I graduated from high school in January of 1974, three weeks after I turned 18. I couldn’t wait to graduate, and after that, I couldn’t wait to move out. My friend Susy and I looked for an apartment together in the old downtown of Sacramento. We settled on a one bedroom apartment with the address 1917 18th Street. It was, I believe, between the lettered streets “S” and “T.” My half of the rent was a whopping forty-seven dollar and fifty cents. Our one bedroom was on the alley. Susy thought it best that we each keep a weapon under our beds, just in case. She had a cleaver, and I had a hammer (like the song). We never came close to using either one.
I had a great time in that first apartment. My friend Randy gave me a white kitten I named Jenny. We weren’t supposed to have pets, but we thought it would be fine if the manager, who was a relatively young man, didn’t know. But Jenny would find her way up onto the window sill in front of the drawn curtains (of course), so we got found out. But the manager liked the cat so much he relented, and let us keep her. I can still remember sitting on the front porch slab, the front door open, with John Denver belting Rocky Mountain High out on my stereo. Oh, the 70s. And when the actual graduation ceremony came in June, we had a party. An older friend who was 21 bar-tended on our ironing board, making tequila sunrises for everyone. The cat even had a few sips and wound up asleep in the laundry basket, but unharmed.
My Dad had not been at all excited about my moving out. In fact, he spent the day I moved out in bed, ostensibly with the flu. I think he was actually sick, but my Dad was rarely sick, and so part of it was a kind of broken heart. He thought I was throwing my life away, taking a “break” from full time college courses, and working at a family owned department store. I was giddy with independence and new found freedom, and couldn’t understand why he would be worried about me, or think I was wasting my life. It was a tough time in our relationship. We rarely spoke.
When it came time for his birthday in late April, I wanted to do something to ease the strain. It was a stretch to think of anything we wouldn’t butt heads on. Then I remembered my Aunt Ann Melchiorre’s biscotti. My Dad loved these, along with a commercial version of them Stella Doro makes, called Anisette Cookies. I went to my Aunt, and copied down her directions for biscotti. I still have the smudged and stained recipe card, written in my young woman’s hand:
I made these with all the care I could muster, and they came out great. I picked out a card at the department store for a father and daughter that did not sugar-coat the problems, but said how the love carried us through them. I gave these to my Dad. And he cried. It was the only time I had seen him do that up to that point in my young life.
It would become my pride and joy to make these biscotti each year at Christmas, knowing they were something he loved, and that I had been the first in our family to master the technique of how to make them. My sister would go on to culinary school, and make amazing variations of biscotti based on this basic recipe. For a season she went into business selling them herself, and I drew her a logo with a trullo on it (the name of the unique ancestral house in the village Alberobello, Puglia, where my father’s side of the family is from, but actually not where the biscotti recipe is from, since my Aunt Ann Melchiorre’s family was from Naples.)
Once I began eating this way, of course I was curious to see if I could create a biscotti that would taste like a biscotti to me, but be egg and milk and butter free. A big challenge. I found two recipes that gave me the basic shape of a lower fat biscotti: Susan’s Fat-Free Gluten-Free Gingerbread Biscotti at Fat Free Vegan Kitchen, and Karina’s Anise Seed Biscotti at Gluten Free Goddess.
In the first year, before I admitted to myself I needed to go back to being gluten free, I made wonderful variations on Susan’s recipe. Delighted with myself, I made the basic gingerbread one for my Dad, who by that time was in assisted living, and experiencing some age related dementia. But not enough dementia that these did not seem quite right to him. Knowing he liked things crunchy, I had overcooked them a tad, and by the time they arrived in their tin, they were apparently rock hard. “Maybe your sister can do something with them,” he said. The verdict was clear. I knew no amount of experimentation would pass his muster. And that was okay with me.
I’d made a pact with myself that I would no longer cook or bake things for others I could not at least taste myself, without sliding down a slippery slope. I was fine with my sister continuing to make the old Christmas treats for him with the ingredients that were now off limits for me.
When I had to be gluten free, I was excited to read yet another of Karina’s versions of biscotti at Gluten Free Goddess, which you can find here. But I needed to make them low fat. So I tweaked. And tweaked. Going back and forth between Susan’s recipe, Karina’s recipes, and the traditional instructions I had known for years, mixed in with my sister’s innovations. And though they aren’t low fat in the usual way I eat, they are low fat, and low sugar, and, well, they don’t get as hard as rocks anymore. I’d like to tell you I follow this recipe exactly, but the truth is I improvise with what I have, what I think will go together, what tastes good, and when the “sturdy batter” needed to form the loaves comes together. This version was created in 2011, a year I was experimenting with making my own nut milks and I had a lot of leftover nut meal to use up. If you aren’t doing this, you can buy almond flour/meal or even hazelnut flour instead. The most important thing is the technique for forming, baking and toasting the loaves that become the biscotti.
Christmas Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti
(adapted from Karina and Susan recipes cited above, my own memory of making traditional biscotti, and my sister’s idea to combine the pistachios and the cranberries for a holiday flare)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat liner.
1/2 cup sorghum flour
1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup almond meal (from after making milk)
1/4 cup pistachio meal (after making milk) (see notes for substitutions)
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (optional)
2 teaspoons xantham gum (scant)
1-2 tsp anise extract
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp Grand Marnier
6 oz. vanilla almond yogurt (can also use soy yogurt or coconut yogurt)
4 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon flax egg (so one teaspoon gold flax meal and 2-3 tsp of water)
scant ¼ cup dried cranberries
scant ¼ mixture chopped walnuts and pistachios
tangerine or orange zest (the tangerine is really good)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients.
Add in the almond yogurt, maple syrup, and vanilla extract. Beat until combined and the dough is moist and smooth. It should feel quite sturdy.
Scoop and dump the dough onto the lined baking sheet. I made it into two of these, as with the old family recipe. Using your hands, shape and smooth the dough into a long narrow loaf. Using the curve of your hands, press it down to flatten it into a gently curved shape that tapers down on both sides of the loaf. The loaf should be no more than two inches high in the center. As you press and shape it, squeeze it a bit to keep the dough from cracking.
And here is a genius of a tip from Karina’s recipes that you don’t need when making traditional biscotti with wheat flour, because they will slice up fine without that when it’s time to toast them on their sides. But it really makes all the difference in your biscotti holding together and not crumbling if you are making them gluten free. Using a large sharp knife, carefully but firmly slice across the dough horizontally to make about 20 cookies. I do it on the diagonal because I like the shape of the cookies that way and it seems to work best.
Bake the sliced loaf in the center of a preheated oven for 15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the pan from the oven. Carefully separate the slices, and lay each slice on its side, leaving a bit of room between each one. Return the pan to the oven and bake the slices for 8 more minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven again and turn the slices over. They should appear slightly golden at this point. Bake for another 8 minutes until slightly golden.
Cool the biscotti on a wire rack. They will crisp as they cool.
Notes: If you are not making your own nut milks and saving the leftover meal, you can use almond flour or meal purchased in the store. If you want the cookies to be lower in fat, then sub out one of the amounts of nut meal with quinoa flour, or a combination of sorghum flour and quinoa flour. I have done this with good results. The photo of the biscotti on the baking rack at the top of this recipe were made that way. At least a quarter cup of nut meal adds a nice richness reminiscent of traditional biscotti made with butter, eggs and milk, though, for a lot less saturated fat. Could you use dates or homemade date paste to make these sugar free? I haven’t tried it yet, but you probably could. Let me know if you do.
Karina recommends storing the biscotti in the freezer. If you’re not serving them all right away, this is a good idea, since freezing gluten-free baked goods seems to enhance their flavor and help them hold texture. But they never make it to the freezer at Christmastime around here. And last year, when they were all gone, Mike made another batch following this recipe. And all those got eaten too. This year, I’ll make them again, and the richness of all the good memories from years of baking traditional ones will become further entwined with this newer healthier tradition. And best of all, if you are a person who likes to dip your biscotti in coffee, tea, soy nog, or even wine, these gluten free ones will hold up to that pretty well. (That’s what the almond meal helps with.) My Dad, who was a dedicated biscotti dunker, might even say they pass muster.