Ah, biscotti — perhaps the most forgotten of all cookies when the holidays roll around. Unlike rollout cookies, they’re not cut into fanciful shapes and glammed up in glitter. And OK, they’re not exactly an old-time American favorite like Gingersnaps or Chocolate Crinkles. But when it comes to what’s truly important at the holidays — transportability, long shelf life, and an amazingly varied assortment of flavors — biscotti just can’t be beat.
With all their positives, why are biscotti so neglected by the general public? Three potential reasons:
I daresay not many of us grew up with a batch of biscotti in the countertop cookie jar. Nor did Mom pick up a pack of Stella D’oros at the supermarket along with the Oreos. So we’re just not as used to biscotti as we are, say, the various drop cookies — oatmeal, chocolate chip, peanut butter — that populated our childhoods. And we’re not as likely to think of them when making up our holiday cookie list.
2) They’re quite different than most American cookies
Traditional Italian biscotti, made without fat (save for their eggs) and with just a touch of baking powder, are denser and harder than most American cookies. And for good reason: They need to maintain their structure when dipped into a glass of vin santo or cup of espresso.
However, there’s an American cousin of traditional Italian biscotti that are more like the cookies most of us grew up with. Including both butter and eggs, plus a generous amount of baking powder, American-style biscotti are light, open-textured, and crunchy (rather than dense): think an old-fashioned thick-yet-crispy sugar cookie.
3) They look complicated
Involved? More so than drop cookies, yes. But much less so than cutout cookies, with their fiddly dough-rolling and cutting and decorating. “Twice baked” (biscotti’s literal translation) means you bake a log of dough first, then slice it, then bake the slices. So while biscotti spend longer in the oven than most cookies (upward of an hour), that simply gives you time to kick back with a cup of tea and map out your next holiday baking project.
Put your reservations aside
Cookies: The New Classics author Jesse Szewczyk includes a great beginner-level biscotti recipe in his book (which I’ll be using to share some general biscotti tips, below) — and he’s totally sold on these cookies.
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“Biscotti are a super practical holiday cookie,” says Jesse. “You don't have to worry about them drying out, getting stale, or losing their perfect bite. Biscotti are meant to be crisp, so you can feel confident making them several days in advance without worrying that their texture will suffer. If you’re hosting a large cookie swap or holiday party, biscotti are a simple make-ahead treat that can help you get a head start.”
Jesse has been kind enough to share the Malted Brownie Biscotti recipe from his book on our site (which we liked so much, we included in our holiday collection of New Classics Cookies — great minds think alike). And after baking them myself, I can highly recommend these. With their rich, brownie-like flavor highlighted with bits of chopped dark chocolate, they’re a wonderful accompaniment to a cup of coffee — or for doubling down with a mug of hot cocoa!
I’ll use this recipe to illustrate some universal biscotti tips and techniques — the “insider knowledge” you need to make your biscotti barista-worthy right out of the gate.
Sticky dough is good dough
American-style biscotti dough is generally a bit stickier than regular drop cookie dough; its looser texture helps it bake up crunchy rather than hard. Don’t try to firm the dough up by chilling it or adding more flour; when it’s time to shape the dough, wet your hands and work with it on a floured or lightly greased surface.
Weighing in on add-ins
Pistachio-Cranberry Biscotti — what a lovely red-and-green choice for the holidays! Adding nuts, dried fruit, and/or chips to your biscotti dough is a delicious option, but be aware of how your recipe might change. Using certain add-ins will increase the dough’s moisture and lengthen your total bake time: According to a tip in our Essential Cookie Companion, for every 1 1/2 cups dried fruit or meltable chips, you can expect to add 5 minutes to the initial bake time, and 5 to 10 minutes to the second bake.
The Cookie Companion adds, “While it’s tempting to use whole nuts, extra-large chips or chocolate chunks, or large pieces of dried fruit in biscotti — they just look so impressive – it’s challenging to slice biscotti for their second bake with these obstacles stopping the knife and knocking it off course.” Your best bet is to chop whole nuts or large chunks of dried fruit into smaller pieces; and use mini chips when you can.
Leave plenty of room between the shaped logs
Biscotti directions sometimes have you shape the dough into one large log. But usually you’ll be directed to cut the dough into two or three smaller logs, each about 2” to 2 1/2” wide. While it may look like you can crowd three logs onto your baking sheet — don’t do it! The biscotti logs will spread as they bake, usually to at least double their width. For collision-free expansion, place no more than two logs crosswise on your pan. Leave 3” to 4” of bare space between the two, and another 1 1/2” to 2” empty on either side of them.
Shape the logs carefully
The more carefully you shape your dough logs, the more beautifully shaped your final biscotti will be: no bumps, no ragged ends. A bowl scraper dipped in water is immensely helpful in turning the logs into smooth, even blocks.
Add sugar topping for crunch, flavor, and enhanced appearance
Coarse sugar — either sparkling or pearl — is often applied to biscotti dough logs before baking. Here’s how to do it:
- Brush the dough logs with beaten egg before adding any topping sugar. This will be the “glue” that holds the sugar in place.
- Apply the sugar liberally. Remember, the logs expand significantly during baking, so you want your sugar crystals closely packed to provide thorough coverage of the final cookies.
- For best overall appearance, cover the entire log. Sprinkle sugar on top, but don’t stop there: Pat additional sugar along the sides and ends.
For crumble-free cutting, spray baked biscotti logs with water
Once your biscotti logs are baked it’s time to slice them — hopefully without crumbling! I like to mist the logs with water and wait 5 minutes, then cut. The resultant very slight softening of the crust allows your sharp chef’s knife (or serrated knife) to glide through the exterior without resistance; and the slices quickly dry out once they’re back in the oven.
Slicing the logs: the angle of the cut matters
Many biscotti recipes call for you to cut the baked logs on the diagonal. But that’s not required; you can instead simply cut them into crosswise slices. How you cut them determines both how long your finished biscotti will be, and exactly how many you’ll end up with. The greater the angle of the diagonal, the longer your cookies will be (and the smaller the yield).
Looking for an impressive presentation in the center of your dessert table? Cut biscotti logs on a steep diagonal and stand the resulting long biscotti in a pretty jar. For shorter biscotti (and more of them), perfect for a cookie plate or for mailing, simply cut the logs into crosswise slices.
Watch your knife angle while slicing
For biscotti with perfectly straight sides, keep your knife perpendicular to the cutting surface when slicing the logs. Canting the knife either way will result in biscotti that are skinnier at the top than the base, or vice-versa.
Bake biscotti slices upright rather than laid flat
The purpose of biscotti’s second bake (after it’s been sliced) is for each slice to dry out completely. For best circulation (and to avoid add-ins potentially sticking to the pan) stand the biscotti on their bases rather than laying them flat. If they’re so thin (or unevenly sliced; see “watch your knife angle,” above) that they won’t stand up, then fine, lay them down. Just be sure to turn them over midway through their second bake, so both sides are equally exposed to the heat.
“How do I know when they’re done?”
Let’s turn to the Cookie Companion again. “Once the biscotti have been sliced and baked for the time directed, take the pan out of the oven and probe the side of a biscotto … If the biscotto feels soft, like a piece of cake, give it another 5 minutes in the oven. If it feels firm but still gives a bit when you poke it, take it out for rather soft-textured but still crunchy biscotti. If it feels firm, [even though] the cut crust is still a bit damp, take it out; this will yield biscotti that are crunchy all the way through.”
A final word from Jesse
We asked Jesse Szewczyk why he loves biscotti, and this is what he said: “Biscotti are a super underrated cookie. The dough is easy to make, they can be dressed up or down however you like, and because you bake them until crisp, they’re super forgiving. I personally love dipping them in hot tea or coffee to achieve that perfect crisp-gone-soggy texture. I also think biscotti are naturally beautiful, so if you want to make a cookie that's as impressive as it is delicious, they’re a great option.”
I totally agree. Check out our recipe site now to choose your favorite biscotti. Don’t know where to start? My personal go-to’s include American-Style Vanilla Biscotti, Butter Pecan Biscotti, and mini Barista Biscotti Bites. Now let’s get baking!
Looking for holiday cookie exchange inspiration? Discover some exciting options in our New Classics Cookies recipe collection.
Cover photo by Rick Holbrook.