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Growing up Italian: The “abominable” Biscotti

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My maternal grandmother was what one would call- nowadays- a fashionista.

Living “la dolce vita” in Firenze (Florence) at the eve of WWII could have been glamorous. She took full advantage of it. Married to my grandfather, a Marshall of the Italian Army, she attended the Opera wearing the latest fashion, and purchased her shoes from Salvatore Ferragamo, who back then was just emerging as a promising shoemaker in Italy.

Grandpa, Mom and Grandma in Firenze Italy. May 15 1941

Her lifestyle changed when Italy got hit by the war, and my grandfather got seriously wounded. The family moved back to Nonna’s village on the border between Umbria and Tuscany. Her untamable spirit, sharp mind,bright red lipstick and platinum blond hair, remained unaltered and withstood relentlessly the passing years, until she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 96.

Nonna was a good cook, but her mother, my great grandma Annetta, was superb.
I got to know her in my youth since she also had the gift of longevity. As a teenager, though, I wasn’t as much into cooking as I was into eating. Now I wish I had paid more attention.

Annetta’s  kitchen skills though, have left a legacy through a family staple: her cookies. A concoction of dry fruits, nuts and wine creates an incredible combination that pops into your mouth with unexpected bursts of flavors without being too sweet. We never really had a name for those cookies we just referred to them as “biscotti della nonna Annetta” or Grandma’s biscotti (technically cookies, but all cookies are called biscotti in Italy)

The cookies are a hybrid between a southern Italian cookie called Cuccidati and some northern African ones called Ma’amoul.

The abominable Cookie: Biscotti della Nonna Annetta

Have you ever tried to ask for a recipe from an Italian?  I hear your frustration! There is no recipe! “A little bit of this, a handful of that..and cook it until it’s done”

Sketchy directions and proportions are given verbally from person to person. Nevertheless, like by some sort of kitchen miracle, exquisite dishes appear… each time with a little mutation, of course.

I think this is exactly how these cookies entered our family tradition: the directions were verbally given to Nonna Annetta who made it hers, developing a recipe that could make everybody happy. How could it not, with Wine in the dough!!

Now, what I’m about to propose, is yet ANOTHER small mutation of the recipe that has been in my family for as long as I can remember, at least 50 years. Why? Well, first I wanted to give the cookies a more consistent look, secondly I had to give you written quantities since approximation is not my thing, either.

This is where my Zio Fabio (Uncle Fabio) comes into play. Uncle Fabio is  my mom’s youngest brother. He was just a teenager when I was born, and we used to “hang out” together a lot.

Zio Fabio and I, just chillin'. Miramare di Rimini. summer 1967
Zio Fabio and I, just chillin’. Miramare di Rimini. summer 1967

These days Fabio is a retired engineer who spent most of his life surfing the globe building Natural Gas pipelines. I remember growing up, the joy and excitement we would experience when we would get one of his postcards from the Persian Gulf or the South Pole.

Uncle Fabio is an excellent cook who lives in between Milano, where he easily navigates the food scene, and the sleepy town of Fano, on the Adriatic coast, where he likes sailing and cooking with the local seafood.

We are still very close. In fact, I would say he’s the one that keeps me connected to the rest of the family in Italy, since he’s the most technologically equipped of the bunch.

Utah 2011. Hiking to the Delicate Arch with uncle Fabio
Utah 2011. Hiking to the Delicate Arch with uncle Fabio

When Uncle sees my creations, a fusion of America meets Italy, he calls such dishes ABOMINATIONS since they obviously stray from the traditional Italian standards.

So, here you have it today: Another little slice of my life, an old family recipe without a name, and a cookie that is a total abomination…

Until next time: Ciao! and Mangia!

[gn_box title=”BISCOTTI DELLA NONNA ANNETTA” color=”#253″]

DSCF4076Makes about 2 dozen cookies

Note: The filling of the cookies needs to be prepared the day before. Plan accordingly.

Dough Ingredients:

2 C all purpose flour plus some for rolling the dough.
Measure the flour by scooping it onto the measuring cup, then level it off with the back of a knife. Do not tap or shake the cup, or you will add unnecessary amounts of flour.
a pinch of salt
1/2 C granulated sugar
1/2 C sweet dry wine (I use Marsala)
1/2 C vegetable oil such as Organic Canola or grapeseed oil

Directions: in a large bowl, combine all ingredients, and mix with your hands until they come together forming a dough. Cover and rest for a few minutes while you pre heat the oven at 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Filling ingredients:

3/4 C currants or raisins
zest of a lemon
2 T finely chopped candied zests of a citrus (I used candied orange skins)
3/4 C chopped walnuts lightly toasted
3 T honey
3/4 C chopped dry figs and dates or just one or the other
3/4 C of sweet wine like Marsala or whatever you have available (sometimes I use Grand Marnier or Cognac, too)

Soak the currants in the wine/ liquor and warm up the mixture. Add the remaining ingredients and soak overnight. The liquid should be all absorbed by morning, if not, strain the mixture and set aside.

Assembly :
Roll out the dough to about 1/8 ” thick. It will be quite fragile, oily but it’s ok.
Upon baking the texture will change to a dry one.
Using a cookie cutter, ( mine is 3″ in diameter) cut out circles or dough. Place about 1 tsp of filling in the center. Fold over the edges, and press to close. Press tightly otherwise the dough will open during baking. To prevent this, I roll the rounds and then pinch the edges like on the pictures below. The look you are after should resemble a half moon or a “mini empanada”.


Place on the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
You can re-knead and re-roll scraps of dough, but the more you do that the more the dough will become hard, so try to get as many circles you can on the first attempt.

Place in the oven and increase temperature to 375F (I use a static oven, if you have convection keep the temperature at 350F) for about 20 or until golden brown.
Dust with powder sugar before serving.

These dry cookies will taste better the following day, and will keep for about 1 week in an airtight container. They are typically consumed with a morning Cappuccino or in the afternoon with tea. They taste delicious also soaked in a sweet wine like Vino Santo since they are not sweet at all.

Grazie and enjoy!

If you don’t have an original Ma’amoul cookie form, you can shape the cookies freestyle.
This is how the “freestyle” cookies look like. Uneven and oily dough is ok. It all will change while baking.The finished product: lightly golden around the edges and on the bottom.


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