There 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.
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:
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
• 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.
[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.