This space has been really quiet for the last two weeks. I wish I could say the same about my mind. Growing up can be a bitch sometimes. There are important decisions to be made and I don’t mean the fun decisions like Peppermint Mocha or Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate? As a kid, my biggest reason to grow up “soon” was that I wouldn’t have to ask permission before eating ice cream. (Yes, even then my decisions were being based sub-consciously on how much food I could eat.) But no one told that little kid that as an adult living in today’s world, even innocent pleasures like ice cream come with a topping of guilt. (You know things are bad when I start giving ice cream negative connotations.) No one told her that with freedom comes a ton of responsibility. Usually, I’m an excellent candidate for shouldering all that weight – I’m a regular nerd who’s done the right thing all her life. But recently I’ve been wishing I could put that weight down for a bit.
My head has been spinning round and round, but there’s at least one thing I know. When you can’t make a decision, you bake cookies. I was reading Maida Heatter recently and that great doyen of wisdom and experience agrees with me. She once heard a doctor talking on television about the dangers of stress and the ways of coping with it. She says “I yelled – Bake cookies. I often talk to the television. I yelled at it again and again… he never once mentioned my sure-fire treatment.” But I know what she’s talking about. Nothing bad can happen when you’re baking cookies. It calls for your complete attention as you cream the butter and eggs, take in the aroma of chocolate or vanilla or spices, roll the dough or drop it by spoonfuls. It’s cathartic. There are many who may not agree with me. When another favorite author (okay, let me just confess, I harbor a huge crush), Nigella Lawson published How to be a Domestic Goddess, she received a lot of feminist flak for it. But the idea is to revel in your power to create, not be forced into it. And even though it’s much easier to buy cookies at the supermarket or the bakery, try one fresh from your oven and you’ll be hooked. Get your family around to help, make it a ritual, a tradition; hell, sit on a high stool with a mug of coffee and direct the troops around. They’ll look back and remember it even if the cookies were misshapen or burnt – to create memories, that’s the power of a true domestic goddess.
So what do you do when you go to meet the original domestic goddess? You bake cookies. And not just any cookies – you bake biscotti laced with the goodness of cranberries and pistachios and citrus zests, cookies so festive that they can’t help but put you in the holiday mood. So Holiday Biscotti it was that I baked to take to Nigella Lawson at a recent book signing in Toronto. When I bake something for a woman who is the author of 8 cookbooks and hosts her own cookery shows, do I stick to the tried and tested? Do I go to a recipe that I’ve made a hundred times and know will work? Do I even do a test run of this new recipe I’m so excited about? No; because I’m either brave or an idiot, I start baking at 10 pm the night before after a very long day. Some might view this as work, but for me, with the house quiet, my ipod on and my books, ingredients and equipment around me, it’s the perfect idea of a few fun hours ahead. (It’s a testimony to the world we live in that my ipod, laptop, camera and mixer wires kept getting entangled with each other.)
The dough had the usual suspects – flour, butter, sugar, eggs (although butter is not an ingredient in the traditional biscotti), but it was elevated with the addition of lemon and orange zest and star aniseed. The bright red cranberries and green pistachios poked festively out of the two logs I shaped. After their first stint in the oven, I carefully sliced the pale logs and lined them up like soldiers ready for their second encounter. Twice-baked, they were crisp and chewy and very unlike the tooth-breaking biscotti that I don’t hold any affinity for. Squiggles of white chocolate made them simply irresistible. Dunked in a cup of coffee, they make the perfect snack. Lined up in a pretty box with a hand-written recipe, they make the perfect gift. I hope Nigella, who was as charming in person as she comes across in her books (she graciously smiled until my roomie, who has little experience with my camera, was satisfied with the picture), agrees with me.
P.S. As the title suggests, this recipe also marks the beginning of my holiday cookie countdown, a new and I hope, lasting tradition. Keep your eyes out for some traditional, not-so-traditional, kid-friendly, and fun holiday cookies.
Recipe adapted from Epicurious
(As usual, I’ve changed around some ingredients, quantities and methods.)
(Makes about 24-30 cookies)
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
Grated zest of 1 medium orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated star aniseed
3/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup sliced pistachios
3.5 oz (100 gm) high-quality white chocolate
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) with the rack in the mddle. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment.
2. Sift first three ingredients in a bowl.
3. With a stand mixer or a hand mixer at low speed, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until light and pale.
4. Beat in the eggs, one by one, incorporating one completely before adding another.
5. Mix in the lemon and orange zests, vanilla extract and star aniseed.
6. Switch the mixer speed to low and mix in the dry ingredients, beating only until incorporated.
7. Stir in the nuts and cranberries using a sturdy spatula.
8. Using moistened hands, halve dough and form 2 (15-by 2-inch) loaves on an the baking sheet, spacing the logs 3 inches apart. (I just rolled the dough gently with my hands to get an elongated rope and then shaped it, gently stretching and flattening into logs.)
9. Bake in the preheated oven until firm but still pale, about 25 mins.
10. Take the sheet out of the oven and cut the logs crosswise with a sharp serrated knife into 1/2-inch slices. Place the slices on the second baking sheet, cut side down.
11. Bake until firm and golden, about 6 mins ON EACH SIDE. (I write this in caps because I missed this instruction and baked them on only one side. I gave Nigella Lawson underbaked biscotti! Not only that, I just realized that I missed an important step in the handwritten recipe. I’m so embarrassed.)
12. Transfer the cookies to a rack and cool. Don’t discard the baking sheet with its parchment paper.
13. Once the cookies and baking sheet are completely cool, transfer the cookies back to the sheet. Melt the chocolate over barely simmering water in a double boiler. (Take care that the chocolate does not come in contact with any water or it will seize.) Transfer the chocolate to a piping or zip-lock bag. Snip off a small portion at the tip and drizzle the chocolate over the cookies. Cool completely until the chocolate is firm. Store airtight between sheets of waxed paper. They will keep for up to a week, if they last that long.