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City Desk

Biscotti pairs with wine as well with coffee




By Tyler Morrison


Who doesn’t love an age-old dilemma? To be or not to be? Vanilla or chocolate? Stallone or Schwarzenegger? Personally, I rather enjoy any excuse to have a good old-fashioned argument. Luckily, I was recently obliged by some unfortunate soul who had the audacity to refer to a biscotti as a “cookie.” Now, typically I am not one to get wrapped up in a debate over semantics, but I just couldn’t leave this one alone. Calling a biscotti a cookie is like saying that cake is just fancy bread. Now, I like cake. And I like bread. But just because something has flour in it and is cooked in the oven, doesn’t make it all the same product. Here then, in the time-honored tradition of spite, is everything you need to know to win an argument about biscotti.


Though modern biscotti are associated with the Tuscan region of Italy, the popular Italian cookie traces its origins to Roman times. The word biscotto derives from “bis,” Latin for twice, and “coctum” or baked (which became “cotto,” or cooked). The Roman biscotti were more about convenience food for travelers rather than a pleasurable treat for leisurely diners. Unleavened, finger-shaped wafers were baked first to cook them, then a second time to completely dry them out, making them durable for travel and nourishment for the long journeys. Gaius Plinius, the ancient Roman philosopher boasted that they would be edible for centuries (fun fact: Gaius Plinius dictated 37 volumes of the encyclopedia to a scribe while in the bath). Biscotti were a staple of the diet of Roman Legions.


After the fall of the Roman Empire in 455 CE, the country was repeatedly sacked by the Visigoths, the Vandals and others. The people, doing their best to survive, had no time for culinary development. But along with the Renaissance, cuisine also bloomed. Biscotti reemerged in Tuscan, credited to a Tuscan baker who served them with the local sweet wine, Vin Santo. Their dry, crunchy texture was deemed to be the perfect medium to soak up the wine. Centuries later, many still agree that dipping biscotti into Vin Santo is a perfect way to end a meal, or to while away an hour at a café.


Tuscan biscotti were flavored with almonds from the plentiful almond groves of Prato. There, the cookies were, and still are, known as cantucci. Cantucci di Prato can be found in the window of every pasticceria in Tuscany.


Cantucci became a staple in the Tuscan cities of Florence and Prato, and spread throughout the Itialian peninsula, where they were called cantucci (biscotti being a generic term in Italy). As the Roman Legions had appreciated their long storage ability, so did the soldiers, sailors and fisherman of the Renaissance. But now, rather than pallid dry staples for nourishment, Italian bakers put their culinary gifts to work. Biscotti became so popular that every province developed its own flavored version.


From the almond recipe of Tuscany, the recipe expanded to anisette-, amaretto-, and lemon-flavored dough and to other spices; to biscotti with raisins and other dried fruits; to biscotti studded with chocolate morsels and with other varieties of nuts. Today, the flavorings are only limited to the imagination of the baker and the palates of the customer.


A recent tally of flavors for sale on Amazon include:

Apricot Hazelnut, Berry Patriotic (dried cherries and blueberries with white almond), Butterscotch, Cappuccino, Cashew Sesame, Cherry Almond, Chocolate Brownie, Chocolate Cappuccino, Chocolate Cherry Amaretto, Chocolate Hazelnut, Chocolate Macadamia, Chocolate Pistachio, Chocolate Tiramisu, Cinnamon Almond, Cinnamon Hazelnut, Cinnamon Pecan, Cinnamon Sugar, Coconut Chocolate Chunk, Coffee Cashew, Cranberry Almond, Cranberry Orange, Cranberry Walnut, Dark Chocolate, Gingerbread, Hazelnut, Lemon Almond, Lemon Blueberry Poppyseed, Irish Cream Pistachio, Marble, Peanut, Pecan Toffee Pistachio Cranberry, Pistachio Rum, Macadamia Nut, Maple Praline, Mint Almond, Mint Chocolate, Spumoni (combined chocolate, cherry and pistachio), Toffee Currant, Triple Chocolate, White Chocolate.


Biscotti are frequently found Iced with melted chocolate and other frostings, and like other cookies, can be elaborately decorated for special occasions.


As noted, Italians call biscotti cantucci, and use the term biscotti to refer to any type of crunchy cookie, round, square and otherwise—as the British use the word biscuit. In North America, we use biscotti as the ancient Romans did, to describe a long, dry, hard twice-baked cookie (in other words, cantucci).

Most European countries have adopted their own version of biscotti. The British have rusks; the French, biscotte and croquets de carcassonne; Germans, zwieback; Greeks, biskota and paxemadia; Jews, mandelbrot; and Russians, sukhariki. In any language, they taste great with a cup of coffee...or Vin Santo.


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