Tuesday, December 12, 2017

5: The Lovers

# 5  The Lovers:

Oh, vanilla!  It is one of the lovelier sets of flavors and aromas the world has been given.  And what we go through to have it.

Europeans found vanilla already prized in the “New World” upon their arrival.  It comes from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid, V. planifolia.  In the 1520s, Cortes sent vanilla back to the “Old World” and Europeans were given a taste of this treasure.  Cultivation outside it’s native land would take just over three centuries.

The orchid first flowered in Europe in 1806.  Cuttings from that plant were shared in Europe and the French soon sent it to their colonies.  But pollination of the short-lived flowers was a problem.  The flowers don’t self-pollinate naturally, a flap keeps most bees out of the flower, and the bee that lifted the flap and pollinated the orchid flower so well in Mexico for centuries didn’t travel.  That meant hand-pollination would be required to produce a crop.  And that wasn’t easy.

In 1841, a 12 year old slave, Edmond Albius, on the island of Reunion found a method still in use today.  Using a beveled sliver of bamboo, the flower’s flap is lifted and the thumb is then used to transfer the pollen.  It’s the first of many labor intensive steps in growing then curing the seed pods from which we get vanilla.

Three major varieties can be obtained today:  Bourbon or Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian.  All have gotten exceedingly pricey - a gallon going for about 500 dollars as 2018 approaches.  But one cannot substitute the artificial.  Trust me, it’s a high, thin flavor.  It’s not the same in any but the most superficial, rather annoying way.  It lacks depth and warmth and all the little side notes of the real vanillas.

You may have noticed in looking at the ingredients that go into Trade Winds I chose to use Tahitian vanilla.  To me, the flowery, higher notes it possesses perfectly matched the spice cookie I envisioned.  But “flowery” and “rich” and “warm” and all the other words to describe the complexities that come from vanilla are not the way I differentiate the three vanillas.

To me, they are like lovers.

Tahitian is like first love, tentative and fragile yet intense and sure.  It has excitement and energy.  It’s Romeo and Juliet - hold the suicide.

Madagascar is the married couple, still passionate, holding hands, exchanging knowing looks.  Solid and dependable, yes.  But ever-so romantic at heart.

Mexican is the pair in the midst of an affair.  It is the soul of passion, a transcendent warmth that commands the moment.  It is pure romance.

I’m lucky to have a source for all three major varieties of vanilla:  The Vanilla Company, https://www.vanillaqueen.com.  The owner, the Vanilla Queen Patricia Rain, works to help small growers and processors around the world begin and maintain production.  And she provides pure vanillas for bakers like me to use and you to enjoy.

And I don’t just enjoy vanilla.  I love them all.  I love having them around just for their fragrances.  They are one of the joys of being a baker.

I hope you enjoy my sharing my thoughts about baking and enjoy my biscotti - my craft. 

Feel free to log in and comment or ask questions.  I look forward to hearing from you.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

4:  Let There Be Spice

After the battles I had creating The Citrus and My Hazelnut, I should have been wary about what would happen with the third of the three biscotti I envisioned.  I wasn’t.  I can’t say with any certainty why I wasn’t, but I suspect it was the focus I had on what was becoming my “family” of cookies.  I knew my first two children.  I would learn to know them better, but I didn’t know how much I had yet to learn about them so I was filled with confidence.

And my imagination was bursting with what I envisioned the final biscotto to be.  It would have a base much like that of The Citrus with flour and almond flour and white chocolate.  But it would be a spice cookie at heart, a spice cookie in the European tradition.  It would have the cocoa My Hazelnut had rejected, it would have spices, it would get the more flowery Tahitian vanilla and dark rum.  And it would be studded with macadamias.  

It had taken shape perfectly in my mind.  All that remained was to bring it to life and to give it a name.  

And so, I sketched out the ingredients.  I mixed, shaped and baked.  I rested the loaf, sliced then dried the slices.  Then tasted.  And my third biscotti was almost there.  The blending of the spices was ever so close.  All it took was a slight adjustment for the second test.  I never needed a third.

I gave it the name Trade Winds to reflect the spices and Tahitian vanilla, the cocoa and macadamias and rum - all flavors of the trade route.

It was the easy child.  It had come together quickly.  It was less finicky in the bake than The Citrus but not quite as easygoing as My Hazelnut.  It filled out the flavors I wanted to make.  It completed the “family” of biscotti.

Oh, there would be tiny changes to all the three biscotti as I found the right temperature, the right way to mix, the right balance of flour and egg, adjusted the temperature to the adjusted texture then made more small changes.  These small changes occurred over the course of a few years as I worked to get more uniformity from each bake.  This is what happened as my children “grew up”.  

Now they are grown.  Now the only change is the slight adjustment of the amount of egg used to compensate for the weather and seasons of the year - the heat, the cold, the damp or dry conditions - what would be half-a-teaspoon or less for a single loaf you might make at home.

And now, the only thing that can keep my biscotti from being the beautiful cookies they grew into is the arrogance, foolishness or plain stupidity of the baker.  It’s what we humans are heir to.

I’ll tell you some of the foolishness I’ve experienced and lessons learned as this writing continues in the weeks and months to come.  

I hope you’ll follow my blog and give me your feedback.  When you buy my biscotti, I know my baking is making your tastebuds  happy.  When you follow my writing, I know my words are satisfying your mind.

Best wishes,


Monday, November 20, 2017

3:  The Second Sibling:

When introducing people to my biscotti, they often ask, “Which one is your favorite?” I answer, “How can I choose?  They are my children.”

And three very different children they turned out to be.

The Citrus was the first child.  She turned out to be my teacher, even though I had no idea this was to be part of her personality.  I understood the biscotti would have different flavors…and slightly different textures from the differences in ingredients, but I had no sense of how different their personalities could be.

If The Citrus was my teacher, the hazelnut biscotti was the stubborn child and a good deal more after we came to terms.

The problem began with the belief I was going to make was a cocoa-hazelnut biscotti.  I could imagine the flavor combination.  The biscotti couldn’t.

The hazelnut and cocoa didn’t want to be friends.  They both wanted to be king.  When hazelnut ruled, the cocoa faded away.  Let cocoa reign and hazelnut retreated into a corner.  Even using small amounts to barely change the balance, cutting the change in half then in half again didn’t get the hazelnut and cocoa to a common ground.

My preconceived vision had been beautiful.  And beautifully wrong.  If I was going to make a hazelnut biscotti, hazelnut demanded top billing.  He was to be the star.  Cocoa needed to find someplace else to hang out.  But hazelnut now needed a proper supporting cast.

I gave it extra low notes to compliment the richness of toasted hazelnuts and hazelnut oil and soften the higher notes of the hazelnut flour.  Large doses of dark rum and Madagascar vanilla were paired with only a hint of spices and a dash of orange zest and oil.  It became what it had demanded to be, a biscotto which has a butterscotch undertone that melds with roasted hazelnuts.  It became “My Hazelnut” and my second “child”.  

It also became the most forgiving of the three biscotti.  The hazelnut oil gives it a different elasticity.  It handles better, comes together more quickly, stretches more easily, takes to shaping with less effort and maintains it through the bake.  As I slice, dry then package, it reminds me of what the biscotti should look like, most consistently producing a graceful arch.* 

My Hazelnut is not without its simple demands.  The hazelnuts must be sorted, particularly after toasting.  Shrunken, shriveled, oily looking ones and those that have darkened excessively must be discarded.  It also asks me to remember to follow the recipe - remember to get the ingredients in, to add them in proper order, to take the time to fully mix them, to scrape the bowl and beater as needed, get the temperatures and times right - to be a proper baker.

It’s not a lot to ask when coming from such a well-behaved child.


* The oil also makes “My Hazelnut” the most susceptible to humidity.  For me, that means packaging can’t be put off.  For you, it means keeping the unused biscotti in a zip-type bag gets an asterisk, particularly in muggy weather.  If the biscotti stay out too long and lose their snap, re-crisp on a wire rack at 200 degrees for seven to ten minutes.  Remove from the oven.  Allow to cool before storing airtight.

Monday, November 6, 2017

2: Finding My Teacher

I don’t know how it is for others when they adapt and create recipes.  For me, it comes down to focus.  

You concentrate on what your taste buds have to tell you.  You wait for the little flavors to appear below and behind the dominant ones.  You hold onto the aromas until they almost disappear.  You smell to learn the way they change.  You do it again and again.  

You spend the time. 

Somewhere in the back of your brain is the biscotti you imagine you’re going to make.  The scents, the tastes tell you where you are.  They point you toward your imaginary destination.  Sometimes they lead you down a dead end and you have to backtrack.  But they always lead you onward.

What The Citrus had to be was ‘burstingly’ citrus.  What she wouldn’t become was citrusy enough using lemon and orange juices.  They give lovely notes.  But they were lovely modest notes.  They had to dominate.

In her brilliant book, “In the Sweet Kitchen”, Dana Regan praised citrus oils for their ability to impart flavor and aroma - to give a citrusy ‘oomph’.  As an amateur baker, I’d never played with lemon or orange oil.  They’re not commonly offered in groceries.  You have to go looking.  I did.  What a revelation.

I tried the oils, using ¼ tsp per cup of liquid.  Wherever that advice came from, it was short.*  But the flavor was zesty and bright even though it was not insistent.  I tripled the amount, something Chef Regan recommends as a general rule in baking.  

This was the birth of the The Citrus.  It finally had a bold enough flavor and aroma of lemon and orange to play with other flavorings - the accents that add interest and subtle complexity.  Orange juice gave the biscotti a flavor similar to “Dreamsicles”.  It thrilled my mother-in-law.  I liked it too.  But it didn’t match my imagined creation.  It dimmed the brightness.  Cognac didn’t.  It lifted and accentuated the citrus.  And spices with higher notes like cardamom and ginger contributed to the flavor rather than competing.  From there, it came down to balancing the flavors, adjusting them to hone in on the compromise of what my imagination had begun with and what The Citrus was becoming.

This was the actual beginning of Bob’s Biscotti - learning to let it tell me what it was capable of being. The Citrus was my teacher.  She remains so, more demanding in the mixing, more finicky in the baking, more exacting in the drying.  Even after ten years, The Citrus is always ready to remind me how human and fallible I am.  And you have to love a wonderful teacher.

Thanks for being here.  I hope you’ll take the time to comment and give my biscotti a review if you’d like.  I look forward to your being here again.


• Boyajian, the maker of the oils I now use recommends adding another ½ tsp per cup of dry ingredients.  If I’d had their recommendation at the start, I would have begun closer to the needed amount.  But the process I went through was what it was and led to the biscotti I make. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Beginning.

Benish’s Bakery blog.

About a dozen years ago I began thinking about the biscotti I wanted to create.  A desire to make a citrus biscotti started the thinking process that led down the road to what would become the Bob’s Biscotti trio.  It was a longer road than I expected.  They often are.

Citrus was, in my mind, a slightly more feminine flavor.  So I asked myself, if this was to be designed with a woman in mind, what did that mean?  As I was pondering, my mother’s voice came to me with something she had said decades before.  It was the simple declarative sentence, “Bobby,” Maggie had said, "Women don’t gnaw.”  It took years to remember what she was actually talking about when she said it.  But it took only moments to understand what that would mean for the biscotti I would make.

The biscotti would have to be sliced relatively thin. They would have to be beautifully arched. Though crisp, they would have to be easy to nibble.  They would have to hold together when dunked and not leave a mass of soggy chunks in the bottom of the cup or mug.  And even a small bite would have to deliver flavor.  Lots of beautiful, complex flavor.  It had to be a cookie Maggie would have loved.

What a journey this sent me on!

First came the job of trying recipes, one after another, looking for one that might give me a loaf of biscotti-quick bread that would do what I wanted it to do.

I’d baked biscotti to put in holiday baskets or just have some cookies to munch and share.  There always seemed to a battle going on between texture and thickness.  The thinner you sliced them, the more fragile they became and the more likely to crumble in your cup.  But slice too thick and they become too hard to take a bite without shoving the thing far enough back into your mouth to reach the molars.  You had to gnaw.  And “Women don’t gnaw,” kept running through my head.

Then I found a recipe for a biscotti made with white chocolate, ground with sugar and baked into the loaf instead of butter or oil.  It produced a higher loaf with a more open yet firm crumb.  And when a fine white chocolate is baked it, the richness and warmth to the palate shone through.  It sliced thinner, had an easy bite, and held together when dunked.

There were still obstacles to be overcome.  But the texture of the loaf was done.  More about resting and slicing, flavoring, mixing, and the intricacies of temperature to come as I continue this occasional blog.

Thanks for being here.  I look forward to your return.