When Alice Waters appears in your kitchen, you cross your fingers you're having one of those good cookie baking sort of days. No such luck at the American Academy in Rome, where Waters deemed the campus gorgeous but the food more than a bit stale after a 2006 visit.
So she sent over Mona Talbott, one of her former Chez Panisse pastry chefs, to whip that kitchen into shape (something few others that Waters could likely do — insult an Italian chef and yet still get an enthusiastic “yes” on that invitation to collaborate).
Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of The American Academy in Rome is the first cookbook to come out of the updated Italian-American kitchen. And it's a pretty fantastic cookie-biscotti hybrid, we should add. Glove-box sized and affordable, too, should you be needing a cookie book to take on any holiday travels this year for those last minute biscotti al datteri e noci (date and walnut cookies) and lingue di gatto (cat's tongue) recipes. Turn the page for more.
The first book in a series (muffins/scones, pasta, vegetables, and preserves are yet to come), Biscotti tells the cookie-side of the story of Mona Talbott, the chef Waters chose to lead the new culinary program at the school (Talbott is a Chez Panisse alum). The school's pastry chef is Mirella Misenti, who started out as a dishwasher but became the pastry maven after whipping up several of her Sicilian family's recipes, such as a homemade apple cake, for staff lunches.
The new cooking style at the Academy is a hybrid of traditional Italian foods and Water's now ubiquitous “new American” style (for lack of a better term), meaning classic recipes that have been given face lifts. In the cookie world, that means not only using top quality chocolate and pure vanilla extract (of course), but also often cutting back on the sugar so other ingredients have a chance to catch your palette's attention. As this is Italy, it also means soft summer stone ground wheat and small-batch fresh cornmeal (you can substitute AP flour and commercial cornmeal).
It follows that the book is divided into five sections based on ingredients: Milk and Wine; Nuts; Honey; Citrus and Spice; Meringue; Chocolate. And as this is an ironic twist of kitchen fate — Talbott, an American chef, leading a prominent Italian kitchen?! — there are American-style cookie recipes in this book as well. Americans are, after all, a good portion of the students, scholars and fellows who attend the daily afternoon teas, looking forward to munching on whatever little sugary gifts Talbott and Misenti might be offering: Cantucci di prato (almond cornmeal cookies based on a recipe from the Zuni Café Cookbook), pain d'amande (the signature French almond wafer cookies that are a signature dessert accompaniment at Chez Panisse), or perhaps a nostalgic snickerdoodle bite (classically American). A peanut butter cookie recipe, too, though Talbott makes a point to note that “most Italians loath crema d'arachidi.” Who knew peanut butter would ever be used as a diplomatic peace offering.
There are plenty of Italian cookie recipes among the pages as well, including amaretti con pistacchi e arancia (macaroons with pistachio and orange) and dita di fata (fairy fingers), a ground almond cookie flavored with orange flower water that Misenti brought from her family's recipe archives. The recipes are concise and easy to whip up, with many requiring little more than a well-stocked pantry. And the design is pretty great, too. We had to double check the ingredients index pages to make sure we weren't the ones who left the little smudges of chocolate on their edges (they are photos of the kitchen's recipe notebooks).
In fact, Biscotti is such a practical little guidebook that very subtly — and cleverly — tells the story of how traditional recipes take on a new life when a chef is dutifully trying to merge old and new tastes (and across cultures lines, no less), we couldn't leave it out of our Best Cookbooks of 2010 list. So we're crowning Biscotti with the title Best Stocking Stuffer Cookbook Of 2010.
Check back tomorrow for a biscotti regina (sesame seed cookies) recipe from the book for our Twelve Days of Cookie Recipes series.