The Ladies' Tea Guild

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #13 -- Ethnic Foodways: my great-grandmother's biscotti.

Soft Biscotti.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
The Challenge: #13 – Ethnic Foodways. Foodways and cuisine are at the heart of every ethnic group around the world and throughout time. Choose one ethnic group, research their traditional dishes or food, and prepare one as it is traditionally made.

My family is half Sicilian and a quarter Calabrese (from Calabria in southern Italy), and traditional (for us) Italian holiday food includes a few types of cookies.  When my grandmothers were alive, we usually bought our cookies at the Italian bakery, or from the supermarket (Stella D'oro brand used to carry some of our favorites), but now, purchased cookies are less available to us, so in the last several years I've started researching and making some.  This has also helped me enjoy all our Italian cookie favorites, since my nut allergies have made most traditional Italian cookies not an option for me (lots of almonds and hazelnuts). 

The issue with re-creating historic Italian cookies is the fact that literacy has not been a common skill in Italy and Sicily for many years – really only since World War 2.  My own grandparents were the first literate generation in their families; their parents were illiterate, and so was the rest of that generation, so their recipes have been passed down by mouth and by example, rather than being written down.  With that oral tradition comes the tradition of each person making the recipe slightly differently, according to their own tastes, which makes it hard to trace it back to the "original" version! 

First, what are biscotti?  Traditionally, biscotti are almond-flavored cookies that have been baked twice – "bis" = twice and "cotti" = cooked in Italian – to make them hard and dry so that they'll last a long time.  According to legend, biscotti were what fed the Roman army as they marched and fought to conquer the Empire.  In those days, biscotti were simply ground almonds or other nuts, flour, sugar, and eggs, formed into a firm dough, rolled into a log shape, and baked in an oven.  The log of dough was then packed into the soldier's equipment bag, and when he made camp for a meal, he sliced off a few slices and toasted them over the fire before eating them with some wine.  This provided him with protein and carbohydrates in a form that would not go bad, or crumble into dust over several days.  Soldiers and travellers in many cultures have – and still do – carry similar foods when they're on the move; hardtack, sea biscuits, johnnycakes, rusks, all originated as a similar unleavened, dry bread. 

Over the years, as various foreign armies over-ran and conquered Italy and Sicily, they added their own cultural touches in the form of new ingredients, and required their Italian and Sicilian slave cooks to make them according to their own tastes.  The form remained the same until around the 17th century, when foreign fashions influenced different shapes and flavors in these dry little cakes, and even allowed the word "biscotti" to mean dough that had only been baked once, as long as the final product was dry and firm enough to be dunked in wine or coffee without getting soggy.  Wine, anise, orange, lemon, and even coffee joined almond and other nuts as the favored flavors.  The dough was rolled into ropes and formed into knots, rings, scrolls, and various other shapes, depending on the occasion for which the biscotti were being made.  Ivan Day, the English food historian, says that there was a fashion for knotwork pastry (as well as stonework and lace) in the late 16th century, which might have influenced these other biscotti shapes.  Italian foods, including biscotti – or biscuits – became popular throughout Europe during this time. 

Soft biscotti in different shapes.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
One type of biscuit that became popular in England and the United States, and which closely resembles my great-grandmother's recipe, is one called "cimbelline" or "giambelli" in Italian, or "Jumballs" in English.  The name comes from the form which the ropes of dough are given before baking: that of a figure-eight, which resembles a style Roman wedding ring called "gemelli" or "twins", because it consists of two rings that are attached together.  Under the name "Jumbles", these cookies can be found in recipe collections as early as the 17th century, and as late as the 21st century!  Here is one of the earliest recipies I could find for Jumbles: 

Another way of Jumballs.
To halfe a pound of sugar, eight egges, four yolks, as much butter as an egge, being washed in Rose-water, and fine flower as much as your own discretion shall see fit to make it a paste, and so work it, and knead it well together with an ounce of Anniseeds, and Coriander, so roule and make them up in knots, and butter the plats, and bake them, heat the Oven hot as for Manchet.
-- from Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus; Or, Excellent & Approved Receipts and Experiments in Cookery, 1658. 

My great-grandmother's recipe substitutes shortening for the butter, and vanilla for the more traditional flavorings in the older recipes, and adds baking powder, so it probably dates to around 1910, which is when she came to the United States from Sicily.  When I make them, I generally use anise oil, or lemon zest for the flavoring instead of the vanilla. 

The Recipe: 
Italian cookies (Bicoti)
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons shortening
2 eggs + ¼ cup water
3 teaspoons Baking Powder
pinch salt
flour (3 cups)

400° oven. 

That is the original recipe from my great-grandmother.  A bit sparse on the instructions!  My mom's cousin sent me her redaction of the recipe, which is below.

Bicoti (Italian cookies)
1 – cup sugar
3 – level Tablespoons Crisco
2 – eggs
¼ cup water
1 – tsp. vanilla – (I add a bit more)
3 – tbls baking powder
pinch salt
3 – cups flour (more if needed)

Cream sugar and shortening together.  Add eggs and mix well.  Add vanilla and water—mix well.  Add baking powder—salt and flour till desired consistency (able to roll it out into long ropes).  Shape dough into small shapes.  Place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 12 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.  Let cool.  These can be frosted with a regular type Frosting or Grandma’s secret way.  I would have to show you since it is a method. :) [she included a second page of sketched shapes for cookies, including one where a rope of dough is coiled into a circle, and put together with another identical dough rope coil into a figure 8 shape about 3 inches long, and another which was just 1 to 1 ½ inch sections cut from a rope of dough.] Again these will rise.  Make any design you like but not too big.  Take a piece of rope dough and roll up like this [an arrow pointing to a sketch of a rectangle about a centimeter wide and 5 inches long] about this size [pointing to another sketch of a coil about 1 ½ inches diameter].  It will rise in the oven.  Shapes sizes of Biscoti—Grandma’s way.  These will be the exact sizes [there is a sketch of a rectangle about a centimeter wide and 1 ½ inches long]. Cut this size.  These will rise in cooking.  Roll the dough out into long ropes about this thick and cut into these sizes. 

The Date/Year and Region:
United States, ca. 1910 – 1950s.

Here's a similar one from Mrs. Beeton: 
"Jumbles (American Recipe)
Ingredients.--14 ozs. of flour. 5 ozs. of sugar, 3 ozs. of butter, 1 egg, the finely-grated rind and juice of 1 lemon, 3 teaspoonfuls of milk, 1 teaspoonful of cream of tartar, 1/2 a teaspoonful of carbonate of soda.
Method.--Beat the butter and sugar to a cream, add the egg, milk, lemon-juice, and rind. Sieve the flour, cream of tartar, and soda, and mix with the other ingredients. Roll out rather thinly and cut into rounds, or cut into long, narrow strips, which, after being lightly pressed into a round shape with the palm of the hand, should be wound round and round to form small cakes. Bake in a quick oven. Time.--To bake, about 10 minutes...Sufficient for about 1 1/2 lbs. of jumbles. Seasonable at any time."
---Mrs. Beeton's Every-Day Cookery, New Edition [Ward, Lock & Co.:London] 1909 (p. 429)

How Did You Make It:
I used a mixer and followed the recipe (using my mom's cousins' instructions) exactly, except that I used 1 tsp. of anise oil instead of the vanilla extract.  I have also made this recipe with the grated zest of one lemon added to the dough, which was delicious. I have made the figure-eight and the spiral shapes, but this time around I made the scroll shapes.  This recipe makes several dozen cookies.  I don't know "Grandma's Secret Way" of icing the cookies, so I make a powdered sugar icing with milk or lemon juice, and drizzle it on the cookies, and then shake some colored sprinkles on top – I like to use seasonal autumn or Christmas ones for the holidays as well as the more traditional rainbow sprinkles.

Time to Complete:
Maybe 45 minutes to an hour to mix, shape and bake all the cookies.  It's the shaping that takes time, but the figure-eight, spiral and scroll shapes are easy to make, and the recipe makes a lot of cookies, so you get good "bang for your buck", or rather your time and effort, as it were. 

Total Cost:
Everything but the anise oil was in my pantry already.  The small bottle of anise oil (not extract – that evaporates in the oven and leaves you with a tasteless cookie) was $3.99 or something at Williams-Sonoma, but it lasts a long time since you only use a teaspoon at a time.  You can also order it online.  Certainly the whole recipe cost less than $10. 

How Successful Was It?:
Very successful.  The cookies are dry and crispy on the outside but softer on the inside, good for dunking in a nice beverage without turning to mush, but not so tooth-shatteringly hard as true biscotti.  They rise a little in baking, but not that much, and end up about 3 inches in length and about 1 ½ in width.  The flavor is simple, sweet (but not too sweet), with a mild anise flavor. 

How Accurate Is It?: 
Almost 100% accuracy, although I don't know if my great-grandma had an electric oven or an electric mixer in the 1950s.  I know she used a coal stove in the 1920s, and the family was poor, so she might have baked hers in there, with more variation of temperature and time than I used.  My cousin's instructions were as she remembered my great-grandma making these biscotti in the 1950s, which is when my cousin was young.  I 've been making these for a few years, and sent a photo of them to my cousin, and she says they look just like my great-grandma's cookies, and my mom says they taste just like she remembers!  

For more information:
"A History of Sicilian Cuisine" from University of Massachussetts School of Journalism 
"Historical Timeline of Sicily"
"17th Century English Recipes" from the Book of Gode Cookery website 
"Jumbles" entry on Wikipedia 
"Apricock Jumbles" by Ivan Day 
"Biscotti" on the Food Timeline site 
"Jumbles" on the Food Timeline site 
"Rusk" on the Food Timeline site 


QNPoohBear said...

Great job documenting your grandmother's recipe. I couldn't document any of my Nonnie's recipes to the timeframe of the challenge. She was a professional baker and made her own cookies. Her parents were literate. Her mother was educated by the nuns and worked as the village letter writer in their small Avellino village. Her father was a soldier who wanted the letter writer to write a Dear Jane letter to his girlfriend because he wanted to marry the letter writer instead. She refused.He kidnapped her. They married a few months later and ended up in Massachustts by 1920.

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

Thanks, QNPoohBear! And what a great story about your grandparents! That is, if your grandma was all right with your grandpa kidnapping her ...

I'd always wondered how Italians who couldn't read and write, kept in contact with their family back home. My Italian great-grandparents didn't; as far as I know, they never saw or heard from their families back in Italy again, once they left to live in the U.S. I thought they might have had the local priest or nun read the letter and write a reply for them, but my Nonna said they never did that.

My Nonna went back to her hometown in the 1970s and met one of her aunts and cousins for the first time, and her aunt was bed-ridden and blind, and could barely speak, but she says her aunt grabbed her hand and squeezed it through the entire visit, and wouldn't let go when it was time for my Nonna to leave. Her cousin had to put her hand in between her mother's and my Nonna's hands, and hold her mother's hand instead, so that my Nonna could take her hand away.

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)