In the beginning, there were doughnuts to complement coffee. Next came muffins -- huge muffins. Then, there was a brief flurry of scones.
Now, from Italy, comes biscotti, which are emerging as "the cookies of '90s," declares Gourmet magazine in this month's issue. The reason is simple, writes Italian culinary expert Carol Field. "Biscotti have come into their own again because they are so lean and light, so healthy and adaptable to today's way of life."
Consider the facts: A cake doughnut has 210 calories and 12 grams of fat; a small bran muffin has 125 calories and 6 grams of fat. By contrast, a large almond biscotti -- if it is made the traditional way, with no butter or oil -- has about 90 calories and 2.5 grams of fat, according to Bonnie Tempesta, president of the nation's leading biscotti maker, La Tempesta.
The growing popularity of biscotti also reflects America's continuing love affair with Italian food. As the romance progressed from pizza and pasta to espresso and cappuccino, it was only a matter of time before the crunchy, nut-studded biscotti were discovered.
Indeed, it seems that practically overnight, biscotti are everywhere. In fancy tins, nattily designed packages and simple cardboard boxes, they can be spotted at almost any specialty food store. Their increasing popularity has spawned a local cottage industry with cooks baking biscotti in church kitchens or restaurants in the off-hours to help supply the ever-proliferating espresso bars. After all, these drinking spots wouldn't be complete without at least one glass jar of biscotti on the counter.
So who better to help us tell the good biscotti from the bad than espresso bar owners? With so many brands to chose from, the Food section asked nine Washington-area proprietors to participate in a blind taste test of biscotti.
Those hardy of stomach (and teeth) were Michele Equale of Cafezino, Harold Hardy of Rockets Cafe, George Harrop of Barista, Edwin Love of Caffe Northwest, John Meute also of Cafezino, Rod Nordheimer of Ferrara, Marc Reshefsky of Cup'a Cup'a, Scott Siler of Pop Stop and Susan Stewart of Puccini's Espresso. Joining them was one local Italian cooking expert, Ann Yonkers, who has been working on a book on Sicilian cooking for two years. If these people didn't know about biscotti, we figured, no one would.
We invited these connoisseurs to compare 14 plain almond biscotti -- no chocolate chip, cranberry or granola biscotti. For just as Americans have adapted pizza and pasta to meet their own tastes, they also are meddling with biscotti, adding a number of new, only-in-America flavors.
In Italy, biscotti are simply almond-filled, sometimes flavored with a hint of anise, lemon, cinnamon or allspice. But in the United States, biscotti now come in many flavors: chocolate, chocolate chip, cranberry, orange, raspberry. There's even a wheat germ flavor and, at the other end of the spectrum, a chocolate biscotti topped with pecan toffee. (Of course, with each addition -- especially if the biscotti is dipped in rich bittersweet chocolate -- it becomes less lean and light. But that's never bothered Americans before. In fact, notes Tempesta, her almond biscotti dipped in bittersweet chocolate is her top-seller, ahead of the second-ranked plain almond cookie.)
What makes a good biscotti? Since they are meant to be dunked into espresso or sweet wine, they should be very dry, "almost brittle," says Anna Maria Lepore, executive vice president of Ferrara Foods and Confections, the century-old Manhattan Italian bakery which, in its first expansion outside New York, has opened five espresso bars in the Washington area. Biscotti should be dry enough that "if you looked at it, you'd think they would break your teeth," explains Lepore. "But they should be light enough that they actually break easily in your mouth." Additionally, Lepore says, a biscotti should be porous enough to absorb liquid but not so much that it will turn into an edible ball of mush -- and make your coffee a cup of muck in the process.
Of the plain almond biscotti that were the subjects of this taste test, about half are sold by the piece in espresso bars; the remainder come packaged (usually in fancy tins or gift packages) and are available in gourmet food stores.
Between sips of S. Pellegrino sparkling water (Italian, of course) or plain old American coffee (unfortunately we couldn't come up with espresso), the testers crunched and dipped away. Some tasted the biscotti plain; some dipped them in coffee; some tried them both ways.
Although there were several biscotti that all our tasters strongly disliked, there was no one biscotti that all tasters liked. Although several drew good reviews from a majority of testers, in each case, there was always at least one sampler who did not care for them.
Nonetheless, by weighing the results as a group, there were some biscotti that were clearly rated better than others. Here is a rundown of the brands tested, in descending order of preference. Included is where these brands can be found; at least one store is named for each brand but in many cases the biscotti are available in several other stores in the Washington area.
1. Ghiottini, made in Italy; available at Giant's Someplace Special in McLean for $12.99 for 14 ounces. These biscotti are bite-size cookies that have a lemon undertone and are a bit sweet. Their small size won high marks from almost all testers and many liked its flavor. "A nice mix of the almond, vanilla and citrus," said Meute.
2. La Tempesta Biscotti Toscani, made in California; available at almost any specialty food store, with prices ranging from $5 to $9 for an 8-ounce bag. Perhaps because these biscotti are the most widely known and available, many testers were able to guess correctly the brand of this dark-looking cookie, including Yonkers, who noted: "good quality for a commercial brand.
3. De Camillo Biscotti di Prato, made in New York; available at many specialty food stores for about $4 for a 7-ounce bag (bigger containers are also available). Almost all the testers criticized the looks of these biscotti because they were so colorless. "Looks bland, bleached," said Siler. Still, the plain taste of these cookies -- no hint of lemon, anise or extra almond flavoring -- made them a winner. "The standard Italian biscotti," said Harrop. "Even though it is bland to look at, I enjoy it," said Nordheimer who thought it was the best of the bunch.
4. Biscotti di Suzy, made in California; available at Barista espresso bar for 75 cents apiece. Heavily flavored with anise, this cookie won plaudits from several samplers for its uniform shape, blond color and taste. "A good light anise-almond taste," said Equale.
5. Chef Roberto Donna's, made in Washington at Galileo restaurant; available at Galileo and its sister restaurant I Matti as well as at Sutton Place Gourmet for $15 for a 13-ounce tin. These small cookies are heavily studded with almonds, making them crunchy but not too hard. "Delicate but simple," declared Reshefsky."
6. San Anselmo's, made in California, available at Cup'a Cup'a for 75 cents a piece. This brand won praise for its appearance ("good homemade look," said Harrop). And one bar owner, Love, gave it high marks, saying it was "just about right." Still, several other testers said they were not as flavorful as other brands on the table.
7. Nonni's Biscotti Originali, made in California; available at Giant's Someplace Special, Bradley Food & Beverage and several other specialty food stores for about $6 for an 8-ounce package. With a hint of anise, these were viewed as slightly better than average with no clear stand-out trait.
8. Vaccaro's, made in Baltimore; available at Pop Stop for 50 cents apiece or at Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop in Union Station for $9.10 a pound. On the small side, these cookies were faulted for having no decisive flavor. Still, that's precisely why Equale liked them. "Tastes like biscotti my grandmother made," she said.
9. Terri's Gourmet, made in Silver Spring (by Terri Fisher, a former catering manager who wanted to start her own business); available at Racheli's, Caffe Northwest, Cafezino and several other local espresso bars with prices ranging from 70 cents to about $1 apiece. These biscotti have a distinct homemade look, with some looking very yellow, others a mellow brown -- a sign they were made in different batches. While several testers complained that they had no taste, others liked them for their toasted almond flavor.
10. Cantuccini, made in Italy; available in Italian gourmet shops such as Italian Gourmet in Vienna and Vace in Northwest Washington for about $6 for 8 ounces. "So small it looks like croutons," said Siler. Others criticized its flavor. "Weak," noted Hardy. "Not sure what the predominant flavor is," added Meute.
11. Biscotti Nucci, made in California; available at Williams-Sonoma for $8.50 for 10.5 ounces. To some, this cookie had a lemon undertone; to others it had no flavor or, worse, tasted burned. Those who tasted the lemon liked the cookie. "A nice balance," said Harrop. Those who didn't were not so nice. "Doesn't work," noted Yonkers.
12. Ferrara, made in New York; available at Ferrara espresso bars for $1 apiece. Slightly sweet and studded with nuts, this one "is more like a granola candy bar" than a biscotti, said Reshefsky, echoing the comments of almost every other tester.
13. Stella D'Oro Almond Toast, made in New York; available at most supermarkets for $1.59 for a 7-ounce bag. There wasn't a tester who liked this brand, which, as Siler said, "looks like garlic bread and tastes indistinguishable." What's more, noted Hardy, it's texture was soft -- "too mushy."
14. Italian Gourmet, made in Vienna; available at the Italian Gourmet deli for $8.99 a pound. These came out at the bottom of the list -- and with good reason -- they were baked only once, not twice as is the traditional biscotti. The store says its customers complained that the twice-baked biscotti were too hard so it has started to cook the dough only once. But to our biscotti tasters, this was unacceptable. "Undercooked, almost raw," said Yonkers. "This should not be considered biscotti," added Nordheimer.