When I was growing up in Nashville, Tennessee in the 1960's, I did not get much exposure to foreign things. Nashville is the capital of country music and is sometimes known as the Protestant Vatican. In my red-headed, blue-eyed Presbyterian family, we ate meat and potatoes and preferred incredibly sweet desserts. We thought Italian food consisted mainly of pizza and spaghetti with meat balls. Our Christmas treats were high-octane egg nog and fruit cake, which my father actually enjoyed eating.
The one interesting spot in my blandly American world were friends of my parents who were second-generation Italian Americans. They stood in sharp contrast to my family: dark hair and eyes, Catholic, lots of children, grandparents speaking a strange language. They were the only people we knew whose last name ended in a vowel.
I loved going to their house at Christmas. There was always lots of activity, with relatives coming and going constantly. Every inch of the house was beautifully decorated. Most of all, there was wonderful food unlike any other I ate elsewhere. The bountiful buffet held marinated olives, stuffed veal, rustic tortes and lots of cakes and cookies. My favorite item was crunchy, not too sweet cookies bursting with the flavors of almonds and anise. I liked them plain, dunked in milk or, in later years, dunked in coffee. I always asked for some to take home.
I have now learned that the Christmas cookies I adored as a child are called biscotti in Italy and are eaten year round. The name biscotti literally means "twice cooked," as you will see in the following recipe. This type of cookie has several local names. In Tuscany, for example, it is called cantucci and it is dunked in coffee or in vin santo, a sweet dessert wine. I imagine the Italians would think you quite mad if you asked for milk to dunk them in.
Biscotti can be flavored with just about anything. This recipe features almond and anise and is pretty much the base model. Other common flavors are chocolate, hazelnut and lemon. Just about any type of nut will work, as will any flavoring that comes in an extract form.
I make biscotti frequently. It seems that there is no season when they are not a welcome treat. Friends enjoy them as a dessert, a snack or even for breakfast. They are easy to store and keep well, so make a lot to have on hand during the holidays.