Transfer the cookies to sheet pans, leaving 1 inch (2.5cm) between each cookie. Bake for 15 minutes, until the edges are golden, rotating the pans halfway through if necessary. These cookies will keep for up to 1 week in a sealed container.
Recipe adapted from “Biscotti” by Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti.