My house is a hollow wreck of a corpse. Everything we want to keep but won’t need for the next year has been packed and put in storage, and almost all the furniture we don’t want to keep has been sold off. A handful of boxes full of winter clothes and other need-but-not-immediately items have been shipped on the slow and cheap to the new place. Tomorrow His Lordship, the Monster and I will stuff all our can’t-live-withouts into the car and head for the other coast at a brisk but not breakneck pace.
There is absolutely no reason why I should have been baking Monday night. I no longer have coworkers to bake for. I most certainly have not been inviting people over for dinner. There is no shortage of other chores I could have been tackling.
And yet I made a full batch of biscotti, including skinning the hazelnuts. I told myself I still had things in my pantry I would lament throwing away, and that every road trip should be accompanied by a homemade treat to make up for the less-than-optimal meals along the way. But the truth is that I’m not a practical person by nature, and beneath all that pretense was the impulse to push back at the forces swirling around me.
I’m sure I’m not the first to observe this, but cooking, and especially baking, is about control. No matter how crazy your world is, no matter how powerless you feel, in your kitchen, you are the boss. Of course you have to approach your food and your tools with respect, but in the end, you’re bending them to your will. Go with the flow too much and you’ll have a disaster; your hand needs to be loving, but ultimately sure.
So my world is in a heightened state of chaos, even if it’s positive, self-inflicted chaos, and I needed to exert a little bit of control. Also, and on a less existential level, more than a small twinge accompanied the thought of sealing my Kitchenaid in its box and putting it away for a year. I’m not too proud to admit that it’s my baby and I will miss it, and this was the one last spin before the long sleep.
These are a variation on the walnut pepper biscotti I made up a few years ago and loved so much I’ve been making them regularly ever since. The chocolate is superfluous, but I couldn’t bear the idea of tossing out the Scharffen Berger bars at the bottom of the strategic chocolate reserve. It does play nicely with the pepper, and chocolate and hazelnuts is a solid contender for the world’s best combination of flavors.
Hazelnut Chocolate Pepper Biscotti
Makes 4 dozen
1 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon dried orange rind, rehydrated, or 1 tablespoon fresh orange zest
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Spread the hazelnuts on a cookie sheet and bake until the skins have cracked and started loosening, 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool enough to handle, then rub off the skins with your fingertips or with a clean dishtowel. Coarsely chop the skinned hazelnuts and set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars together until creamy and light. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating each thoroughly before adding the next. Mix in the vanilla, orange zest and espresso.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and black pepper, then add to the creamed mixture in two or three batches, mixing just until combined. Stir in the chopped hazelnuts and chocolate.
Divide the dough into two equal halves and shape into two parallel 12 inch by 4 inch logs, approximately 6 inches apart. Bake 35-40 minutes, until the logs are golden and beginning to crack along the top. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5-10 minutes. At the same time, lower the oven to 300 F.
Using a serrated knife, slice the 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. Turn off the oven and allow them to dry out further while cooling completely. Store in airtight containers for up to several weeks.
Since I tend to bake fairly late in the evenings, I let my biscotti sit in the oven overnight, which lets them get really dry and crisp while letting me put off cleanup and packaging until the morning. Win-win.
I used one 62% semisweet and one nibby bar, but you could use whatever variety you like, or leave it out altogether.