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In December, the first sign of approaching Christmas at our house, well before the wreath goes up on the front door, is the steady buildup of holiday cookie tins.
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I start my cookie baking early, making two indispensables (Toll House and peanut butter), a selection of other favorites, and usually at least one new or uncommon variety. This year I added kourambiedes, reginas, and – for the uncommon one – Ischler törtchen. These delectable tartlets look like miniature Linzer tortes. I used to make them many years ago, from a recipe in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire volume of the Time Life Foods of the World series. But they’d slipped out of my repertoire. Time to reinstate them!
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Back in the day, I remember thinking it was a fairly complex recipe to make, but now that I’m an old hand at cookie baking, it seems quite easy. Here’s how it goes:

Cream butter and sugar; add ground almonds, flour, and cinnamon; mix until a dough forms.
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Roll the chilled dough thin and cut rounds, adding a small central hole to half of them. (Not having a tiny cookie cutter for the central hole, I used the small end of a pastry bag tip.)
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Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.
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Spread each solid round with jam (traditionally raspberry, but I had some black fig jam from Sicily that I wanted to try) and top it with one of the pierced rounds.
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Line them up so confectioner’s sugar can be shaked generously over them.
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Delectable they certainly were. The black fig jam was fine, though I have to say the classic raspberry filling is indeed the ideal flavor match for the almonds. These tartlets don’t keep as well as my regular Christmas cookie varieties, so we’ll have to eat them fairly quickly. Not a hardship!

Of course, neither do we want to ignore those other Christmas cookies, all so very good in their own ways. Santa always seems to like them too.
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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite!

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This is going to be a story of extended, earnest, culinary efforts that were totally unsuccessful. They were not entirely without consolations, but they fell far short of the goal. It all started last December, when De Robertis, a family-owned Italian pastry shop in Manhattan’s East Village, closed after 110 years in business.

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To downtown New Yorkers, its demise was as devastating as if the Statue of Liberty had stepped off its pedestal and walked away. I was one of the chief mourners, mainly because for decades I’d been addicted to De Robertis’s almond-studded biscotti. Light, crunchy, nutty, gently anise flavored, these were my Platonic ideal of biscotti. Nowhere else, in this city rich in biscotti and their kin, had I found any to equal them.

My very last De Robertis biscotto

My very last De Robertis biscotto

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After a futile round of re-trying the biscotti from other local Italian bakeries, it occurred to me that, having enjoyed many hundreds of the De Robertis ones over the years, I should be able to find or adapt a recipe that would allow me to approximate them at home. So I set forth on my quest, filled with innocent (but unmerited) confidence and eager (but soon to be dashed) hopes.

There are tons of different biscotti recipes in cookbooks and on the Web, using all manner of ingredients and flavorings, but I needed to focus on almonds and anise, which narrowed the options for me. The procedure itself is simple enough: Mix up a dough, shape it into rolls, bake them not quite to doneness; slice them, lay out the slices, and bake them again until browned, crisp, and dry. Stored in a tin, they keep almost forever.

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My first attempt was based on a recipe from my friend Joan, which I had made and enjoyed in the days before I fell in love with De Robertis. It calls for butter, eggs, anise extract, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt, and grated walnuts. I switched almonds for walnuts, reduced the sugar somewhat, and doubled the amount of anise.

That didn’t work. I must have gotten the proportions wrong, because they came out rough, fat, and extremely crumbly – almost fell apart in the slicing, which they’d never done when I followed the recipe exactly.

Joan's biscotti

They even refused to get very brown. As cookies they were reasonably tasty, but nothing like what I was aiming for.

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sopranos family bookA few weeks later I was ready to try again. For my second attempt I turned to the recipe for Biscotti d’Anice in The Sopranos Family Cookbook. The De Robertis biscotti were Italian-American, right? What’s more Italian-American than the Sopranos? (The book’s recipes are actually by Michele Scicolone, also a friend.) The recipe had no butter – which I’d realized was what made my first batch so cookie-like – but used an extensively creamed base of eggs, sugar, anise extract and vanilla. Into that were to be folded flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and aniseed to make a thick batter. I substituted a lot of slivered almonds for the aniseed.

The batter had to be baked in a square pan, turning it into a cake, which was then to be cut into strips for the second baking. Unusual.

soprano biscotti

Though unconventionally shaped for biscotti, these crisped and browned well, but they were more delicate in texture and much sweeter than De Robertis’s. The almonds were barely noticeable. Again, not what I wanted.

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LTIWhen I was ready to enter the fray again I decided to try working with a purely Italian-Italian recipe: my own Biscotti di Prato from La Tavola Italiana. These have plenty of almond flavor, though no anise. Other ingredients are the usual flour, sugar, salt, and egg, but no butter and no vanilla; baking soda, not baking powder; and toasted almonds. I made a small batch, adding a good dose of anise extract.

my biscotti

These came closer to what I wanted, in look as well as flavor. But they’d utterly refused to brown this time, even though I’d given them a very long second baking (looks as if I overfloured the outsides), and there was no taste of the anise at all. Sigh.

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Baking with JuliaAfter that I essentially gave up. But I still longed for good biscotti, even if they weren’t just like my late lamented ones. The other day, browsing through Baking with Julia, I came upon a recipe for Hazelnut Biscotti, which started out by saying “It’s the baking soda in the dough that gives these biscotti their wonderful open, crunchy texture.” Aha – maybe that was why my own recipe had come closer than the others! So I tried it.

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Julia hazelnuts

Again, the result was nothing like the original goal, but these were very good indeed. The texture was as promised, and the hazelnut flavor was lovely. They were still sweeter than I like, but I can cut back the sugar next time. Guess I’ll just have to train myself to be content with these and with my own un-adapted recipe, above. De Robertis, ave atque vale!

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Desserts are insidious to begin with. I eat just one, and for days I’m ravenous for more. For that very reason, I usually keep a tight rein on my eating of sweets, but sometimes the beast runs away with me. This time it was a dinner party at my friend Karen’s. She served marvelous pastry bars called Lemon Squares. Our many compliments led her to show us the cookbook they came from, a favorite of hers: Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts.

This is what a carnival barker might call a Copious Compendium of Calorific Concoctions. Large format, more than 150 recipes, every one gorgeously photographed – a pin-up gallery, a beauty pageant, a dream book. I bought a copy the very next day, following Oscar Wilde’s sensible advice (“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”). Since then, Tom and I have been salivating over its pages. After an initial test of two kinds of breakfast muffins – blueberry and banana-walnut; both very successful – I was ready to make a batch of Lemon Squares.

Or so I thought.

The recipe was a bit unusual but didn’t sound at all tricky. To start, you beat together butter, flour, and confectioners’ sugar; press this dough into a baking pan; and firm it up in a moderate oven. Meanwhile you beat together eggs, sugar, lemon rind and juice, chopped walnuts, baking powder, and a bit more flour. Pour this topping over the pastry base and bake until the filling is set. Let cool a while and cut it in squares. Piece of cake (as it were), no?

No. Not for me, anyway.

My baked sheet of lemon pastry seemed to have been vulcanized into the pan. It stuck with a persistence that might make it valuable as a pot hole filler on Third Avenue. Trying to loosen it from the edges of the pan and cut it into squares made the crust crumble and crack. The general effect was of a poorly preserved antique pavement after an earthquake.

Persuading the squares out of the pan only compounded the problem, and the results were pretty pitiful. Underneath the falling-apart crust, the filling was like a partially cooked lemon curd, soft and gloppy.

The squares didn’t taste bad, if you didn’t mind their rugged, ragged shape and the squishy, semi-liquid lemon filling. But something major had to have gone wrong. So next day I e-mailed the above photos to Karen: Help! Aiuta me! A moi! Here’s what happened to my lemon squares. Can you think why they weren’t as neat and lovely as yours?

Karen was all sympathy, and she replied with some suggestions. The only major differences she described were that she’d baked her pastry base longer, and she didn’t add walnuts at all. I consulted my own cooking conscience (a pretty severe Methodist monitor): My baking powder was quite old; instead of four large eggs I’d used three jumbos; when I tested the filling, maybe it wasn’t truly firm. Let’s try this again.

I did a half recipe the second time, getting fresh baking powder and the right-sized eggs. Beat the pastry base to a fare-thee-well (it was supposed to become “fluffy” but didn’t, either time). Put a raised rim around the pastry in the pan, to try to contain the filling better, and kept it in the oven for the first baking until it was light brown. Whomped the eggs and sugar until they were pale as cream. Added the remaining ingredients (but not walnuts), poured it into the pan, and baked until seven minutes after the filling felt firm to me. Let it cool longer in the pan before attempting to cut squares.

And here they are:

Not quite as messy as the first batch, but I think much of that was due to the absence of nuts – which made it easier to run a knife blade through the filling. It didn’t stick quite so nastily to the sides of the pan either, and didn’t crack and crumble quite as much.

But I couldn’t cut clean-edged, smooth squares, like Karen’s. And my lemon filling was still too moist. (Refrigerated overnight, the filling did firm up somewhat.) And neither of my batches looked anything like the photo in the book.

So: twice skunked. To do them justice, the second batch of squares were decent enough for the family to eat, but nothing I would ever serve to guests. I’m not eager to try a third time. I may have to sneak into Karen’s kitchen one day and watch how she makes them.

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Postscript: I hate to waste food. So I bagged up the first batch – they crumbled yet more as I handled them – and put them in the freezer. One day I’m going to defrost some of them, crumble them up completely, press them into a pie dish, bake it some more so it becomes a sort of crumb crust (I hope), fill the shell with peaches and top with whipped cream. If it’s good I’ll call it Snickety Pie. Or maybe it will just be one more unfortunate event.

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