CHOCOLATE CHIP WALNUT BISCOTTI

It’s a cold, snowy Sunday in January.  What do you do?  Curl up on the sofa and read a book?  Maybe!  But, first how about baking a batch of delicious biscotti.   After which, curling up on the sofa with a piping hot mug of tea, yummy biscotti and a good book sounds like a perfect afternoon!

I didn’t post all the photos for the preparation and assembly for this recipe, primarily because they are the same as the photo instructions for my other biscotti recipe – White Chocolate Cranberry Biscotti.  Biscotti are really quite easy to make.  And, in most homes, not mine, properly stored, they can stay fresh for weeks.  Biscotti were actually created in Italy as a convenience food for travelers and the Roman army, rather than a sweet treat to go with coffee, tea and, of course, wine.  The “twice-baked” finger-shaped confections are “dried out” during the second baking in order to make them more durable.

Biscotti were originally flavored with almond, but now you can find biscotti made with dozens of flavors and combinations of flavors.   My previous recipe was White Chocolate and Dried Cranberry, but today I’m feeling like chocolate.  And to make these even more chocolaty, I’m adding mini chocolate chips to the chocolate batter.  Let’s go!

CHOCOLATE CHIP WALNUT BISCOTTI
Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease or line with parchment paper, two baking sheets.  Makes about two dozen.

1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup Dutch process cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
1 ounce softened butter (not melted)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 eggs, room temperature*
1 cup chopped walnuts (or any chopped nuts)
6 oz. pkg. mini chocolate chips

In one bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.  I always sift twice, just to ensure the dry ingredients are incorporated completely.  Who wants to get a mouthful of baking powder??

In another bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla til well combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.  If the batter appears curdled at this point, don’t worry.  It will come together.

Stir in the dry ingredients, and then add the chocolate chips and chopped walnuts.  Cover the batter and then refrigerate for an hour.  It will be easier to handle when nice and cold.

Take the batter from the frig and dump it onto a lightly floured board.  Knead for a few seconds til it forms a ball.  Cut the ball in half.  Form each half into a narrow log – about 3/4″ high and about 6″ or 7″ long.  When baked, you will slice this log diagonally, so be sure it’s not too wide.

Place each log onto a baking tray and bake in the center of the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Check for doneness with a cake tester inserted into the middle.  When cooked through, remove from the oven and cool on racks.

Only when completely cooled should you slice the logs.  If you are too impatient and slice them when they are still warm, they will crumble.  Using a serrated knife, cut each log on the diagonal, into about 1/2″ slices.  Place the slices on the baking trays, in a single layer.  Return them to the preheated oven and continue baking for about 15 to 20 minutes.  I flip them over halfway through the baking, but not everyone does.  It’s up to you.  When done, cool completely on racks.

These super chocolaty, crunchy biscotti are rich and sweet and delicious!  My suggestion … put a few away as a treat for yourself because these are going to disappear quickly.  Now you’re ready to curl up on the sofa with a good book and steaming, hot cuppa!!

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* People always ask me why should eggs be at room temperature for baking.  I’m sure with cold eggs, your bakes will be fine, but probably more dense than you might have wanted. With room temperature eggs, the whites and yolks combine easier, which means they will disperse into the batter more evenly, making for more even baking and lighter texture.  If you’ve forgotten to take the eggs out of the frig before hand, not to worry.  Place the eggs in hot (not boiling water) for 10 to 15 minutes and they’ll be perfect.

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Addicted to GBBO

Yes, I will admit it.  I am addicted to the “GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF” program on PBS.  It doesn’t matter which season, or which episode, or which challenge, I will stop what I am doing and watch every action-packed moment.

But why?  What makes this cooking program any different from the slew of other cooking programs … on all the many cooking channels … at any time of the day or night?   I’m not really sure.  Could it be that the two judges are actually professional bakers, and not actors or tv personalities whose careers have waned and they have no other place to go?  Could it be the lack of insulting comments from the chef judges to the contestants?   Master Chef, you know who you are!   Or perhaps the lack of having to utilize the obvious ‘placement’ products from their sponsors to create the ‘challenge’ that week?  Sound familiar, Top Chef?  Maybe its the gimmick-free way in which the program is presented … name most of the shows on the Food Network these days!

The format is very basic – three baking challenges over two days – starting with 12 bakers, eliminating one each week and selecting a “star” baker, until the final three bakers face off to select the winner. The winner of the GBBO does not get $250,000.00 in cash, or their own cooking program, or a feature in Food & Wine magazine.  They get “bragging rights”.  Yup!  That’s it!Abouttop-Sue-Mel

Fashion icons they are not, but the show hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, are masterful in their handling of each week’s challenges and contestants.  They have very little camera time but when they do, their quips are quick, slick, and quite funny.

I became familiar with Sue Perkins, the bespectacled brunette, from a BBC program called THE SUPERSIZERS, in which she and her co-host had to live in selected British periods of time and experience the life styles and, more-importantly, the foods from those eras. It was historically accurate and hysterically funny.   Each episode focused on one historical period and for one week they lived in that time period … from clothing and lack of conveniences to tasty repasts sometimes consisting of sow’s udder paté, bovine pudding or duck tongue.

Mel Giedroyc, the perky blonde with the quick wit, has co-hosted with Sue before.  Apparently they worked together on a daytime British program called LIGHT LUNCH or was it LATE LUNCH.  Either way, I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure it was quite entertaining.  Together Mel and Sue have a great comraderie, and always empathize with each contestant’s near disasters.

Abouttop-Paul-MaryThe judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, somehow work beautifully together … a bit like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.  Paul, with his piercing blue eyes, would intimidate even the most seasoned baker.  It just takes one look for you to know you’re doomed, but Mary (30 years Paul’s senior) finds some good in every bake, regardless of how awful it may look or taste.  Both Paul and Mary are hugely successful professional bakers, cookbook authors, and television personalities, each with their own cooking shows; but there are no signs of egos here.   Each week they bring interesting and quite difficult challenges to the contestants, after which they focus on the ‘bake’, nothing more.  How refreshing!

The show is filmed in tents on the grounds of many different British country houses from Welford Park in Newbury, to Harptree Court in Bristol, to Valentines Mansion in Redbridge.   Did I say, in tents?  Yup!  Where else could you showcase Britain in all of its glory but on perfectly manicured lawns of magnificent country houses with a background of lush green gardens and, of course, the completely unpredictable British weather!  The location for each of the season’s filming is kept quite secretive … not wanting stampeding fans showing up, I guess.

Abouttop-Victoria-SandwichThe baking “challenges” are divided into three categories.  First , there is the Signature Bake, to test the contestants’ creativity and baking ability.  Next is the Technical Bake, where the bakers receive a recipe from Mary or Paul with minimal instruction.  Finally, it’s the Showstopper Bake, which is designed to display the bakers’ skill and talent.  Many of these “challenges” are classic British baked items, some are from French patisseries … most of which I have never ever heard of (actually some of the contestants have never heard of them either).  Yes, the contestants are given recipes in the Technical Bake, and, yes, they have advance knowledge of what the next challenge is going to be so that they can practice at home.  What they don’t have to do is try to utilize canned chicken, root beer, squash blossoms and dill pickles to make a frozen dessert.  This is a true baking show, remember.   Gimmick free!

This cooking/baking program may not be for everyone, but it certainly is a hit for many.  Not only can you buy the cookbooks, you can, of course, download any of the episodes, and now you can buy the intriguing background music composed by Tom Howe.

We’re into Season 6 right now … but in Great Britain Season 7 is viewing and competing with the Olympics.  For some reason, PBS didn’t start airing GBBO until Season 3 and are calling this season “Season 3” …!  Confused?  So am I.   Perhaps PBS wanted to see if the show was going to gain in popularity before airing it, as they do with so many other British television programs. Well, it has!  Over 13 million viewers in Great Britain alone.  And what it has done to the baking industry is unbelievable.  Sales of flour, baking powder, baking chocolate have all risen (no pun intended).  Home bakers are being challenged to try their hand at scones, bread and cake.  Yes, it has even inspired me.

So if you haven’t seen an episode of the GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF, I challenge you to watch it, and tell me you don’t hunger for one of those “Show Stoppers“!

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References:  Great British Bake Off, GBBO Music, The Guardian

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Raisins, Sultanas or Currants?

Have you ever read a British recipe only to see “sultanas” or “currants” as an ingredient?  And have you ever then put that recipe down because who has “sultanas” or “currants” in the cupboard?  Probably no one in the states.  But do you know what they are and what you can use?

I’m pretty sure we all know what raisins are?  Dried seedless grapes. The majority of our grapes are grown in California, originally from the ‘Sultanina’ grape (possibly named because of its origination in the town Soultanieh in the middle East).

In 1870 William Thompson imported this variety of grape to California for his vineyards.  But from the devastating drought of 1873 William was left with nothing but shriveled up grapes on his vines.  Making ‘lemonade out of lemons’ Thompson sold the dried up grapes as a “Peruvian Delicacy” and low and behold the California raisin industry was born!  The Sultanina grape is now known as the Thompson grape and is the most widely planted grape in the industry.

Dried grapes (or raisins) have been around for thousands of years though.  Whether it’s grapes, or plums, figs or apricots, leaving vegetables and fruits out to dry in the sun is one of the oldest methods of preserving food.  More than 2,000 years B.C. wall paintings found throughout the Mediterranean showed us that dried fruits were a major part of the diet.  In medieval times, dried fruits were the most common form of sweetener, far more popular (and more expensive) than honey. In Roman times, two bags of dried fruits could buy a slave.

 So now that we’ve established what a raisin is, what is a sultana? Sultanas are actually nothing more than ‘raisins’, but made from the lighter green Thompson grapes. When dried, they are golden in color and tend to be a bit bigger and sweeter than our ordinary raisins.  Sultanas are easy to find in the supermarket under the name “golden raisins”.  In baking you can use golden raisins anytime sultanas are called for in a recipe.

Currants, on the other hand, are a completely different fruit.  Much smaller in size and quite tart, whether red or black, currants are berries grown on shrubs or bushes and not grown on vines. Most often, currants are associated with only being available in Great Britain.  Sun Maid sells a product called Zante Currants, which is not a currant at all but a grape, originally from Greece, and should not be confused with the currants of Great Britain.

The currants used in many British recipes are, for the most part, not available in the U.S. Commercial cultivation of these currants was banned from 1911 until 2003 because of concerns the plants could harbor a disease that had the potential to devastate American timber.  Disease-resistant varieties were developed and now the ban has been lifted.  For this reason, many Americans confuse Zante raisins with currants.  Although I’ve never tried growing currants, I’m told they grow easily in your own backyard.  So until I do, I’m probably going to use Sun Maid’s Zante Currants (raisins) in place of British currants in my baking.

Whether in baking or in savory foods, be sure to use plenty of raisins, sultanas or currants in your cooking … or just keep them around as a handy snack.  A low-fat food, full of antioxidants and polyphenolic phytonutrients, dried fruits act as an anti-inflammatory and can help protect the body against free radicals.  Dried fruits also contain iron, B vitamins, potassium and magnesium, which helps build red blood cells and healthy bones.  Red and black currants, in particular, have four times more vitamin C than oranges and twice the antioxidants of blueberries.   Great for digestion because they contain lots of fiber, these sweet, delicious dried fruits really are nature’s candy.

So the next time you’re about to make Spotted Dick, a Christmas Pudding or Bara Brith, don’t be afraid to reach for the ‘raisins’.

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References:  Raisin Grape Varieties,  Isons Nurseries, Sun Maid, Cornell University, Wise Geek

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