I’ve been pushing myself to bake more with alternative flours. Playing around with different flavors and textures can be a lot of fun—but it can lead to disaster. A batch of cookies I made with toasted soy flour may be one of the worst things I’ve ever pulled out of an oven. (Using sucanat in place of sugar did not help matters.) But hey, you never know until you try.
Milled from what is allegedly a nearly-forgotten strain of wheat, spelt flour is easier to use than many of the other ancient grain flours on the market. In Berlin, the Du Bonheur bakery uses it in place of other wheat flours because the pastry chef, Anna Plagens, believes it’s easier to digest.
Still, opting for spelt flour in place of conventional wheat flour is not a 1-to-1 switch. Spelt is not gluten-free, but its glutens act differently than standard wheat flours. It feels slightly sandier in texture to me (I have a bag of the whole grain, stone-ground stuff from Bob’s Red Mill), and it does not absorb as much water as regular wheat flour. Some say it tastes slightly sweet. To see how well it performed in a simple recipe, I decided to make biscotti. I would keep the flavors simple so I’d really be able to taste the spelt and assess how to better use it down the road.
My biscotti formula is more like a snack than a decadent treat. It’s perfect with a cup of tea as an afternoon pick-me-up (or a midmorning snack), but it’s not quite sweet enough for dessert. It works with multiple combinations of flavorings, nuts, and flours (pepitas and lime zest are good add-ins), so trying it with spelt flour seemed to make sense.
The first batch I made used sunflower seeds, lemon zest, and cornmeal, but the results were ho-hum. The cookies needed more sugar, and the sunflower seeds needed raisins or something else to make them more dynamic. So I removed the cornmeal and added sliced almonds and almond meal instead.
The results were biscotti with the same sweetness level as an English digestive biscuit or a graham cracker (with a similar toasty flavor) but with the texture of a classic, crumbly biscotti. Almond meal was a better match for slightly nutty spelt than cornmeal.
I like the simplicity of these biscotti, but I also have a hunch that they would be too simple for many people. But there are some easy options for dialing up their impact:
- Dipping them in chocolate would give them the boost they’d need to accompany espresso.
- Adding almond extract and maybe a few fennel seeds would make them a good match for dipping in a glass of passito after dinner.
- Crushing the cookies up would make an excellent topping for a peach or berry compote served with cream.
But back to the spelt: When rolling the spelt dough into logs, it was easy to handle even though it was slightly stickier than it would have been had I used all-purpose flour. But it held its shape beautifully in the oven. For some extra texture on top, I brushed the surface with egg white and sprinkled it with demerara sugar, which helped boost the texture and sweetness.
The real key to success was the second bake. I toasted the biscotti to a deep golden brown. Otherwise, they seemed to go soft within a day and taste uninspiring. (I was also the kid who liked eating graham crackers with slightly burned edges, so I liked the toasty flavor.) This deep-toasted style is not for everyone: When I was working on the SPQR cookbook, Matthew Accarrino told me that he prefers biscotti that are slightly soft in the center. He finds that otherwise they can become a little too much like sawdust and taste like afterthoughts. I’ll let you make the call.
Back to my assessment of spelt: This flour would be a fine candidate for going the chocolate chip-cookie route.
- 100 grams /1 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
- 290 grams / 2 cups whole-grain spelt flour, plus more for dusting
- 25 grams / ½ cup almond meal
- 4 grams / 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 4 grams / 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 113 grams / ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 170 grams / 1 cup packed light muscovado or light brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or almond extract
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- Coarse sugar for coating, such as demerara
- Heat an oven to 350°F. Spread the almonds onto a rimmed baking sheet and toast until they are lightly fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes.
- In a bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, almond meal, salt, and baking powder.
- Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat briefly to soften. Add the sugar and beat until creamy and light golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Beat in the eggs one at a time briefly. Beat in the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour and mix briefly until the dough comes together. Mix in the almonds. Put the dough in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight to allow the flours to hydrate; this reduces the dough’s stickiness, although the dough will still be stickier than biscotti made with all-purpose flour.
- Heat an oven to 350°F. Line a half sheet (13 by 18-inch) pan with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a surface lightly dusted with flour and divide it in half. Roll each half into a 12-inch log, ensuring that the outside of each log is lightly coated in the coarse sugar. Place the logs onto the sheet pan and gently flatten so that each is about 2 inches wide.
- Bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pan and bake for 15 to 20 more minutes or until the tops of the logs are fairly firm and the bottoms are golden brown. Cool to a warm room temperature on the sheet pan, 20 to 30 minutes.
- Lower the oven to 325°F. Use a sharp serrated knife, slice off the ends (I eat them as a snack) and cut the logs crosswise into biscotti about ½ inch-thick each. Divide the slices between two sheet pans.
- Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and quickly flip over the biscotti. (If your fingers are sensitive, you may want to use an small offset spatula to help you flip the pieces over.) Bake for 10 to 15 more minutes or until the biscotti are a deep golden brown on top. Let cool completely on the baking sheet. When stored in an airtight tin, the biscotti will keep for 2 weeks. If they soften, put them back in the oven to refresh them.