- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Now is the time of year when everyone starts thinking seriously about baking. Many people will be making treats this week for Halloween parties. Then, just a few weeks later, comes Thanksgiving - and, before you know it, you’re baking cookies for the holidays.

So, before you start baking, let me offer one of the most important pieces of advice any baker will hear: Don’t undercook baked goods!

That may sound like obvious advice. After all, nobody wants to eat undercooked food. But it’s surprising how many people don’t cook baked goods long enough.

How many times have you taken a bite of a pale cookie and been left unimpressed? That’s because flour develops more flavor when it browns, just like meats, sugars and other ingredients do. Furthermore, cooking long enough ensures that baked goods meant to be crisp or crunchy turn out with just the right texture, an important element of any recipe’s success.

Yet, many cooks are timid about browning. They take things out of the oven too soon, when they’re blonde rather than golden brown. And the results suffer. (I have to admit that inattentive cooks can also err in the other direction, accidentally burning baked goods instead of browning them.)

So I’m especially happy when sweet baked good recipes almost have built-in guarantees that they’ll be cooked correctly. That’s the case with biscotti.

The name of these popular Italian cookies explains why: They’re “twice cooked.” You shape the dough into a large, oblong, flattened loaf and bake it once; then, when the loaf has cooled, you cut it crosswise into thin slices, place them flat on the baking sheet, and bake a second time until they’re browned and crisp. The dough itself is fairly easy to make, although a stand mixer makes the work go even faster.

Three decades ago, the only biscotti you could find were simple anise-flavored varieties, sometimes embellished with almonds or hazelnuts. Nowadays these cookies come in great variety, containing all kinds of different flavorings or nuts. (I use pistachios in the recipe here, but you could substitute almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts or others of your choice.) To my surprise, however, many bakers still make a mistake with them - not undercooking them, but cutting them too thick, so that what should be brittle and shatter easily with the first bite instead runs the risk of sending you to the dentist!

Baked and sliced correctly, biscotti are indeed a wonderful treat. Store them in an airtight container and they’ll keep for several weeks, ready to enjoy as an accompaniment to a fruit dessert, a scoop of ice cream, a cup of coffee, a glass of dessert wine or a tumbler of cold milk.

CHOCOLATE AND PISTACHIO BISCOTTI

Makes 3 dozen

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon amaretto liqueur (optional)

1/4 cup (60 ml) dry white wine

1 cup (250 ml) sugar

Pinch of salt

2 1/4 cups (560 ml) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1/2 cup (125 ml) cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup (250 ml) shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped with a large knife or cleaver

1 large egg white, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 C). Line a large baking sheet with baking parchment paper. Lightly spray the paper with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat the eggs with a fork until foamy. Whisk in the amaretto and wine. Gradually beat in the sugar and salt until well blended. Set aside.

If using a stand mixer, sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder into the work bowl. Using the paddle attachment, turn on the machine to the low setting and add the egg mixture. Raise the speed to medium and beat until a dough forms on the paddle; if the dough is very sticky, beat in up to 1/4 cup (60 ml) more flour. Change to the dough hook and continue beating, while gradually adding the pistachios. Turn off the machine. Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand until smooth, about 1 minute.

If making the dough by hand, sift the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center, add the egg mixture and stir with a fork until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened and form a crumbly dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and, gradually incorporating the pistachios, knead by hand until smooth.

Shape the dough into a log 12 inches (30 cm) long and 4 inches (10 cm) wide and place it on the prepared baking sheet. Brush with the beaten egg white. Bake until the log has expanded and is dark brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack to cool the log for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees (150 C).

Using a serrated bread knife, cut the log diagonally into slices about 1/3 inch (8 mm) thick. Place the slices flat, side by side on the baking sheet. Bake until they look dry and dark brown, about 20 minutes. With a spatula, transfer the biscotti to the wire rack to cool completely before serving or storing in an airtight container.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)

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