And they come in many more varieties than you realize.
Although we have a very clear understanding of "biscotti" in the English-speaking world, the word simply translates into biscuits or cookies in Italian. It comes from the two Latin words for “twice-cooked” (bis means twice; cotti, cooked), which perfectly describe how Italy's most famous cookies are made: First, they're shaped into long logs and baked until golden; then, they're chopped into finger-like slices and baked again briefly to dry them out.
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The crunch—and the durability and heartiness—is their trademark, and it's also reflected in how they are best eaten. Because of their jaw-breaking quality, they are best when dipped into liquid, whether that's coffee, tea or—the ultimate—sweet, sticky wine. Unlike other cookies, biscotti won't crumble and fall in; instead, they'll soak up the flavors wonderfully and soften just the way you want them to.
In Tuscany, home to arguably the most famous biscotti, you can find a few types of similar cookies. The difference between these different biscotti today is minimal; they seem to be variations on the same theme. The most well-known variations are cantuccini and tozzetti:
These are, most often,almond-studded biscotti from Prato, a city that neighbors Florence.
They're strictly for eating with amber-toned vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine), and, in homes and trattorias, are the typical finish to a meal.
Cantuccini of centuries past were more likely twice-baked slices of bread-like dough—more toast than cookie. The original nineteenth century recipe for Prato's biscotti included pine nuts as well as almonds and did not contain butter or any rising agent of any sort, which commonly appear in modern recipes (like my own).
These have snuck into Tuscany's deep south from the province of Viterbo in the region of Lazio.
Tozzetti are most often flavored with lemon zest and toasted hazelnuts (a local product of the area of Viterbo) rather than whole, raw almonds. They also seem to be slightly softer and more cookie-like. They're eaten with tea as often as with wine.
Traditional recipes for tozzetti seem to contain more flour than cantuccini and also olive oil, which cantuccini do not usually have.
But it's not that simple: Variations of these cookies can be found here and there—like the cantuccini gigliesi from the island of Giglio, where bakeries sell long flat logs of dried fig and dark chocolate-filled cantuccini, to take home for chopping up. Either way, the variations are endless, and any dried fruit or nut goes well in place of the traditional almonds or hazelnuts.
I usually make cantuccini with almonds—whole, raw and unpeeled—and add a splash of vin santo in the mixture, too, following a recipe that my Tuscan mother-in-law has scribbled on a piece of paper tucked into her favorite cookbook.
But now that I live in southern Tuscany, where it's more common to see tozzetti than cantuccini, I've broken my own rules and morphed the recipes together for something like cantuccini but with the toasted hazelnuts that are typical of tozzetti (the nuts were hand-picked one day from a friend's hazelnut trees).
So are they cantuccini or tozzetti? ...Let's just call them hazelnut biscotti.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.