Biscotti for the Holidays

Biscotti have played an important role in Italian history. The term “biscotti” actually derives from the Latin word bis, meaning “twice,” and coctum, meaning “baked” or “cooked”. They date back to Roman times, originally referring to long, finger-shaped pieces of dough that were baked twice in order to completely dry out so that they may endure long travel.

In those times, these firm and crunchy treats were made more out of convenience and were a staple in the diet of Roman Legions. Nowadays, the word refers to all varieties of Italian cookies, with an endless assortment available throughout Italy since different areas have their own traditional recipes and each family adds its own particular touch.

Amelia Monteleone, who was born in Catanzaro, Calabria, remembers growing up in Italy over 60 years ago and feeling the excitement around Christmas time. Everyone looked forward to homemade cookies, such as zippole (fried pastry dough often made with potato and topped with sugar).

“We would wait for the cookies for so long, and we would eat them even after they hardened because we knew that once they were gone, they were gone!” Monteleone recalls.

She also remembers the difference in ingredients: “Some didn’t even put chocolate [in their recipes], they would just dip the cookies in vino cotto because they had the wine – chocolate was too expensive.”

Today, while many still choose to bake biscotti for the holiday season, some individuals opt to visit their local bakery to delight in a special treat. John Paul Deleo of Tre Mari Bakery says the bakery often receives advance orders for up to 1 kilogram of assorted cookies, whether for Christmas or any other special occasion, with amaretti cookies being the most popular.

Whether celebrating a wedding, a baptism, communion, anniversary, or any other special event, it seems that biscotti are ever-present.

More often than not, the cookies are handcrafted by friends and family, but why is it that we slave over these little delicacies? Is it just for “la bella figura”? Leila Anna Ouji, a PhD candidate in Italian studies at the University of Toronto, describes her reaction when she first saw Italian cookies presented at an Italian wedding: “I thought it was very touching that [the family and friends] made them as it means so much more than giving a “busta” (monetary gift) because you know that they put their time and their love into making those cookies.”

Aside from a display of affection, Italian biscotti also represent a sense of pride for family or regional heritage because the recipes have been handed down from generation to generation.

As Ouji explains, “It’s an ancestral symbol – it’s something passed on from grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It may not be your typical family heirloom, but [these recipes] are beautiful in that they are passed on to be enjoyed and shared.” Monteleone agrees that the custom is a significant connection to one’s roots. “We make the cookies to hold on to a piece of our past,” she said. In doing so, future generations can enjoy the sights and smells of Italian history, says Deleo. “It gives [younger] generations an idea of what it was like; pictures are great but traditions are more important.”

Biscotti do more than simply tantalize our taste buds; they connect us to our rich Italian cultural heritage, and like all wonderful Italian traditions, it is important to learn them before they are lost.

written by Danila Di Croce