Homemade biscotti are a guilt-free indulgence

We've been in love with biscotti ever since everything Italian hit American shores back in the 1970s.

From big and chunky with whole nuts and sugar crystals, to nut-studded, oblong wafers that are most familiar, biscotti come in many forms. Back in those days, on trips abroad, it was a delight to encounter those tantalizing shapes packed in marvelously gigantic jars and perched on shop counters tempting the eye.

One of the other reasons for biscotti's rise in popularity, perhaps, is that they came on the scene when we all had a heightened interest in controlling our cholesterol. Biscotti were a natural, because, in their most traditional form, they have little or no fat. So indulging became a healthy but satisfying option to muffins or cookies.

On the other hand, aside from being a tasty yet healthy sidekick to wine, tea and espresso, they also pair up nicely with ice cream and hot cocoa.

The literal translation of biscotti is "twice baked," referring to the cooking process in which logs of baked cookie dough are sliced diagonally into somewhat slender fingers and then given a second baking to dry them out and crisp them up. This is what makes biscotti terrific keepers — up to three weeks or longer. In fact, if they begin to stale, simply slip them into the oven for a moment to bring them back to fresh-baked quality.

Although modern-day biscotti are associated with the Tuscan region of Italy, biscotti's roots can be traced back to the first century, where they were considered a staple for Roman troops. In fact, early Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder boasted that a batch of biscotti would be edible for centuries.

There are plenty of reasons to make your own biscotti rather than settling for a package from the cookie aisle in your supermarket. First of all, even being twice-baked, the difference between homemade and commercially made biscotti is extreme. The freshness factor of the home-baked version is off the chart. Although both kinds of biscotti have the classic crunch, homemade versions also have an exquisite tenderness and richness of flavor.

Secondly, you can create a multitude of varieties once you get the hang of it, and a batch of biscotti makes a wonderful gift, along with a tin of special tea or coffee or a bottle of wine. And finally, like that wise, early Roman philosopher observed, homemade biscotti do keep for a very long time although "for centuries" might just be pushing it!

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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