I usually call my mother once a day. I mentioned that to a friend the other day and they looked at me like I had some serious issues going on. I just like to talk to her. She's funny and wise. She's interested and interesting. She has a rare ability to listen actively, quietly encouraging me turn things over in my mind, like I'm panning for gold, like my thoughts are a handful of sand from a stream bed and I'm sifting out the debris until a kernel of something true appears flat in my palm.
I tell her when I read something moving, or beautiful, or challenging, because I know she'll really think about it. And what resonates with me is often the same for her. The apple and the tree, and all of that. I sent her this Tennessee Williams passage few days ago:
"The world is violent and mercurial -- it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love -- love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love."
How lucky to have someone to talk with about anything. The mundane: what I ate for breakfast and where I'm going this weekend. The serious: Tennessee Williams' quotes and crises at work and mom, what do I do if I think my stove leaking gas? The answers to my endless questions: what is a good pie crust recipe and should I put shredded coconut in the cookie dough and how many eggs go into the biscotti recipe?
About that biscotti recipe. It's probably my favorite food that my mother makes, which is saying quite a bit. This is not the biscotti you see in coffee shops, or really anywhere in America.
Traditional Italian biscotti contain no oil or butter. Impossibly light and crisp, they have a delicate texture that shatters under your teeth. American biscotti, by contrast, are really just crunchy cookies in a log shape.
Skipping the butter allows the flavor of the batter to shine. Biscotti means twice cooked in Italian. It now commonly refers to all cookies, the way biscuit does in England. But the real deal is the original twice baked recipe. In our house, we make two versions: One with cocoa powder and one with almond extract and Cognac. I'll save the almond recipe for another day.
Sugar and eggs are whipped for 10 minutes into frothy, pale, thick ribbons. You carefully fold in the rest of the ingredients (baking powder, flour, cocoa if you're making a chocolate variation, toasted nuts, salt, and vanilla). The trick is to whip plenty of air into the eggs, and then handle the batter so gently that you don't deflate it.
I'll be honest. It takes awhile to master this recipe. I don't always get it just right. I recommend watching someone bake these if you can. (Okay, that's an difficult instruction I realize. Call me! Come on over! We can bake together!) Ingredient measurements only take you so far. This is the sort of recipe that works best when you do it by feel. Learning what each stage should look like is key.
But regardless, with a bit of practice, you can make these beautifully. And let me tell you: Cookie-making practice is the best kind of work there is.
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups pecans
Place your eggs in a large bowl of hot water. Let the eggs sit in the water for about 5 minutes to warm up.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and put them in the oven while it preheats. Keep an eye on them: When they start to smell fragrant and toasted, take them out. They should be lightly browned. Let the nuts cool while you make the batter.
Crack the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the sugar and beat on high speed using the whisk attachment for 5-10 minutes. The mixture should very pale and almost doubled in volume. When you hold up the beater, the batter should stream off in thick, frothy ribbons.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and add the vanilla. Using a spatula, fold it in with a few quick strokes. It doesn't need to be fully incorporated.
Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Sift half of the dry ingredients over the egg/sugar mixture. Using your spatula, very gently fold in the dry ingredients. You really want to be careful not to deflate the batter here! Keep turning the bowl and folding until most of the flour has been incorporated.
Sift the rest of the dry ingredients over the batter and fold them in. Make sure it's all well-incorporated at this point. The reason the biscotti ends up being so light and crunchy is because of all the air you've beaten into the eggs, so the trick to this recipe is folding in the rest of the ingredients without losing that air.
Roughly chop the toasted pecans and fold them carefully into the batter.
Spoon the batter onto a cookie sheet in two long ovals, side by side. It's okay if they touch a bit in the middle, but try to keep a bit of space between the two. Working quickly helps here, because the batter will spread a little bit. I like to wet my hands and shape the batter once it's on the sheet. You want two long ovals, almost the length of the sheet.
Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, but don't turn off the oven! Let the biscotti cool for at least 20 minutes.
Carefully remove both ovals from the baking sheet and transfer to a cutting board (you'll need to run a thin spatula underneath the biscotti to help loosen them from the pan).
Slice each oval into thin, even slices. Place the slices back onto the cookie sheet on their sides. You'll need a second cookie sheet.
Place both cookie sheets with the sliced biscotti back into the oven and TURN OFF THE OVEN.
Let the cookies stay in the turned-off oven for at least an hour, until crisp and cool to the touch.