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No matter how skilled you are (and I make no claims to being anything more than an enthusiastic and fairly competent amateur), cooking is always a crapshoot. You increase your odds by having the basic skills down, choosing your ingredients well, and using reliable recipes, but some element of chance always remains. Sometimes it’s happy serendipity and you get an outcome even better than you anticipated, and sometimes it all goes disappointingly wrong. Today, I got lucky.

For this week’s cookie blogging, I tried to re-create a biscotti recipe my mother used to make when I was a kid, but has long since lost. They were walnut biscotti with the sharp, earthy bite of a significant quantity of black pepper, which sounds very odd but, in fact, worked wonderfully well. I’ve madly Googled “walnut pepper biscotti” and endless variations thereon for months, but none of the recipes I’ve uncovered have gotten the “eureka” from Mom, so I decided to try winging it to see how close I can get.

Having had good results with the last batch of biscotti from a Todd English recipe, I decided to modify the recipe for Cardamom Almond Biscotti from The Figs Table. I figured cardamom and pepper were similar enough that they could be swapped 1:1, and almonds and walnuts are equally easy to exchange. Although I knew the original recipe did not have espresso powder in it, I decided to leave it in, just to see how the combination would work.

The raw dough was lovely to work with, very pliable and easy to shape, and because you don’t have to soften the butter, it’s great for impulse baking. It was also very tasty, buttery and warm from the coffee and pepper, with a slow cumulative burn rather than a nose-tingling initial bite. I sneaked a few bites of the still-warm dough after the first baking while I was slicing it for the second round, and it was even better.

The end product is fantastic. It’s almost nothing like the taste I was originally going for, because the original did put the black pepper front and center, but it’s absolutely great in its own right. Here, the coffee marries with the pepper, the vanilla, the orange, and the walnuts to make a full, deep, round combination that is much more than the sum of those parts. I am really pleased. I can even see these becoming something of a signature cookie, if I can come up with a sexier name than “Black Pepper Espresso Walnut Biscotti”. (Maybe something like Indonesian Biscotti, since black pepper and coffee are both grown there.)

Here’s the recipe:

Black Pepper Espresso Walnut Biscotti
(Makes 4 dozen)

1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 extra-large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon dried orange rind (available through Penzey’s), rehydrated (or 1 tablespoon fresh orange zest)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat the butter and sugars together until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating thoroughly, then mix in the vanilla and orange zest.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, espresso powder, and black pepper until homogeneous. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture in two or three batches, mixing just until combined. Stir in the walnuts.

Divide the dough into two equal batches. Shape one half into a log 12 inches long by approximately 4 inches on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until evenly golden brown and slightly cracked on top. (While the first half is baking, refrigerate the remaining half.) Set aside to cool, and repeat the baking process with the remainder of the dough.

Lower the oven to 300 F. Using a serrated knife, slice the mostly-cooled logs on the diagonal into 1/2-inch thick slices. Place the biscotti on an ungreased, unlined cookie sheet, flat side down, and bake for 20 minutes, flipping the cookies halfway through. Allow to cool completely on the sheet, then store in an airtight container.

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I had these biscotti for dessert tonight, along with the leftovers of an equally experimental mascarpone-based mousse I threw together on a whim yesterday. Since that showed definite promise but still needs a little tweaking, I won’t post the recipe yet, but I hope to perfect it very soon. Since coffee was also a major flavor element in the mousse, it went beautifully with the cookies, which provided a lovely crisp contrast to the cool richness and creaminess of the mousse. I think combining the two elements with a third (perhaps poached pears or something similar) might make for a really elegant special-occasion dessert.

Just to show that not all my experiments go that well, I’ll also share my most recent cooking faux pas. Two weeks ago, I bought a beautiful basket of fresh purple figs. As I always do when I buy figs or similarly pricey, relatively rare, short-season produce, I got ambitious. I decided to try for something like a spectacular dessert I had several years ago at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco (thankfully, on someone else’s dime), a napoleon made with fresh figs and a honey mousse. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to reproduce that recipe, but I thought I might make something evocative, if simpler, by baking the figs with port and making a frozen honey mousse I’d been eyeing for a long time in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The mousse was very simple: egg yolks, honey, and cream, with some flavorings and pistachios mixed in before freezing.

Since the recipe called for a strong-flavored honey and I only had very mild varieties at home, I went to the honey vender at the farmer’s market, and asked for a strong one for cooking. He gave me a smartweed honey that was almost molasses-dark, recommended for baking. When I got it home, I opened it and gave it a taste while preparing the rest of the ingredients. It was strong. Really strong. A little alarm went off in my head, that while this might work in baked goods because it could stand up to the heat, it might be too medicinal for use in that recipe. I didn’t listen to that instinct, though. I figured all the fat and the freezing would dull the flavor, and that I should just give it a chance.

Well, I was wrong. Even after mixing with the egg yolks and the whipped cream, even after freezing, it was way too pungent for even the most assertive fig. It had an almost menthol-like top note which, although it did fade after the initial taste, still killed the flavor of the fruit. We didn’t even finish the batch, and I had to toss out the remaining half. The moral of the story? Cooking is as much about listening to your instincts as it is about honing your skills. If it doesn’t smell or feel right, don’t trust the recipe to fix it for you.

Next weekend, schedule permitting, we’ll have another installment of Celebrity Chefs I Hate.

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