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Preface: Like most Italian women of those days, Nunziata DiRenzo (born in 1897) of Gambatesa, Italy, and Camden, New Jersey, never wrote down a recipe for the biscotti she made. But once she told her oldest daughter how she made them.

Nunziata's directions began with a (5 lb) bag of flour, two cartons (2 dozen "large") eggs, 1/2 (of a 5 lb) bag of sugar, a (1 lb) container of solid vegetable shortening, 12 teaspoons of baking powder, and 4 ounces of flavoring. Nunziata DiRenzo was less than 4 feet 10 inches tall and slightly built, and, if you are strong, you can mix these ingredients together in a tall spaghetti pot like she did. If not, the following smaller recipe is based on her directions.

Note: these Italian biscotti are hard biscuits, not light and airy.

Nunziata DiRenzo's Biscotti Recipe

Ingredients [Metric equivalents]

• 3 cups flour, plus about 1 cup more flour
• 1 and 1/2 tsp baking powder

• 1/4 cup (generous) solid vegetable shortening, gently melted over low heat and then allowed to cool a bit

• 4 large eggs
• 1 cup (generous) sugar

Flavoring: a generous shot glass of liqueur or whiskey or a bit of wine (or 1 tsp vanilla or almond extract is always safe)

• Greased baking sheet(s), at least one 16-inch x 12-inch sheet or two somewhat smaller sheets

• Oven preheated to 350 to 400 degrees F.

Method

In a large bowl, beat up the eggs and the sugar and the flavoring together well; then slowly beat in the melted vegetable shortening. In another bowl mix the 3 cups of flour and the baking powder together well; then stir them into the liquid. Now slowly add as much of the rest of the flour as is needed to make a very soft dough. (All this can be done with a wooden-spoon.)

Turn the mixture out onto a well-floured surface and very gently "knead" it into a smooth, shiny ball of dough. This dough should always be slightly sticky, so try to use the least amount of flour needed to keep it under control.

The dough is divided in half, 21 KB

Divide the dough in half. Under your hands form the halves into rough loaves and lay them length-wise on the baking sheet(s). Smooth out the loaves with lightly floured hands; they should be about 2 inches wide and 1 inch high (1 inch = 2.5 cm.), with rounded edges on top. They will spread a little when baking; so do not crowd them.

The dough is formed for baking, 13 KB

Bake the loaves in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the tops of the loaves are quite firm when pressed with the fingers. They should be fully baked inside. (At about 10 minutes, check that the bottoms of the loaves are not burning; you may need to reposition the baking sheet(s) in the oven.)

The biscuit dough is done its first baking, 13 KB

Remove the loaves to a cutting board and, beginning at the center, cut them width-wise in slices about 1/2 inch thick. (If the first slice reveals that the dough is not fully baked inside, then immediately return the loaves to the oven.) A serrated-knife works best to slice these loaves, but serrated-knives are very dangerous.

The inside must be baked all the way through, 12 KB

Lay the slices on their sides on the baking sheet(s) and return them to the oven for about 5 minutes. Then lay the slices on their other sides and bake about 5 minutes more. Finally, if necessary, stand the slices up and bake them for about 5 minutes more, or until they are thoroughly dried out inside.

What the cooled biscuits look like, 15 KB

Thoroughly cool the slices on cooling racks. There should be about 36 twice-baked cookies. They can be stored in a paper bag or in a cookie tin.

You may be able to double this recipe. But remember that it takes much more space to twice-bake the slices than it does to bake the loaves; so it will take more time unless you have extra baking sheets.

Biscotti Recipe Notes

It is not possible to give exact baking times. Whatever times are needed for the biscotti to be fully baked and then dried out are the correct times.

Do not use too large a bowl for mixing the ingredients, because this will make it difficult for you to judge how much flour to add. (Nunziata DiRenzo used a wooden spoon and the pot for boiling water for spaghetti, but even in old age she worked with 5 lbs of flour at a time.)

Nunziata DiRenzo used to line her baking sheets with wax paper, to prevent the dough from sticking. Wax paper tends to smoke at high temperatures (Parchment paper works well); she set her oven at 400° F. The melted and then cooled vegetable shortening may have been a replacement for lard; vegetable oil may not give the same results, because it is essential that there be no taste of oil in the finished biscotti.

You must learn by trial and error what to use and what to do to get the results you want. There is no royal road to biscotti making. (But even when you make mistakes these cookies taste good.)

Metric Translations

The measurements given on this page are all more-or-less, but try to stay reasonably close; e.g. too much sugar will give the biscotti a sugar-cookie crispness, and too much flour will make both an elastic dough that balloons into odd shapes in the oven and a less flavorful biscuit.

Recipe last revised: 19 February 2004.

Nunziata DiRenzo and Giovanni Valente with biscotti, circa 1968, 10 KB

Nunziata DiRenzo and Giovanni Valente, in America Mr. and Mrs. John Valente, with biscotti, circa 1968. The out-of-focus biscotti are in the big dish in the left foreground. (This photograph was taken with a child's instant camera when I was a child.)

"Historical Notes"

Gambatesa on the map of Italy, 2 KB
Gambatesa is a village in central southern Italy.

In the dialect of Molise biscotti is "bisgótt". Nunziata DiRenzo's younger children gave the dialect word an English-language plural, and so to their children these were known as "Grandmom's biscotts". Some of Nunziata's children used to eat these biscotti for breakfast, spread with butter and then dipped into American coffee (This was when children used to drink coffee for breakfast).

Usually "twice-baked" bread, however, was eaten for breakfast; either Giovanni Valente brought this home from the bread bakery where he worked, or they dried day-old bread in their oven at home. At the Italian bakeries in the old days, the bakers used to slice unsold day-old Italian loaves and thoroughly dry the slices in their ovens; -- these slices were about the size of sliced-in-half Italian rolls; they were hard, not brittle. The old Italians used to buy bags of this twice-baked bread. In Gambatesa, people used to put these dry bread slices in old flour bags and take them to the farm to eat when no fresh bread was baked.

During the Great Depression, on Berkley Street in Camden, the children would put butter on the twice-baked bread (hard toast) that their father Giovanni brought home and dip it in their cocoa for breakfast, and many of the neighborhood children would eat with them (Unlike many of his neighbors, because he was a bread baker, Giovanni Valente always had work and food). The cocoa was made on the stove with milk and sugar.

Nunziata DiRenzo also used sometimes to make what in dialect she called a bizz', i.e. pizza. This was lean bread dough (pane comune: flour, water, yeast and salt), pressed out not-too-thick-or-thin in a half-sheet pan (but not forced into the corners) and sparsely dressed with either broken whole tomatoes or Italian sausages which Nunziata cooked before she vigorously worked them into the dough before baking.

Nunziata DiRenzo and her mother Maria Vittoria d'Alessandro also used to make the taralli of Gambatesa, unsweet biscuit rings made in an unusual way, and Biscotti con le uova.

Note:: when I sent some of these biscotti to our cousin in Geneva (Christmas 2006), Angelo Abiuso told me that they taste the same as in Gambatesa, but that in Gambatesa when they make this type of biscotti they make them flatter, like the biscuits called Maletagliate in the dialect of Gambatesa (elsewhere called cantucci).


Biscotti Photograph

Photograph of homemade Italian biscotti, February 2004, 35 KB

This is a family snap (a bit blurred) of some biscotti Nunziata's daughter Lydia and I made at her house on February 19th 2004. But now Nunziata's daughters Vittoria Donata and Lydia say that their mother used to make the cookies longer across and that she used to slice them on an angle. That is not the way I remember them. But you could shape the dough differently (maybe 2 and 1/2 inches = 6.5 cm. wide, but to the same height as above) and slice the loaves diagonally (on a 45 degree angle, but to the same thickness as above); you could make the biscotti that way too.

I look at this photograph and I seem able to smell these cookies, although there are none in the house. My aunt used all vanilla (because she does not like almond; Vittoria thinks that her mother used to use anise at Christmastime). The smell is of fresh flour and fresh eggs and sugar, and a little vanilla -- very wholesome (and they will make you very fat, too, like the miller's wife in Pär Lagerkvist's story "The Eternal Smile", if you eat too many of them). Something I noticed: these biscotti are unlike all other cookies that I know of in that when you touch them they do not leave behind a greasy or oily residue on your fingers; they are as clean to the touch as Italian bread.

When she was a child, my aunt remembers eating the biscotti spread with butter and dipped into coffee, tea, hot chocolate for breakfast (any time of day). Some people liked them dipped in red wine.

My mother gave me a paper doily to photograph the biscotti on, but usually they were stored in a cookie tin and just put directly on a plate when they were put out with coffee ... in the old days, that is, before television when people used to visit each other in the evenings after work (Work in those days was 12 hours a day, six days a week) and eat cake and drink coffee (at the kitchen table if it was big enough or at the dining room table if it wasn't). And all the older people were aunt and uncle, even if they weren't that in English. Nunziata DiRenzo was called Zia Nunziella (Zi' Nunziell') or sometimes "Aunt Nancy", Giovanni Valente Zi'Gio'an'. When I was a child, I thought it was kind of fun. People seemed to talk to each other in an unselfconscious sort of way.

These biscotti should have been made for a special day, for Christmas or Easter. We don't have them all year round. But my aunts and the children ate them already, in February long before Easter.


Notes about Flavorings

Given the high cost of extracts, I do not use them. I would use liqueurs or whiskey instead. But won't that make the biscotti alcoholic? No, because alcohol boils at 173 degrees F. whereas the biscuit dough must reach an internal temperature of over 200 degrees F. in order for it to be baked through. So, as you see, the alcohol will evaporate during baking.

If the alcohol did not evaporate during baking, you would get drunk from eating a loaf of bread. Bread dough is leavened by yeast converting sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. If you don't believe there is alcohol in fermenting bread dough, taste a bit of well-fermented -- i.e. ready for baking bread dough -- and you will feel how it burns your mouth.

What is "vanilla extract"? Stuff steeped out of cured vanilla beans plus water, ethyl (i.e. drinking) alcohol (35% by volume = 70 proof) and corn syrup (i.e. sugar), which is to say it is a liqueur (booze) by any other name. During America's Prohibition, people in Camden used to drink baking extracts for the sake of their alcohol.

Rather than buying anise extract, for example, I might buy a bottle of anisette. It would flavor a lot more biscotti (and I could also use it for other things, like soaking fresh cubed cantaloup for a few weeks in the refrigerator, but that of course would be alcoholic).

Or you could leave the flavoring out entirely. This might make the biscotti rather bland (although I don't know that it would, and indeed it might not), but if you are only going to put butter on them or dip them in coffee, this might not matter so much.


The URL of this Web page: https://www.roangelo.net/valente/biscotti.html
Last revised: 6 March 2007 : 2007-03-06 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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