Almond Spelt Biscotti

almond spelt biscotti
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.

Sunflower and lemon spelt biscotti
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.

almond spelt biscotti after the second bake

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.

almond spelt biscotti crumbs

Almond Spelt Biscotti
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Refrigerating the dough overnight allows the spelt flour time to absorb liquid from the eggs and makes the dough much easier to handle. To boost the almond flavor, add almond extract. And to really go Italian, add a teaspoon of fennel seeds.
Recipe type: cookies
Serves: 54 biscotti
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  1. 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.
  2. In a bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, almond meal, salt, and baking powder.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

 

Tasting Notes: Sicilian White Wines

Sicilian white wines at A16SF

In 2007, when Shelley and I sat down to write about grapes for A16 Food + Wine, there wasn’t much new to talk about in the world of Sicilian white wines. Apart from the luscious dessert wines produced on the island of Pantelleria, Sicilian white wines—at least the ones reaching the U.S. at the time—tended to be mixed bag. Many were tropical fruit bombs made with international grapes. These exports overshadowed the nuanced, experimental wines made with native grapes that were starting to percolate on the local scene.

“Sicilian whites have been so underrepresented,” Shelley explained to me Wednesday when I stopped by to join a few members of the A16 and SPQR teams for a tasting of some of the island’s whites. “It used to be that many of the wines were very pineapple-y—and not in a good way. They often tasted overripe.”

But, Shelley continued, the native grapes have always had lot of potential; they were just waiting for vintners to tune into more nuanced ways to showcase their qualities. In the past five or six years, these wines not only have emerged on the international wine scene but also have become favorites among wine writers and sommeliers. Not bad for a region once known for growing white blending grapes for Marsala. [click to continue…]

Mattapoisett Lobster Boil

Eating lobster

Seasons come and go in California with only slight changes. In good years, rain helps delineate winter from the six-month dry spell we call summer, but as it’s been well documented, it has been unusually warm and dry since December.

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In New England, seasons are much more important. Labor Day is the bittersweet demarkation of the end of summer, bringing with it a shift in mentality away from vacation and toward work. [click to continue…]

It Started in Naples

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Our trip had an inauspicious beginning. A day after arriving in Naples, I set off on a ferry with Shelley Lindgren, the wine director of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco. We were bound for Ischia, a picturesque island in the Gulf of Naples known for, among other things, wines made with the local Biancolella grape.

When the ferry docked ahead of schedule, we followed everyone else aboard and hopped off—on the island of Procida, as it turned out, although it took an embarrassingly long time for us to realize we were in the wrong place.

I went up to an older Italian gentleman pulled, apparently, from central casting.

“Ischia?” I asked, pointing to the ferry terminal.

“Procida,” he corrected.

“Si, ma, ah, Ischia, ah…”

“All’ una.” Another ferry wouldn’t be coming until 1 p.m.

Procida, it turned out, was known for its prison, not its wine. Shelley pulled out her Trio (this was the pre-iPhone era) and scrambled to find a number to call to let the Ischian winemakers know that we would be at least four hours late. And then we sat in a café near the harbor, shared a ham and cheese panino, and waited for the next ferry to arrive.

This was January of 2007. Shelley was six months pregnant and in her last window of opportunity to travel abroad. I was a very green journalist. Although I had cooked at A16 a few years earlier, Shelley and I didn’t know each other all that well. Yet we had somehow finagled a book deal to write A16 Food + Wine and so we dove into the book-creation process, learning as we went along. Still, as we sat gazing out onto what I later learned had been the setting for the movie Il Postino, I had little understanding that this trip would forever inform my understanding of Italian food and wine culture. [click to continue…]

Whole-Grain Waffling

Whole Grain Waffles

It makes no sense that waffling on an issue means you can’t make up your mind. I waffle about most quotidian decisions—but never about waffles. If they’re there for the taking, I’m there for the eating.

I could probably eat waffles most days, but they seem to be appropriate only on weekends when lugging out a waffle iron, heating it until it chirps, and assembling a batter doesn’t come with the guilt of avoiding more important things. Plus, weekday breakfasts tend to be more solitary than weekend brunches, and eating waffles should be done with company.

Part of what’s great about waffles is their texture. The waffle pattern provides plenty of crisp surface area to hold syrup, jam, or yogurt. I love how easy it is to pull them into squares or wedges by following the seams seared into them by the iron. Convenience! Even bad waffles aren’t all that bad. (The same isn’t so for bad pancakes.) If waffles turn out a little dense or a little soft, they are still waffles and therefore good to eat.

While I like the eggy soufflé quality of big Belgian waffles—the kind made by separating the whites from the yolks, beating the whites into a stiff foam, and folding them gently into the batter—lately, my preference in the morning is for something homelier with more substance. I want whole grains that will stick with me so I’m not hungry in an hour. [click to continue…]

Chiles, Garlic, Anchovies Put to the Test, Plus a Few New Books

Grilled shrimp with chile-anchovy sauce
An update on the mild, umami-rich condiment I made a week or so ago: After testing the chile-garlic-anchovy sauce on grilled shrimp, even already-peeled grilled shrimp that were “grilled” indoors on a cast-iron grill pan (in other words, under less-than perfect circumstances), I give the sauce/shrimp combo a solid thumbs up. This little condiment experiment reminded me how easy it is to put together good meals when you already have a few flavor boosters on hand.

Which is why, after making a recipe for a small batch of pickled red cabbage from Andrea Nguyen’s new book, The Banh Mi Handbook, I have yet to put it on banh mi. Instead, I’ve eaten it in salad, alongside grilled chicken and rice, and on top of a homemade veggie burger made in by following Food52‘s instructions. The patty needed some oomph (my veggie burger game is severely lacking), and Andrea’s pickled cabbage did just the trick. So I will just have to make more when actual banh mi happens. [click to continue…]

Tricks of the Trade: Chiles, Garlic, Anchovies

Happy Quail Chiles

After I wrote about some of the tricks of the trade I’ve picked up while working on cookbooks, I had an email exchange with Heidi Krahling, whom I worked with recently on her second book. She was curious: What tips did I pick up from her, really?

Heidi owns two popular restaurants in San Anselmo, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. Insalata’s is her tribute to her first food love—Mediterranean (she comes from a large Italian family, and Insalata is her maiden name). Marinita’s, her restaurant down the street, focuses on her second food love, Latin American, and mostly Mexican. Despite all this, she is quite humble about her accomplishments. For Heidi, it’s how she would do any other job: working hard to do things the right way—day in, day out.

But there is a reason people keep coming back for her fresh, healthful food: flavor. While working with Heidi, I learned about tarator, a tahini, nut, and seed blend and houriya, a harissa-spiked sweet-savory dip made from carrots or parsnips. Both are often cycled into Insalata’s trio of dips, which she serves with warm pita wedges. She also taught me that verdolagas—she uses them in a braised pork in salsa verde at Marinita’s—are the same thing as purslane.

Heidi’s second book is due out November 1st, just in time for the holidays. (An entire chapter is dedicated to Thanksgiving, in case you’re looking for turkey inspiration.) In this second book, she offers great ideas for condiments and vinaigrettes. I used one of her ideas—chile jam—as a springboard for this garlicky condiment. [click to continue…]

Tricks of the Trade: Meet the Dough Roller

pastry roller

One of the reasons I collaborate on cookbooks is to pick up new tricks. Every book I’ve co-written has given me plenty of new ideas to apply to my own cooking style.

With A16 Food + Wine, it was the wonderful world of Campania–particularly its wines (Fiano!), citrus fruit, peppers, and tuna conserva. I learned how easy it is to cook an octopus. With The Preservation Kitchen, it was an understanding about acidity and botulism and, basically, how to not be freaked out about canning. I learned that pickling liquid makes a great base for vinaigrette. With SPQR Modern Italian Food + Wine, it was ancient-meets-modern Italy, with its fast-paced cities and autostrade and itslow-paced foods and wines. I learned that a sharp pair of scissors is much better at trimming delicate herbs and vegetables than a knife. And with Insalata’s and Marinita’s (due out this fall), I learned how toasting farro in olive oil before cooking it makes the grain much more flavorful. 

The most recent book project is Cookie Love, or what I lovingly refer to as The Mindy Cookie Project. For this one, I dove down a dessert rabbit hole with Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate in Chicago. I’ve always liked to bake. But before The Mindy Project began, I had never made basic pastry things, like hot fudge. (This was quickly remedied–Mindy’s recipe is foolproof.)  Since working on this book, I have had plenty of opportunities to hone my skills in pastry technique.

For this book, most of the shortbread dough needs to be rolled out into a flat sheet, like you would if rolling out pie crust. Then you can bust out the cookie cutters. I am decently proficient with a rolling pin, but I’m always looking for ways to make the rolling process faster and less fussy. Sometimes you want to spot-treat a too-thick area that’s too small to warrant a whole rolling pin, for example. Mindy had a solution. She introduced me to the dough roller/pastry roller. [click to continue…]

Summer Fruit Mashup, and Clafoutis

Blueberry Apricot Clafoutis

Grocery stores in Berkeley are generally frenetic places, but during the summer when they are also overflowing more than normal with produce, they become obstacle courses. Apricots! Plums! Yellow Plums! Plumcots! Dino Pluots! Attack of the stone fruits and their mashups.

Earlier this week, I walked by an enormous bin of blueberries and scooped up a couple of pounds. They were a good price. I needed some for a compote for cookies from Mindy’s book (blueberry kolachkes) and the rest would be for me. And then I passed pretty red-orange, semi-soft apricots. So what the heck? Into the cart they went. I didn’t sample either before buying; I was on a mission to get out of Berkeley Bowl in under 30 minutes.

I got home, unloaded the goods, and popped a few blueberries in my mouth. Disappointing. They were sweet but flabby, with none of the acidic spine that all good blueberries should have. If you put these in a smoothie, you’d have bland, lightly sweetened (but very purple) goo. They would make a lackluster blueberry pie. Maybe I could turn them into a syrup, but I’d need a lot lemon or lime juice to make it all worth it.

Blueberry Apricot Clafoutis
Onto the apricots. They tasted as if they’d been injected with lemon juice. Too sour. Those were going to be a challenge, too.  What to do…

Bingo. I’d combine them. [click to continue…]

Gallo Pinto: The Stuff of Surf Vacations

gallo pinto, costa rica
I was not born to surf. That calling went to my brother, Joe. Surfing always looked a tad scary. It’s one thing to stare down a wave and know that you can dive underneath to avoid getting caught in an oceanic tumble cycle. It’s another when you have a big board strapped to one ankle that could bash into you and knock out a tooth or an eye. Swimming, boogie boarding, snorkeling—I was comfortable with those water sports. But my sister and I left surfing all to my brother.

But challenges are good, and so is a tropical beach vacation. That’s how I found myself at surf camp in Tamarindo, a beach town in Costa Rica. A group of us from San Francisco arrived in town for one thing and one thing only (mostly): To surf.

tamarindo sunset

[click to continue…]