I didn't understand biscotti when Tony first introduced me to it years ago. This strange-looking, dry, oblong Italian cookie had nothing in common with the chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies I knew.

But once I'd had my first taste of biscotti, I kept coming back for more.

This popular cookie can be traced back to the days of the early Romans, who valued it for its hard texture and long shelf life which made it well suited for long journeys.

In 1867, Italian pastry chef Antonio Mattei put his Tuscan hometown of Prato on the map when his biscotti received a special mention at the second World's Fair in Paris.

The hard, dry nature of biscotti makes them ideal for dunking, and in Italy, biscotti are traditionally served with a fortified dessert wine called Vin Santo. Purists insist that this is the only way to enjoy biscotti, claiming that only foreigners would use another beverage such as coffee, tea, espresso or milk.

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However, every time I've visited Tony's family in Sicily, where breakfast is an afterthought, his Zia (aunt) Pinuccia would always offer us espresso with biscotti in the morning. So, dunk your biscotti as you like.

Biscotti receive their signature hard texture from being baked twice: the first baking sets the dough, while the second baking dries out any remaining moisture. I love the versatility of biscotti, which can be made in a variety of flavors combinations, including both sweet and savory options.

My go-to recipe is a classic almond version, which I serve both plain and dipped in chocolate. It is so easy to make that you can mix it by hand, but it's also very sticky so I use my stand mixer.

In keeping with Italian tradition, this simple recipe uses no butter or oil and has only eight ingredients: eggs, almonds, vanilla and almond extracts, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Quality ingredients are a must for good baking, so make sure to use pure vanilla and almond extracts for the best result.

Recently, I came across a recipe for savory cheddar biscotti from American food journalist Mark Bittman and decided to give it a try. This recipe is even simpler than my sweet version, using only six ingredients including eggs, cheddar cheese, flour, baking powder, salt and a touch of cayenne pepper.

These cheddar biscotti were a delightful surprise and received an "Outstanding!" verdict from Tony, who could not stop eating them. I made them again for a party, this time in a smaller, cracker-sized version, which made them the perfect partner for a hot bacon dip.

The baking is really the only challenge to making biscotti, as it is done in stages and takes a good hour from start to finish. But, if you have some patience and a reliable timer, you'll be just fine.

Biscotti are easy to make, long-lasting, versatile in flavor and strangely addictive - what's not to love?

Classic Almond Biscotti

Ingredients:

3/4 cup whole almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon almond extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

4 ounces semi-sweet or milk chocolate, finely chopped (optional, for dipping)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla and almond extracts.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then gently stir in the almonds. Add the egg mixture and stir on the lowest setting until a dough forms.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead it into a ball, then divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a 7-inch log and use your hands to gently press and flatten the dough until it is about 4 inches wide. (Dampen your hands if needed, to prevent them from sticking to the dough.)

Transfer the logs onto the parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the dough is firm to the touch and lightly golden. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes. Don't let the dough cool for longer than that, or it may become too hard to cut.

Transfer the logs to a cutting board and use a serrated knife to cut each log into slices, on the bias (diagonal), about ¼ to ½-inch thick.

Lay the slices on baking sheet and bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, then turn the slices over and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container for several weeks, or freeze for at least 2 to 3 months.

For chocolate-dipped biscotti: Fill a small saucepan with an inch of water and bring it to a gentle simmer. Place half of the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and place it over the saucepan, making sure that it completely covers the top.

Gently stir until all the chocolate has melted, then remove from heat and use a wooden spoon to stir in the remaining chocolate until is completely melted. Dip as desired, and place on parchment or wax paper to dry. Refrigerate for 10 minutes until chocolate has hardened.

Savory Cheddar Biscotti

Very lightly adapted from a recipe from Mark Bittman

Ingredients:

2 eggs

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Use the grating attachment of your food processor to grate the cheese, then switch to the blade. Add the eggs and process until yellow and thick, about one minute. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and cayenne and pulse just three or four times, just to integrate the dry ingredients; you don't want to overwork the gluten in the flour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead it until it holds together. Shape the dough into an 8 to 10 inch log, transfer to the prepared baking sheet and use your hands to gently flatten until 3 to 4 inches wide. For a smaller cookie, divide the dough in half and shape each half into an 8 to 10 inch log, then gently flatten until about 2 inches wide.

Bake until the log begins to color and is firm to the touch, about 25 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes, then cut on the bias into ¼- ½ inch slices.

Lay the biscotti flat on the baking sheet and bake until crisp and toasted, 15 minutes; turn and toast the second side for another 10 to 15 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

Store in an airtight container for several weeks.

Sarah's Tips:

  • Use pure vanilla and almond extracts for best flavor result.
  • Coarsely chop the almonds into pieces that are large enough to be visible within the cookie.
  • This is a great base recipe, and you can enhance it with citrus zest, different nuts, flavored liqueurs, dried fruits and chocolate.
  • For best results, store biscotti in a metal tin or glass jar, as plastic will soften the texture.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 12-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.

All previous recipes can be found at thelostitalian.areavoices.com.