I can’t cook much in these days, and to be fair, I cannot even eat much. But this is not stopping me from being obsessed with food. I am particularly in the mood for baking, or better, I’d be, if I could stand with free hands. In the end, baking is where it all started, for me at least. New, delicious recipes pop up every day and I just realized how many things I have not tried so far – I want to make a Christmas Pudding and age it for a couple of months; I have never baked a pudding though I have a whole cookbook on them; I have not even tried a fruit cake, and here I find the most delicious dried fruits at the market; I have never made a Black Forest Gateaux and here they make it so good that I changed my mind on its old-fashioned charms. But if I could have my leg back for a couple of hours, I’d probably go for cookies. It’s been ages since I last baked some because of health considerations etc., and now it is just the right moment for them. They are in season.
Going through my archives I found a picture of these biscotti. I remember this batch was not the best one ever because I could not find the right flour type, so they ended up being a little dry. They are maybe the first recipe I learned, a family recipe which at least my grandmother made for sure. I have eaten them for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it is good to bake something so familiar, instead of experimenting.
My grandparents lived in a big house with a garden. The house was in a medium-sized village on the mainland in front of Venice, going towards the mountains. The landscape is totally flat, hot and humid in summer and cold and humid in winter. I developed my love for cycling as the best way to explore the land there: my grandfather loved to collect abandoned bicycles and keep them in the garage. You never got a whole working one but you always had a vast choice of half decent ones, flattening your bottoms with a bad saddle or not breaking at all, but still able to carry you around at a very leisurely pace. Now the landscape has considerably changed – wine has expanded, though historically the wine produced there was of poorer quality than the one grown on the hills nearby; besides, a lot of place is taken by industries and their infrastructures. At that time fruit was grown in large quantities, and vegetables, and corn. The farmer’s market often offered fresh products from the local orchards and vegetable patches, and the fishmongers would display the night’s catch with the freshness you can get only very close to the sea. The thing I miss the most is salad. There is a tradition there for small salad leaves, bitter and sweet and all crunchy. They sold rocket way before it became fashionable in the rest of Italy; it was to be mixed with lamb’s lettuce, baby lettuce leaves, baby spinach, and a small-leaved green radicchio who is edible in salad only when it is very young and fresh, with a distinctive bitter note.
The most cultivated cereal is corn there. The traditional variety is a white one, with which a very thick polenta is made, usually served grilled with fish. White polenta and ink black cuttlefish, cooked to melting tenderness, is a stunning dish. Corn is part of the history and the problems of this region. Before the Second World War centuries of extreme poverty plagued the people living there. Literally starving: pellagra was widespread: an illness due to lack on vitamin B, linked to the amino acid tryptophan being poorly available. The poor only ate corn, and this quite often killed them.
The inheritance of this sad past is in the traditional recipes linked with corn. These yellow cookies are called zaeti, which in Italian would be ‘gialletti’, little yellow things. It is easy to find them in Venice, offered for tourists, but the way they look there is totally wrong. The are too large and sturdy; furthermore there are plenty of creatively flavoured variations and to be fair, this is no recipe for tweaking. They will be nice cookies if you tweak them, but they won’t be zaeti, just corn-based pastry.
A humble biscuit, and still amazingly rich for a poor land. Clearly rich man’s table fare. I grew up with their flavour and texture and I love them for what they are. Most of the people who have tasted them really liked them. There is great elegance in their simplicity.
Just one warning: it is not easy to find the right flour type. In Italy there exist basically three varieties of corn meal: bramata, which is coarse-grained and great for making coarse polenta; fioretto, thinner, right for making very soft polenta; and fumetto, as fine as pastry flour and used for cakes and biscuits. Not these ones, though. Fioretto is what works here. Too thin a flour and you can easily end up with a boring biscuits, without any of its typical, delicious soft crunch outside and tender interior, dense without being stodgy. Over the years I have tried different substitutions: often the right corn flour is not easy to come by even in neighbouring Lombardia. When I am not sure, I go for a coarse polenta flour and give it a grind with a blender. Make sure you don’t use precooked polenta, this does not work at all.
On the cooking time: some people like them a bit undercooked, others like them almost brown. They are both very good and I have not decided yet which one I like the best. My mom’s oven helps – it is so big it never cooked evenly, and while this is usually a huge nuisance, with these cookies I always get all degrees of cooking point, which I love. If you are not a huge fan of crunch I’d cook them until just slightly golden underneath and at the edges and stop there. You can vary the size of them as well. Maximum allowed size is one tablespoon of dough, for home style cookies that will be a reasonable amount to dip in your coffee. You can go as low as one teaspoon and make small, almost shaped like confetti: then they become a very special present for someone (they keep well).
300 gr all-purpose white flour
300 gr corn meal (medium ground, see note above: in Italy look for Fioretto flour)
200 gr butter, room temperature
200 gr sugar
1 pinch of salt
50 gr dried raisins or currants
50 gr pine nuts
icing sugar for garnish
Wash and soak the raisins in a little warm water. Mix the two flours throughly with 1/1 teaspoon fine salt. Drain the raisins, dry them and toss them with a little flour (this helps distribute evenly).
Work the soft butter with the sugar until you have a cream, then mix in eggs, flour, pine nuts and raisins. Mix into a dough, working with a wooden spoon or a handheld mixer with hook attachment. Form a ball, wrap in plastic and leave to rest in a cold place for at least half an hour. When ready to bake preheat the oven to 180- 200 Celsius. Take about a scant tablespoonful of dough and shape it like an almond or a big drop between the palms of your hands. You want the thickness of it to be not too even – the oval shape is what gives it its characteristic. Arrange on a baking sheet keeping a little distance between each cookie (they grow a little, not much). Bake for about 10′ then check the colour. When slightly brown at the edges and underneath they are done.
Leave to cool completely on a rack, then sprinkle with icing sugar, vanilla flavoured if you like. They keep well in a tin.