Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Exotic Biscotti

Perhaps it is the captivating tales of "1001 Arabian Nights", or the enchantment of Omar Khayyam's poetry, or just the idea of riding on a magic carpet, but Persia has always held a certain fascination for me. Persia (Iran) has as rich a culture and civilization as can be found on the planet. The art, literature and architecture are as mesmerizing as that of Egypt or China and the food is remarkably fragrant and exotic - and supported by a long culinary history. I am only beginning to delve into Persian cuisine, with the help of Najmieh Batmanglij, whose cookbooks ("A Taste of Persia" and "From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table") are the ideal way to begin.

In "A Taste of Persia", Batmanglij talks about "the Iranian attitudes toward food" and takes us on our own brief magic carpet ride through this ancient cuisine. "Hospitality ... is central to Persian life. Hospitality must be generous: In traditional Persia, a host would remain standing, serving his guests and eating nothing himself. Customs change but the attitude remains. Hospitality is like gift giving, the saying goes: One should do it handsomely or not at all. Next, one should cook according to what is best in season, so that food is fresh and of as good quality as may be." There's a commitment to the Slow Food movement!

The ingredients in many Persian dishes provide layers of flavor that not only taste wonderful but smell delightful. Pistaschios (which are native to Iran), pomegranates, dates, saffron, rose water, sour cherries, and cardamom abound. It is interesting to note that saffron and especially cardamom are also used extensively in Scandinavian baking (I grew up smelling cardamom before cinnamon!).

Being a neophite with regard to Persian sweets, I wanted to create something that would incorporate the flavors and fragrance of Persia with something familiar - something to be shared with friends and family who have not yet experienced the seductive pull of Persian cuisine. I like these biscotti with a cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling tea while listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade".


1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized salt
2 teaspoons rose water*
2 teaspoons ground cardamom (Penzey's preferred)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar, preferably superfine
2 large eggs
1-1/2 cups unsalted shelled pistachios

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cardamom together with a wire whisk and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, and rose water and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce the speed to low and add the pistachios. Mix until the nuts are just incorporated. Place the dough on a sheet of plastic wrap and wrap well all around. Chill for 1-24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet (16"x12") with either parchment paper or Reynolds Release foil. Divide the dough in half and using lightly floured hands, shape each half into a log about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Place the logs on the baking sheet spacing them about five inches apart. The logs will spread significantly during baking. Bake the biscotti until light brown, about 27 minutes. Remove them from the oven (but leave the oven on) and cool for about 10-15 minutes. Using a large spatula, transfer the biscotti to a large cutting board and using a serrated knife, slice the biscotti on the diagonal at 3/4" intervals. Place the slices, cut side down, on the baking sheet and return to the oven for about 10-12 minutes, turning them over after five minutes (be careful not to burn your hands). Transfer the biscotti to wire racks to cool (biscotti will continue to firm up as they cool). Place the biscotti in a cookie tin or another airtight container. Cookies may be stored for about two weeks. Yield: about 36 biscotti.

Note: Rose water may be found at Whole Foods, Sur La Table, and Middle Eastern groceries. Rose water has a pronounced flavor and fragrance and must be used judiciously. Some may prefer as much as a tablespoon or as little as a teaspoon. Orange flower water may be substituted for a different, but equally exotic taste. Slivered almonds may be substituted for the pistachios. The dough in this biscotti recipe handles very nicely as it is not as sticky as many other biscotti recipes.

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