Ri-cotta (re-cooked): twice cooked, given that the whey left behind from the cheese production is heated up once again in order to make ricotta.
Ri-bollita (re-boiled): the soup made from bread, beans and Tuscan kale, which is boiled for the second time, the next day.
Bis-cotto (biscuit: literally in Italian, cooked again), meaning that it is baked twice in the oven. Just as with ricotta, and ribollita, within the name ‘biscuit’, its destiny has already been written as the way in which it is made. Nowadays, the biscuits which come from Prato, with almonds, are called either biscotti or cantucci. In the past, however, these two terms referred to very different products, which nonetheless shared the same preparation methods. The idea to cook them twice gave an answer an important point to be resolved, that of preservation.
From the Middle Ages onwards, the cantucci have been known as small loaves of bread, flavoured with aniseed or fennel, cut cross-ways and twice baked in the oven. Even the cantucci, during the Renaissance, just as with the modern biscotti, were soaked in sweet wine and it was believed that they would stimulate and settle your stomach.
The biscuits with almonds, however, called bischotelli, contained different ingredients, despite sharing the same method and baking. These are mentioned during banquets at the court of Catherine de’ Medici, in the sixteenth century. They were highly prized and more expensive than the cantucci, because, as well as the almonds, they also contained eggs, an ingredient which automatically classed them as a luxury product.
Jumping forward in time, we come to an important date, 1858, when Antonio Mattei opened his biscuit factory in Prato. The biscuit factory produced both cantucci, flavoured with aniseed and fennel, as well as biscuits with almonds, which, thanks to the numerous national and international awards, slowly became known as Prato’s typical biscuits or even Tuscan biscotti. In 1908, the biscuit factory passed to the Pandolfini family, who, still nowadays, three generations on, produce these delicious biscuits which taste like home and tradition.
Nowadays, however, it is difficult to pinpoint the original recipe for Prato’s biscuits, since there are many variants, backed to the hilt by confectioners and bakers, writers and families.
Tuscan biscotti with pistachios and white chocolate
As is now clear, today we are in Prato as part of the tour of Tuscany with Ventura. We time travelled between cantucci and biscotti thanks to this book, La vera storia dei cantucci e dei biscotti di Prato (The real history of cantucci and biscotti from Prato), which tries to summarise the traditions, history and iconography of this product, such a distinctive feature of Prato, so much so that it caused the city to be known throughout the world.
The key ingredients nowadays are, however, pistachios: not only almonds are added to the Pratesi biscuits, but, depending on the occasion, also hazelnuts (and dark chocolate, something worth trying) or pistachios and white chocolate. This is perhaps my favourite combination, elegant, refined and simply irresistible. Along with a strong coffee or black tea, but also alone, as a mid-morning or afternoon snack, they can take the edge off your hunger and sweet-tooth cravings.
- 3 eggs
- 220 g of sugar
- 280 g of all purpose flour
- 5 g of baking powders
- Zest of one orange
- A pinch of salt
- 120 g of unsalted pistachios
- 100 g of white chocolate chopped
Heat the oven to the maximum temperature, or to 250°C.
Crack two whole eggs and an egg yolk into a bowl. Keep the extra egg white to the side, you will need this later on. Whisk, using a planetary mixer or an electric whisk, the eggs with the sugar until you have a light and fluffy mixture.
Then add the sieved flour with baking powder and salt before adding the grated orange rind. Lastly, add the pistachios and chopped chocolate and mix together until it is all combined.
Line a baking tray with parchment paper and, with the help of a spatula, create two loaves with the dough, measuring around 30cm in length and not more than 5cm wide.
Beat the egg white with a fork until it becomes foamy, then brush it over the loaves.
Turn the oven down to 180°C and bake the biscuits. The extremely high temperature ensures that the biscuits won’t lose their shape too much when they start to bake.
Bake the biscuits for around 20-25 minutes, until they are golden outside, but still slightly wobbly inside. If you push down on the surface, it should be relatively hard, but still have a little give.
Leave the biscuits to cool down for around 5 minutes, then cut them on a chopping board, with a sharp knife. The biscuits should be about 2cm thick.
Lay the biscuits out on the baking tray cut side down and bake for another 15-18 minutes, until they have browned. Leave them to cool completely on a cooling rack, then keep them in a biscuit jar or a tin. They should keep for weeks.
The Tuscan tour with Ventura
- Spongata, a Jewish jam and nut cake from Lunigiana. Here pine nuts, almonds and dried figs are mashed with orange marmalade, fig jam and apple jam to create a rich spiced sticky filling wrapped in a pastry coating.
- Florentine quaresimali. The recipe is traditionally free of animal fats, so no egg yolks, only egg whites. You only need a spoonful of cocoa and a handful of hazelnuts to make biscuits that you won’t be able to stop munching away on, spurred on by the idea that they’re not really that bad for you…
- Pisa and a pilgrim cake, torta coi bischeri. This recipe has the added benefit of being quick to make and being filled with a moist filling of rice pudding, chocolate, candied fruits, raisins and pine nuts. A worthy partner to a cup of coffee or a glass of vinsanto after a family lunch.
- Buccellato from Lucca. Buccellato is considered a dessert or a breakfast sweet bread, it is made with bread dough, usually enriched with sugar, raisins and aniseed, another widely used ingredient in Tuscan biscuits and sweet loaves.
- Sweet and sour salt cod from Livorno, with raisins and pine nuts, which perfectly represents the Livornese cuisine, made of poor fish, tomato paste and enlivening influences brought by other cultures, all welcomed and absorbed by a town which is not just a melting pot, but a pot of steaming cacciucco.