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Not to be Forgotten
- by Laura, December 16, 2008
To make little morsels, that is “mostaccioli” in the Milan style
Take fifteen fresh eggs and beat them in a casserole and pass through the sieve with two and a half pounds of sugar fine and powdered, and half an ounce of raw aniseed or partly crushed (aniseed) and a grain or two of fine musk, and put with this two pounds and a half of flour and beat everything for three quarters of an hour, so that it becomes like the pasta for fritters and let it rest for a quarter hour and rebeat it another time. Then one takes a sheet of paper put into a “lucerne” and greased, or a ‘tortiere’ with wafers beneath that have not been bathed in such a way (not greased) and then put this paste into the ‘lucerne’ or ‘tortiere’ (specific pan types) until it is not higher than the thickness of a finger and immediately powder with sugar and put it into the oven that is hot, or the tart pan, and cook it like a tart and when this pasta is cooked (not wet) and will in all lose the humidity and it will be enough cooked, that is like a tender focaccia, pull out the ‘lucerne’ or ‘tortiere’ and immediately cut with a large thin knife, cut in slices as large as two fingers, and as long as one pleases, and put them in the oven with pieces of paper beneath the biscuits, turn them enough, ensure that the oven is not as hot as the one above (second baking is at a lower temp than first), and when they are well dried, pull them out and save them because they are always better the second day than the first and they will keep for a month in their perfection.
--Bartolomeo Scappi, 1570
The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro Cuoco (The Art and Craft of a Master Cook)
Ever since Nancy posted her gorgeous biscotti recipe last week in her badass column, I have been thinking about the history of biscotti and cookies in general. It’s really only during the last 150 or so years, after the arrival of the stove, that cookie baking became so common place among regular people. Before then, baking was more complicated because you had to do it in your brick or stone (or mud/adobe) oven. Not to mention that sugar was expensive, so sweets were reserved for special occassions unless, of course you were rich.
I am posting this beautiful photo so you folks can see what what I mean.
This image comes from the Tacuinum Sanitatas, an Arab medical manual from the 11th century. On baking day, you would build your fire inside the oven, building heat into the walls and floor. Then you’d sweep put all the coals and ashes and put your bread inside and quickly shut the door to seal in the heat. Not long after, the oven temperature would start falling.
Now… back to biscotti. The name really refers to a technique, not any recipe. It means “twice cooked”. You bake a loaf. Then you take it out of the oven and slice it into pieces (or “morsels” as Scappi says), then bake these a second time at a lower temperature until they become hard and dry. Now you can see that the invention of biscotti clearly has everything to do with this falling heat of the brick oven. And by the way....why would you bake these things to death? Preservation for sure. With all the moisture gone, they’d last long. Important before the age of zip lock plastic bags. I think of biscotti as belonging to the same family of hardtack and many other dried foods that could go on long journeys at sea.
The old recipe above comes from the extraordinary Bartolomeo Scappi (c. 1500-1577) a great chef of the Italian Renaissance who was a personal cook to two popes. He may call his biscotti “little morsels” but by whatever name, these are the real deal--twice cooked. And while we’re with Bartolomeo, here’s an
engraving from his book showing a kitchen of the era. Pretty cool, huh? I am not sure--but wonder if that’s the baking oven is on the way back left wall. Note all the various cooking tools about and the hearth in the back.
The term went to France as biscuit--and then to England. Over time biscotti took many directions in many countries and were enhanced variously with sugar and egg and butter.
As to the delicious biscotti we know and love today...if you go nosing around for “authentic” Italian recipes you’ll quickly come across the very famous biscotti de Prato, which come from the city in Tuscany of the same name. They are intended to be dunked in wine or coffee and look like this . These are a wonderful every day sort of luxury, while Nancy’s version are more rich and intensely flavored, a perfect choice Christmas. These are the ones I’m making.
Finally, to get you thinking about baking the old way, here’s a photo of a wood burning oven that belongs to a baker friend in Liguria. Gorgeous, isn’t it? More on this soon.