Every year around this time, it would come in the mail. My dad would grab it from the box on his way in the house, a non-descript brown paper package, but I knew what was hiding inside by the unmistakeable handwriting on the outside, just waiting to be uncovered.
My sisters and I would tear open the wrapping to find a festive holiday tin. We’d pop open the lid and there, wrapped in layers of wax paper, still cold from their journey from Ohio to New York, were my grandma’s annual Christmas cookies.
My favorites then were a three-way tie between pecan tassies, with their layer of crunchy sugar hiding nutty, molasses-y insides; buckeyes, an Ohio specialty of a ball of peanut butter partially dipped in chocolate to resemble its namesake; and these chocolate cookies with a maraschino cherry hidden under a coating of chocolate frosting. There were other choices in the tin too, of course: soft, cakey cookies topped with sugar glaze and multi-colored sprinkles, peanut butter blossoms, maybe some pizzelles if they managed to survive the trecherous journey intact. And of course no gift of cookies from an Italian grandmother–from my Italian grandmother–would be complete without biscotti.
I never got the appeal of biscotti then. They weren’t really sweet; you risked cracking a tooth if you didn’t eat them patiently, waiting for them to soften in your mouth or a cup of coffee; they tasted…different. Anise, as I learned, an acquired taste and one not often acquired by kids who were more interested in chocolate or sugar frostings. They certainly didn’t look like a kid’s cookie–craggy oblong slices, broken up only by small flecks of aniseed, austere in the grand scheme of holiday cookies.
But my dad loved them. He would eat them on Sunday mornings with his once-weekly cup of coffee while my sisters and I made quick work of the rest of the treats. I would munch on one or two as long as I could dip them in hot chocolate, but only if all my other favorites were gone.
Since then, my tastes have grown up. Biscotti have become one of my favorite cookies for the holidays, one of the few that end up in my own private cookie stash once the rest have been gifted away. As with my issues with mass-produced muffins, these are not the biscotti you find at most coffee shops.
The licorice flavor of anise is the highlight, they’re just sweet enough for my tastes, and, while you won’t risk cracking a tooth like really traditional biscotti, they definitely have a crunch (and I personally like them best after a few days to really dry out). This time of year, they’re my favorite Sunday morning treat with a strong cup of tea–or, even better, an afternoon treat with a cup of hot mulled wine while I’m baking up more holiday goodies.
Anise Almond Biscotti
For crispy biscotti without the risk of over-browning, set them on cooling racks for the second baking, allowing the hot air to circulate around the cookies. Also, since these benefit from at least a few hours between rounds of baking, these are easy to split over two days if you don’t have time to finish them the first day. Adapted very slightly from this recipe from Epicurious.
2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature
4 1/2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup brandy
1 1/2 teaspoons anise extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole almonds, toasted
2 tablespoons aniseed, lightly toasted
1/2 cup sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy,then add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in one bowl, and in another combine brandy, anise extract (it turns the brandy milky!), and vanilla. Alternate adding the flour and the brandy to the butter/sugar/egg mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Stir in whole almonds and anise.
Drop the dough by spoonfuls onto the baking sheets to form four rough logs. With damp hands, press the dough into 2-inch-wide strips about 13 inches long (the dough spreads, so try to avoid having them much wider than 2 inches or you will end up with giant cookies). Sprinkle sliced almonds over the top and lightly press them into the dough. Bake for 40 minutes until lightly golden.
Remove pans from the oven and carefully slide the biscotti logs to cooling racks and cool for several hours or even overnight; this helps get a clean cut later. Slice cool biscotti at an angle (a serrated knife, like a bread knife, works best, just press down sharply to cut through the almonds).
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Arrange the cookies on cooling racks set over baking sheets and bake for around 45 minutes, rotating pans every 15 minutes. The goal at this point is just to dry the biscotti, though they will brown a little bit more. Once crisp, remove from the oven and cool completely. Cookies will keep in an air-tight container for at least a few weeks, or frozen for even longer.