‘Twice-cooked’ piparelli biscuits


piparelli_7There are few things I love more than analysing words and language. It’s only natural, I suppose, after studying languages (Italian, French, Spanish and a little bit of Latin), linguistics and several years of teaching English. I am always noticing new things about words, grammatical structures or phrases in the three languages I know best – English, Italian and French. This week, I had another linguistic epiphany. Unsurprisingly, it was with a culinary term, the word biscotto (‘biscuit’), after getting a refresher course from my mum in making a family recipe.

The word biscotto contains two important meaningful units: bis (meaning ‘twice’) and cotto (‘cooked’, past participle of cuocere, ‘to cook’). The English equivalent ‘biscuit’, which derives from the Old French bes-cuit, also means ‘twice-cooked’. These terms reflect the double-baking process for making biscuits in the past. Basically, long logs of dough were baked, removed from the oven, cut into slices and then dried out in the oven again on low to medium heat. Goods baked this way, according to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, would last for centuries.

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For health and practicality reasons, I would rather not put Pliny’s boast to the test! I can, however, vouch for the long-lasting properties of my nonna’s piparelli. These biscuits, which bear a strong resemblance to Tuscan cantucci, are prepared by double-baking. A specialty of the north-eastern Sicilian city of Messina, piparelli are generally made with flour, orange blossom honey, orange zest, almonds, eggs, pork fat, ground cinnamon, cloves, and pepper. The name piparello is often attributed to the type of word-fired oven that was used to dry out the biscuits. Pipa means ‘pipe’ and this oven was said to let out smoke like a pipe. Another school of thought argues that the name refers to the peppery qualities of these crunchy (in some cases, to the point of jaw-breaking!), and aromatic biscotti.

When I was growing up, I found the hard, crunchy texture a little hard going on my teeth. I didn’t appreciate the flavour of cloves either. Over the years though, my tastebuds have changed. I’ve also learnt that this jaw-breaking characteristic lends itself perfectly to a good dunking in a warm mug of morning caffé-latte or a cup of afternoon coffee. Here is my nonna’s veganised [i] recipe for making what has become one of my favourite sweets:

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Piparelli messinesi
Ingredients (makes about 60-65 piparelli)
• 100 mL freshly squeezed orange juice
• 25 mL Marsala [ii]
• 175 g raw sugar
• 175 g orange blossom honey [iii]
• 175 g whole almonds
• 22 mL olive oil
• 7.5 g (1/2 tablespoon) ground cinnamon
• 3.75 g (1/4 tablespoon) ground cloves
• 3.75 g (1/4 tablespoon) ground pepper (optional) [iv]
• Orange zest
• 7.5 g bicarbonate of soda
• 500 g plain flour

Method
• Preheat oven to 150 degrees.
• Pour orange juice and marsala in a large mixing bowl.
• Dissolve sugar in orange juice and Marsala mixture.
• Add honey, spices, orange zest, olive oil and almonds to bowl and mix ingredients thoroughly.
• Add and mix in bicarbonate of soda.
• Add and mix in flour until well-combined [v] .
• Shape dough into 4 equal-sized balls.
• On a clean and well-dusted work surface, shape each ball into a log about three-four centimetres wide.
• Place logs on a lined baking tray, ensuring that there is plenty of space between them to expand.
• Place baking tray in oven and allow logs to bake for 40 minutes.
• Remove tray from oven after 40 minutes.
• Decrease oven temperature to 120 degrees.
• Carefully remove logs from baking tray.
• Cut [vi]  logs at an angle of 45 degrees into slices with a thickness of 1 ½ centimetres.
• Arrange slices onto lined baking tray and place in oven.
• Leave piparelli to dry out in oven for about 1 hour and 45 minutes or until slices have hardened and are no longer soft to touch.
• Remove from oven, leave to cool and store in a lined, airtight container.

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[i] My grandmother removed the eggs and animal fat from her recipe when my father became a vegan.

[ii] Brandy or whisky work well too. Also, if you’d prefer to have less orange juice, you can increase the amount of alcohol, provided that the total liquid equals 125 mL.

[iii] If you can’t get orange blossom honey, I recommend a light coloured honey like acacia. Darker coloured honeys may result in very dark piparelli.

[iv] I would recommend using it as the pepper takes the edge off the sweetness.

[v] Try not to over-mix though!

[vi] I recommend cutting in a careful, sawing motion with a serrated bread knife.

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13 comments

    Hi Daniel, Thank you for stopping by. In my case, the first jaw-breaking biscuits I knew were the piparelli my nonna made. I only found about tozzetti and cantuccini later on. If you like spices (I suspect you do given your latest post on parkin!), almonds and orange flavours in your sweets then you should definitely give these a go. 🙂

    So interesting to read about etymology! I also love to understand where words come from and always regretted not taking more etymology & linguistics classes in college. Thank you for shedding a new light on the word “biscuit”. The recipe looks absolutely delicious. We’ll make these right now!

    Linguistics is a really fascinating subject. It really changes your way of thinking about language, its structure and use. In English, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is a great resource for the etymology of words. I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of wonderful culinary terms to analyse in France. Hope you enjoy the biscuits. 🙂

    A new cookie I didn’t know about! Interestingly, at least in America, biscotti is a general name for this kind of hard, twice-baked cookie. I wonder why all cookies were given the general name of biscotti in Italy; and for that matter, where “cookie” comes from?
    I’ve learned to appreciate dipping biscotti in tea or caffè while living here.

    Diana, I’ve actually noticed the same thing in Australia. More and more people are using ‘biscotti’ to describe hard twice-baked cantucci-inspired biscuits. It’s funny really because in Italian ‘biscotti’ is the general term for all types of biscuits and in many English-speaking countries, its meaning has become more specific.

    ‘Cookie’ has an interesting etymology too. Just did a Google search and, as it turns out, it derives from the Dutch word ‘koekje’ (the informal dialect variant ‘koekie’). It means ‘little cake’ and it looks like its use in American English dates to Dutch settlement in New Netherland in the 1600s.

    Daniel, I’ve just checked out your Christmas biscotti recipe (https://breadcakesandale.wordpress.com/2014/12/24/christmas-biscotti/) and it looks wonderful. Nothing wrong if it’s not ‘authentic’ (I actually try to avoid using this word, at least when it comes to recipes and food. You may want to check out my rant about this subject here: /2015/06/10/why-i-draw-the-line-at-using-the-word-authentic/).Basically, I value innovation as much if not more than ‘tradition’. My mum and nonna have made variants on these piparelli many times with pistachios, hazelnuts and cashews and I must say, they work really well too. I’m actually in the middle of developing a biscotto that is inspired by Piedmontese flavours and ingredients…

    With regards to your technical question, I really don’t think the taste or texture has changed at all without eggs (it’s been a long time though since I’ve eaten the non-veganised version). What’s important is the double-baking process. In the recipes I came across while researching not all of them included eggs either (just butter or strutto and a liquid of some kind – milk, Malvasia, Marsala, coffee even etc). At any rate, one source I came across claims that piparelli started out as a Lenten biscuit. In the past, Lenten cooking meant that animal fats weren’t to be used. If this is true, then maybe my nonna’s veganised version is the truest to its roots after all. 😉

    Yes, I have a bugbear about the concept of “authenticity” in recipes too. Even in Italy, surely nothing is set in stone. As you say, your family experiment – they can’t be the only ones!
    The whole “non si fa” things regarding playing with recipes always bemused me, especially as Italians might disagree from region to region and even from village to village. (Eg, I made a rocket ‘pesto’, and while northerners said “No! Non si fa!” someone of Sicilian extraction said “Come non? Mia nonna lo fatto cosi” or words to that effect.)
    Interesting about the Lent connection. I’m very into feast days recipes, so encounter that sort of thing a lot. Even in England we have the legacy of that sort of thing, though it’s totally compromised and commercialised these days.
    One thing that’s really different about this recipe to other biscotti / twice baked / jaw breaker recipes I’ve done is your long cooking times, low even temps. I’m going to try it today, if I can find enough OJ. Can’t do half grams with my scales though!

    I have a huge collection of cookbooks and even if the same dish appears in several of them, the recipes for them are never identical. Similar, maybe, but never exactly the same. There can never be a definitive recipe for anything.

    Longer cooking times and lower temperatures are typical of my nonna’s cooking so, yes, I also noticed the difference between her temperatures and cooking times compared to the other recipes. The biscuits aren’t difficult to make but I’d recommend making them when you’ve got a bit more time on your hands definitely!

    Thanks for the feedback by the way about the half grams. It should have occurred to me. I measured the spices and bicarb with tablespoons and converted them to grams (just in case there were readers who might not use these units – in Italy, as you know, they don’t use teaspoons and tablespoons). Pepper and cloves are 1/4 tablespoon and bicarb and cinnamon are 1/2 tablespoon. I’ll add this info. 🙂

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