I’m going to begin this whole she-bang with a confession.
I am not a very good baker. I am both intimidated and intrigued at the thought of taking the Baking & Pastry courses in culinary school, because there always seems to be a big, sparkly air of mystery surrounding baked goods. I measure things into bowls and mix and fold and stir, and my stuff comes out… ok. Edible. Rarely, rave worthy; and even if no one else can tell, I always feel like there’s something missing.
So when I found The Fearless Baker, by Emily Luchetti and Lisa Weiss, I did a little bit of a happy dance. Here was a book all about baked dessert type things, laid out exactly the way I, the exact opposite of a fearless baker, needed it to be.
Before we even get started with the baking, they go through vocabulary, techniques, equipment and materials. With each recipe, they give us a list of all the equipment we need to have ready at the very beginning, right along with the ingredients. The book is full of gentle, patient, yet firm reminders intended to save us from rookie mistakes— things like:
Read the recipe all the way through and make sure you understand it before you try to start putting everything together. Don’t forget to pre-heat the oven.
I decided my first attempt at one of these Fearless recipes would be a very non-difficult sounding Chocolate Biscotti recipe. Biscotti are basically twice baked cookies. You can often buy them in little individual packages at lots of coffee joints, because they’re pretty good for dipping into hot coffee or cocoa.
I know there’s a picture of the equipment/ingredients list up top, but I’ll give it to you again here, because I want to show you where I made substitutions.
Chocolate Biscotti– The Fearless Baker
Makes about 36 biscotti
Baking or cookie sheet
Parchment paper (I didn’t have any, so I just lined my cookie sheet with aluminum foil.)
Rubber Spatula (I used a bamboo mixing spoon.)
Note: These aren’t the only pieces of equipment you’ll need, they’re just the main ones you need to do the actual baking. Take their advice and read through the whole recipe to make sure you’re not missing anything before you get started.
1/3 cup pecan pieces (I omitted these because I was bringing them to work and I’m always worried about folks with nut allergies.)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar (I used vanilla sugar, which is just granulated sugar that’s been stored for a week or two with a vanilla bean pod stuck in the middle of it.)
1/3 cup cocoa powder (I used Mexican cocoa powder. More on that later.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
Large pinch kosher salt
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 ounces dark chocolate (58 to 62 percent cacao), chopped or broken into 1-inch pieces (I used semi-sweet chocolate chips.)
1 to 1 1/4 cups sweetened shredded coconut (I omitted these altogether, again, because I was making them for work and there are some people who just don’t dig coconut.)
First thing you need to do is pre-heat your oven to 350 and line your baking sheet with the parchment. I used aluminum foil because that’s what I had, but when I make this recipe again I will definitely make sure to have a roll of parchment paper on hand. I had a tiny problem with the biscotti sticking to the aluminum foil. It wasn’t ridiculous, but I did break a couple. I feel like that might not have happened if I had used the parchment paper.
As an aside, that’s one of those “gentle but firm reminders” I was telling you about. They recommend not making substitutions the first time you make any recipe. I don’t feel like the substitutions I made strayed too far from the original in terms of their purpose in the recipe, but I can guarantee that my biscotti did not taste like they would have if I’d followed this recipe to the letter.
The two primary substitutions I made that altered the flavour, but not the texture of this recipe were the type of cocoa powder I used, and the vanilla sugar.
Mexican cocoa powder has a little more going on than just chocolate. It includes a couple kinds of cinnamon and vanilla powder.
The vanilla sugar is pretty much just what it sounds like. I had a “spent” (all the seeds scraped out) vanilla pod left over from a cake I made a couple weeks ago. I just poured about four cups of sugar into a container with the vanilla pod in the middle. A few weeks later, the sugar has absorbed the vanilla flavour.
If you are using the pecans, the next step advises you to lay the pieces out in an even layer on a small baking pan and put it into your pre-heated oven to toast them. Set a timer for 10 minutes to help you remember them so they don’t burn.
Once the pecans are toasted and cooled, stir them by hand in a medium bowl with the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, whisk the eggs and vanilla.
This next step is where a rubber spatula or one of those “spoonula” things would come in handy. My mixing spoon did just fine, but I can see how using something with a little more flexibility would help here. You’re going to stir the egg/vanilla mixture into the flour mixture until it all comes together. It’s going to look like there’s no way you’re going to get all that flour incorporated, but trust me, you will. Just keep stirring. The recipe says you can use your hands if you want, but I’ve often found that with “shaggy” doughs like this one, I end up spending a little more time than I like making sure I’ve gotten all the dough off of my hands and back into the bowl. I just kept stirring gently and eventually it all came together.
Lightly flour your work surface, and then dump the dough out onto it. I gave mine just a quick little… I don’t want to call it kneading, because I would hate to mislead you into overworking the dough. I basically just turned it a few times to make sure the dough wasn’t sticking to my counter top. Divide the dough in half, and roll each half into a log about a foot long and an inch and a half wide. Put the logs onto the baking sheet with some room between them, and into the oven they go for 15 minutes for their first baking.
When they’re ready to come out, they’ll be firm to the touch, and you’ll notice that the places where the dough has cracked a bit will not look wet or shiny. I actually had to leave mine in for 18 minutes. I don’t know if that’s an altitude thing or what, but at 15 minutes they were definitely not firm enough for the next step, so I gave them some extra time.
My dough logs had spread so much they ran into each other. I think next time I’ll bake them one at a time to make sure they each get plenty of room to do their thing.
As soon as you take the biscotti out of the oven, drop your oven temperature down to 300. While the oven is cooling down, cut each log into about half inch slices. They’ll go back into the 300 degree oven for 15 minutes.
The only instruction that was a little confusing for me here was when it said to put the slices “cut side down” onto the baking sheet. Technically, except for the end pieces, there were two cut sides, so I wasn’t sure if I was doing this part right. Nothing bad happened, other than a few of them falling over in the oven.
While the biscotti are having their 2nd bake, you can get your chocolate melting. The recipe recommends doing this in a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water (make sure the bottom of the bowl isn’t touching the water), which is the way I did it. Or you can melt the chocolate in a double boiler, if you have one.
If you aren’t fully equipped for this stove top method, you can melt chocolate chips pretty easily in the microwave. Start them out at 1 minute, check/stir them, and then keep melting in 15-20 second increments until the chocolate is totally smooth. You have a little less control that way, but it’ll do in a pinch. You just have to keep a close eye on it.
When your 15 minute timer dings, take the biscotti out of the oven and let them cool to room temperature(ish). I never have the patience to wait for things to cool all the way.
Dip a cut side of each biscotti into your melted chocolate, and then into the coconut, or whatever you’re using instead of coconut. I used mini-chocolate chips.
Let the chocolate harden before you serve these. I just stuck mine in the fridge overnight since my apartment tends to stay kind of warm, and then put them in a gallon sized zip top bag in the morning. I took public transportation to work, and when I finally got to the office they weren’t melty at all, so I think the fridge trick worked for me.
If you can find this cookbook, I really do recommend it. If you’re a reluctant baker, like me, it will do a wonderful job of walking you through each recipe, and with some pretty impressive results. I have never made biscotti of any kind before, and the folks in my office were absolutely raving about these. I brought the entire batch in with me, and every single biscotti was gobbled up by lunch time. If this brave attempt at baking did nothing else for me, it certainly gave me the confidence to keep trying. I’m not fearless yet, but with a few more successful recipes under my belt, I’m pretty sure I could be.