Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Big Things from Small Kitchens

During my stint in grad school, while living in Boston, I'd do just about anything to get out of writing a paper or preparing for my Master's recital (hmmm...maybe I should have taken that as a hint that I was just not that into my degree program, vocal performance). Unfortunately, I didn't start my baking mania until after I left the apartment that had a large kitchen. No, that started when I had a kitchen as small as a hall closet. One of my grad school friends had a roommate who made delicious biscotti. I wasn't bold enough to ask her for her recipe, but instead mentioned it to my favorite baking teacher, my mom. She found recipe after recipe and sent them to me. So, on my one-foot-square countertop, I made my first batch of biscotti. And, fell in love.

The recipe I prefer is really a mandelbrot (the Jewish version of biscotti, which literally means 'almond bread', since almond was the original flavoring in this crispy treat). Mandelbrot has only eggs in it to hold it together, while biscotti tends to also include butter or oil, which make them a little more like dried out cake or bread. While this is a lovely texture, I find that they leave more soggy crumbs in the bottom of my teacup than I like. If you're looking for a good biscotti recipe, I like to explore Allrecipes.com for something that fits my needs (allrecipes.com biscotti recipes). I love checking out the reviews for other bakers' comments to determine if it's a good recipe or not.

I've moved several times over the years, from Boston, back home to Minnesota, with apartments and homes all over the Twin Cities, only to end up with yet another small kitchen (see the photo above, with the 'friendly sink' of warm, soapy water). This time, my counter could have more than 4-square-feet of space, if only I didn't clutter it up with a toaster, a big jar full of utentils and a cluster of unwashed dishes (usually teacups from the day before). I'm right back to where I started, then, with one-square-foot of space in which to make my mark on the baking world.

The recipe that follows is from my early Bramblewood days, when I was mainly delivering to coffee shops. One of the shops decided to do a dunk test, with my biscotti up against another popular biscotti, dipped for a good dunk in a cup of joe. While both held a nice amount of coffee, mine didn't leave as many crumbs as the other biscotti. Again, even though their biscotti was delicious, it had that cakier texture that crumbles more easily under super-dunking conditions. Not that my biscotti is break-your-teeth hard; rather, it is dense and crispy.

Cherry Apricot Biscotti
3/4 cup chopped dried tart cherries (or craisins)
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1 1/2 tsp orange extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp fresh orange zest

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine cherries, apricots and orange extract. In a mixing bowl, place flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, orange zest and fruit mixture. Stir to combine. In the fruit mixture bowl, beat eggs and vanilla lightly. Blend the eggs and vanilla into the dry mixture.

Turn dough onto a well-floured surface. Lightly knead dough to form a smooth surface and cut into two equal portions. Elongate dough to form two long logs. Transfer to a parchment covered baking sheet and flatten logs to one-inch high and 4-inches wide.

Bake for 40 minutes, until light golden. Dough should spring back to the touch.

Cool for 5 minutes, until cool enough to handle (do not cool completely, though, since it will be tougher to cut). Transfer to a cutting board. With a sharp, serrated knife, cut each loaf into 1/2 inch slices.

Place biscotti, sliced side up, on the baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes more, or until golden brown. Flip the biscotti halfway through the baking time. They will still be soft when they come out of the oven - they'll harden as they cool.

Store in an airtight container. If they soften (due to humidity), bake at 350 for a few minutes to crisp them up.

Yield: around 36 biscotti

Variation: Triple Chocolate Biscotti. Instead of fruit, orange extract and zest, add 1 1/2 cups toasted and slightly chopped almonds,1 1/4 cups slightly chopped chocolate chips, and 2 tbsp really good cocoa powder. After they are twice-baked and cooled, dip them in melted chocolate.

A quick tip for melting chocolate chips: place the chips in a bowl and microwave on 50% power for one minute, then stir. Continue microwaving in 30 second increments, until the chips can barely hold their shape. Remove and stir until smooth. Throw in a small handful of chocolate chips to bring it to the right temperature. Any water that accidently gets into the chocolate at this point will cause it to seize, and you won't be able to fix it (but you could add cream and turn it into sauce for ice cream!). Also, the almonds really should be toasted prior to baking with them. They have so much more flavor and crunch than their softer, raw predecessors.

So, if you're thinking your kitchen is too small or that you don't have the skills to bake or any other excuse that might keep you from making these easy, satifying biscotti, take a look at the picture at the top of this blog post. Because, I started small in so many ways and now big things come from that small kitchen.

P.S. Just so you know, I did finish graduate school and am the proud holder of a Master's Degree in Vocal Performance from New England Conservatory. Fat lot of good it did me. I still ended up baking...and happier for it.