Dreaming Florence : Hazelnut, Orange and Cardamom Biscotti

The airplane landed with a slight bump on the tarmac in Florence, and I stepped out into the Italian summer of swaying palm trees, blue skies, and soft, but naughty breeze that kept trying to lift my skirt. Belgium is only a few hours away from Italy, but culturally it might as well be on a different planet. The rainy Belgian autumn was behind me. I checked into my hotel, turned off my cell phone and went out to walk along the Arno. Perhaps, it’s a sign of my fragile emotional state over the past few months, but as I ate my pistachio gelato, I felt something close to absolute happiness.

The last time I visited Florence was almost 10 years ago, and while I have grown obviously older, she is still the same–voluptuous, ravishing, beautiful to the point of overwhelming. How could such simple things be so perfect, I kept wondering as I smelled the late summer roses blooming in profusion inside enclosed gardens or bit into the golden biscotti perfumed with anise and orange zest. A few days later I was back in Brussels, walking through the park and kicking tawny chestnuts with the tip of my boot. I missed the languid beauty of Italy. I may not have been able to infuse Brussels with the generous Italian sun, but I could conjure up Italian scents and tastes in my own home.

Thankfully, some tastes of Italy are easy enough to recreate. These days when the dusk falls earlier and the rain wraps the whole city in its chilly embrace, I’ve become addicted to biscotti. But I don’t mean those ubiquitous cookies that are sold at every coffee shop and that are not edible unless dipped into coffee or tea. My favorite biscotti recipe makes for a crunchy and fragrant mouthful. I perfume the dough with a heady blend of cardamom, citrus zest and vanilla. The idea of adding cardamom may not seem Italian, but its lemony bite marries so well with citrus that if you haven’t tried this combination, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Plus, cardamom has a natural affinity with coffee, and if you do decide to dip these biscotti into your latte, you will see how harmonious the taste will be.

The shops in Florence sell a wide selection of biscotti, or as they are called more commonly in Tuscany, cantuccini (little corners). The cookies originate in the city of Prato, and while they are mentioned as early as the 18th century, the classical biscotti di Prato that have inspired those hardtack versions sold by Starbucks can be traced to the baker Antonio Mattei. In 1867 Mattei even won a prize for his confections at the Expositions Universelles in Paris. Or so the story goes as told at his shop, which still sells the famous cookies.

Biscotti are traditionally dipped into Vin Santo, Tuscan sweet wine, and most restaurants offer cantuccini con Vin Santo as a dessert course. They are great as an accompaniment to tea, coffee, fruit compotes or ice cream. Or try them with red wine.

Hazelnut Biscotti Scented with Cardamom and Orange

My recipe is adapted from the one published by the official site for the city of Prato. The biscotti come out softer than commercial versions, which are usually made with baker’s ammonia, rather than baking powder. Ammonia gives them a crunchier, drier texture, but since the homemade variety isn’t meant to last for weeks and weeks, I don’t think that it makes a crucial difference. This basic recipe can be adapted for our flavors and nuts. Try the classical combination of almonds, anise seed and lemon, macadamia and vanilla or walnuts, vanilla and cinnamon.

Yield 60 cookies

2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
1 cup + 2 Tablespoons (125g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs (and one extra egg for glazing)
zest of one orange
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (100g) hazelnuts

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (175ºC.) Toast hazelnuts for 20 minutes or until they are pale golden and rub them with a towel to remove some of the skins. Don’t worry if the skin comes off only partially. Let them cool.

Stir flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Rub butter into the flour with your fingers until the mixture looks grainy.

Mix 2 eggs, orange zest, vanilla extract, and ground cardamom into the flour mixture and stir till the dough starts forming. It will be soft and pliable, but it should not be sticky. Be careful not to overwork the dough and stop once you have a rough lump.

Add hazelnuts and mix them into the dough. By the time you’re done, there should be no traces of flour. Divide the dough into two pieces and transfer it onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Pat the dough into two cylinders about 3 inches in diameter and 15 to 20 inches long. Brush with the reserved egg.

Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven, and cut diagonally into slices about 1 inch wide. Turn the oven down to 250F (120C). Place the biscotti cut-side down and return to oven to bake for another 10 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Turn biscotti over and bake for another 10 minutes. They should be firm and golden brown on both sides.

Stored in an airtight container, the biscotti keep for two-three weeks.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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57 Comments

  • jillie: Oh, how delicious! Food is so comforting and uplifting – an instant hit of happiness and sunshine. I will try your recipe. I quite fancy using pistachios as I love their green colour.

    At your recommendation, I bought Fiori de Sicilia essence from Bakery Bits; this tastes like almonds, lemons and flowers. I added it to a frangipane tart that I was making with some deep red plums (along with some oil made from plum stones), and as soon as I tasted the pie, it took my memory back to the ricciarelli we buy at Christmas. It was lovely, V, and I thank you for telling me about this great supplier! September 27, 2012 at 7:27am Reply

    • Barbara: Wow, your description of Fiori di Sicilia sent me straight to Bakery Bits. Sounds divine. September 27, 2012 at 8:25am Reply

      • Rachel: Jillie, Barbara, Victoria, I think I saw Fiori di Sicilia at Williams-Sonoma. What do you use it for? September 27, 2012 at 10:27am Reply

        • jillie: Hi, Rachel. It’s rather like those little bottles of almond or vanilla extract you buy for flavouring cakes and biscuits; it serves the same purpose, and in fact the bottle is economical as it’s a little bigger than they are, but still just as concentrated. I use it in place of my usual almond essence, either in a frangipani, a chocolate mousse, cookies, desserts. It’s not a strong almond, but has a delightful taste of citrus and then the faint floral hint of, amongst other flowers, rose. None of these outweighs the other. It’s just really different but lovely. I think it would be great in home-made marzipan. My brother-in-law is a complete frangipani fan and eat half my pie! September 27, 2012 at 10:43am Reply

          • Victoria: Mmmm…. The idea of a homemade marzipan makes me swoon. September 27, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

      • Victoria: Barbara, if you are in the US, Cyndee’s recommendation of King Arthur Flour website is a more cost efficient one. The quality is identical. September 27, 2012 at 11:29am Reply

    • Victoria: So glad that you’re enjoying this website. The quality of their products is superb, and I was eyeing the Italian mint essence the other day. Can you imagine a mint scented honeycake? And like you, I’m addicted to Fiori di Sicilia. I usually use them when I make a brioche dough or a filling for an Italian rice tart. I can just imagine how wonderful it would taste in a plum frangipane tart. Or almond anything! September 27, 2012 at 11:14am Reply

  • cyndee: I have used Fiore de Sicilia for a number of years. I always add it to my father’s Christmas coconut cake and it tastes wonderful. Easily purchased from King Arthur’s Flour catalog/online.
    In the recipe it calls for powdered cardamom seed, is that ground cardamom? I am assuming it is but just want to check. These would make wonderful holiday gifts for my tea drinking daughters.
    Cyndee September 27, 2012 at 7:51am Reply

    • jillie: Cyndee, that coconut cake sounds wonderful – my husband loves coconut in any form. I can see how the Fiori de Sicilia would complement its flavour, and like V says, something like that brings a taste of sunlight to the gloom of winter. I am so glad that Victoria introduced me to my UK supplier, or I wouldn’t have discovered it! September 27, 2012 at 8:11am Reply

      • Victoria: And in turn, I was introduced to Bakery Bits by a Russian-Spanish friend who lives in Brussels! 🙂 September 27, 2012 at 11:22am Reply

    • Victoria: King Arthur Flour products is what I miss the most here in Belgium. There are other suppliers and other great products, but it will take me some time to find replacements. I even asked my mom to bring me some of King Arthur Flour silicone coated baking paper. She thought I was crazy. 🙂

      Yes, ground cardamom is what I meant! Hope that you will enjoy these biscotti. September 27, 2012 at 11:16am Reply

  • Barbara: Yummy! I’m making it this weekend! September 27, 2012 at 8:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Please let me know how they turn out! September 27, 2012 at 11:28am Reply

  • Anne Sheffield: Oh my God! Thank you! Totally inspired! Off to bake. X September 27, 2012 at 9:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you will enjoy, and let me know how they come out! September 27, 2012 at 11:29am Reply

  • Rachel: Biscotti have always been my favorite cookies. I like the fact that they are not usually very sweet. Yum. Thanks for sharing this nice recipe. September 27, 2012 at 10:25am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve tried many recipes, but this one is the best. It’s the most straightforward one too. Of course, you can use only lemon zest as the original recipes calls for. Or just cardamom. Or just vanilla. September 27, 2012 at 11:30am Reply

  • sara: This looks delicious! I’ve never baked biscotti, so I’m excited to try this.

    I have a question though. What do you do with the egg left over from glazing? Thanks! September 27, 2012 at 10:34am Reply

    • Victoria: I usually save it and use it within the next day or two in an omelet. 🙂 Or I freeze it and defrost a portion when I need some more egg glaze. I hate throwing away perfectly good food. September 27, 2012 at 11:34am Reply

      • sara: Yeah, that’s why I wanted to know what you do with it. I figured that you can’t use up a whole egg for glazing. Had no idea it could be frozen. Thanks! September 27, 2012 at 3:32pm Reply

  • Penelope: My favourite recipe uses a little aniseed. That’s not very Italian either, but harmonises well with almond or vanilla. My new kitchen isn’t finished, and I don’t have an oven, but I’m longing to do some baking soon. I love it when the kitchen ( and my hair) smells of biscotti ! September 27, 2012 at 10:38am Reply

    • Victoria: I love anise seeds in biscotti too, and I think that it’s a very Italian touch (and also works well with coffee). It took me a while to enjoy anise flavor, because for the longest time I associated with the cough syrup I drank as a child. A glass of very nice Sambuca liqueur changed that.

      I feel for you, Penelope! I’ve spent the past few months in places where the only cooking equipment I had was a two burner electric range. It was hard to adjust, because I use the oven a lot for baking and cooking some of our favorite dishes. September 27, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

  • MB: I’m so excited for this recipe! I will be buying hazelnuts TODAY!!! V, I made the melon and lime horchata AGAIN yesterday. Your recipe has now become hardwired into my limbic brain. Thank you!!! September 27, 2012 at 11:08am Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 I’m so happy that you’re enjoying horchata. I’ve been known to buy melons just to make this drink. September 27, 2012 at 11:39am Reply

  • Naheed: What a beautiful and fragrant post, Victoria. I am quite interested to learn about the differences between the tastes of aniseed and fennel seed. I am familiar with fennel but haven’t got a chance to taste aniseed despite the fact that it grows in my part of world.

    The recipe of biscotti is perfect for crunchy delight lovers like me. I think I would love to dip these yummy fingers in my coffee as well as tea. 🙂 September 27, 2012 at 11:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Naheed! 🙂 Fennel seed has a more mild flavor when compared to anise. Anise seeds are tiny, but they pack a punch. The immediate flavor in the mouth is cool-spicy sweet, with a lingering sweet finish. Fennel is softer, less pungent, and it tastes greener. I’ve baked with fennel before, and I notice a woody-toasty note in it that I don’t quite get in the cookies or breads baked with anise.

      And nothing compares to the flavor of fennel roasted in oil, maybe with some mustard seeds, fenugreek and cumin! September 27, 2012 at 11:46am Reply

      • Naheed: Thank you, Victoria! I must look for anise seed as first thing tomorrow. The mix of fennel seeds, fenugreek, mustard seeds and cumin sounds like a perfect tempering for Indian curries and daal. Here fennel is also used to flavour pickles. September 27, 2012 at 3:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, I was thinking of Indian flavors when I was typing that. Fennel in oil based mango pickles is so good! I only have to think about it to get hungry.

          Anise seeds and fennel are interesting to taste side by side! September 27, 2012 at 5:35pm Reply

  • sara: V, I have another question. When you bake, how do you measure flour? I noticed that you give both volume and metric measurements in your recipes. Do you prefer one over another? Thanks and sorry to bombard you with questions. September 27, 2012 at 11:25am Reply

    • Victoria: No need to apologize, Sara! I’m happy to answer your question. When I bake, I use a kitchen scale, which is my favorite baking tool (and mine was only $20). But I know that many people in the US like to use cups, and I use a standard conversion method to transform grams into cups and spoons. If you do decide to measure flour using a cup, I recommend fluffing up the flour, spooning it into your cup and scraping off the excess with a knife. September 27, 2012 at 11:50am Reply

      • sara: Thank you for taking time to give such a thorough reply, Victoria! I’m a novice baker, all advice helps. Where did you buy your kitchen scale? September 27, 2012 at 3:34pm Reply

        • Victoria: I bought mine from amazon.com. It’s a digital model, Escali P115C Primo Digital. Inexpensive and quite sturdy. September 27, 2012 at 5:37pm Reply

  • iodine: I feel honoured to live in a country you so deeply love and fondly describe- though Milan is quite a bit less charming than Florence! Thanks for this beautiful recipe, I love the idea of adding an exotic spice to a traditional formula, it’s the best way to keep a tradition alive while innovating it… September 27, 2012 at 11:27am Reply

    • Victoria: I visited Milan only once so far, and I remember finding it beautiful and elegant. My mom still talks about a delicious blueberry cake we had a tiny hole in the wall restaurant there. Now that I’m closer to Italy, I will be returning to Milan too.

      Italian was the first language I’ve learned after my native tongue, even before I learned English, and I loved being back. The Belgians are very nice, polite people, but they are quite reserved, and it’s hard to make friends here in a spontaneous manner. The Italian warmth, generosity towards a complete stranger and easy-going disposition were a balm for my homesick heart. September 27, 2012 at 11:56am Reply

      • iodine: Mi piacerebbe tanto conoscerti, la prossima volta che vieni a Milano!!

        (I’d love to meet you, next time you’ll be in Milan- so nobody feels excluded from the conversation!) September 27, 2012 at 12:11pm Reply

        • Victoria: I would enjoy that very much, and I will let you know when I’m planning my next visit! September 27, 2012 at 12:17pm Reply

          • Zazie: Oh, I’d love to welcome you too in Milano, and join you ladies for a sniff, a chat, or a tasty “pause caffè”! September 27, 2012 at 2:49pm Reply

            • Victoria: Then it is a deal! When I’ll plan my trip to Milan, I will write to both of you and we will come up with some delicious and fragrant activity. 🙂 September 27, 2012 at 3:02pm Reply

  • Caroline: I love cardamom & hazelnuts! Your recipes always look so delicious!! It’s almost time for me to do some low carb baking & other cooking again. I will definitely incorporate those flavors into a low carb biscotti recipe I found. Plus I want to try the recipe for chicken kofta meatballs you posted a while back. Thank you for posting these! September 27, 2012 at 11:31am Reply

    • Victoria: Caroline, it’s my pleasure to share. I love experimenting with new tastes. This flavor combination (cardamom, vanilla, orange) is something I’ve used in many other baking recipes, even sponge cakes and ice cream, and it’s quite versatile. By the way, cardamom + orange zest makes for a great rub for fish! September 27, 2012 at 11:58am Reply

      • Caroline: I will have to try that the next time I cook some mahi-mahi. Thank you! September 28, 2012 at 12:33pm Reply

  • Andy: I’ll have to try this recipe, maybe even today. It is so staightforward and simple that I am tempted. Also, I love the combo of cardamom and citrus (especially with blood orange)! One of my favorite desserts is a blood orange sorbet with cardamom gingerbread cookies. September 27, 2012 at 12:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you like them, Andy!

      Your description of a blood orange sorbet with cardamom gingerbread cookies made me crave this combo too. I’m a big fan of blood oranges, and when the season starts in the winter, I cook with them a lot, make candied orange zest, jam, marmalade, etc. September 27, 2012 at 2:34pm Reply

      • Andy: My biscotti are in the oven, getting nice and golden on both sides right now. The aroma is incredible. For the vanilla extract, I used the homemade version I made using the recipe on your blog, and for the sugar, I substituted the vanilla sugar I make out of used vanilla bean pods. Can’t wait to brew up a chai spiced black tea latte and eat a few of these alongside! September 27, 2012 at 3:37pm Reply

        • Victoria: I bet that your biscotti are wonderful. I just went to see if we still have left over, but I see only crumbs in the cookie jar. 🙂

          My vanilla extract is also homemade, based on the same recipe you used, and whenever I use it, I can’t help rubbing a little bit on my wrist. It’s so richly perfumed. September 27, 2012 at 5:40pm Reply

          • Andy: Great minds think alike—I do the exact same thing when I use the vanilla! And the biscotti really are excellent. Thank you for the recipe. September 27, 2012 at 5:46pm Reply

            • Victoria: So happy to hear this! I am no longer even tempted to buy biscotti. The homemade ones are so much better. September 28, 2012 at 6:28am Reply

  • Nancy A.: Victoria,

    That’s right…here I sit eating my heart out and you are mangia in Firenze! Wonderful photos capturing the life of those biscotti.
    Madison Square Park (NYC) is having a food fest with one particular vendor direct from Rome with a special sandwich, I believe it’s called Trezzini that was never in the USA and a sandwich I woulld like to chow down.

    By the way, you may want to investigate Paris for some of your cooking and/or replacement needs. Try calling the Cordon Bleu or a reputable patisserie and inquire about the flour, if they’re willing to divulge. September 27, 2012 at 4:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: A great suggestion to look for some things I miss in Paris. G.Detou is a great source for baking supplies, and in the US, I bought many of the brands they carry from lepicerie.com. I bet that there are plenty of sources around Brussels too. It’s a city that likes to eat well! September 27, 2012 at 5:44pm Reply

  • Daisy: Looks amazing, Victoria! You always take the most beautiful photos! It doesn’t hurt that you make beautiful food too 🙂

    I love biscotti with vin santo. So much more luxurious than coffee! September 29, 2012 at 3:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Daisy! It is easy to photograph photogenic subjects. 🙂 Plus, I was glad to test the recipe a few times in a row to do a write up on it. Biscotti never last that long in our house.

      I love dipping mine in red wine as well. Not as traditional, but so so good! September 30, 2012 at 4:42pm Reply

  • Austenfan: What gorgeous photo’s!
    I have never been as much in love with Florence as I am with Siena, it’s smaller sister.
    Although there is much more to see and visit in Florence.
    Have you ever tried panforte in Tuscany? Absolutely scrumptious.

    In my mind Belgium and Italy are always linked. They share a lack of structure and political sfumato. Weatherwise they have nothing in common though. September 30, 2012 at 7:52am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve spent only one day in Sienna, but I loved the city. It is a true jewelbox! I would have a difficult time picking a favorite place in Italy though. I have a very strong link to the place, can’t even explain it logically. It’s a lifelong love affair.

      Glad that you liked this vignette! Your comment about the Belgian and Italian politics made me smile. September 30, 2012 at 4:50pm Reply

  • Josephine: Hi – I noticed your list of ingredients says 1/2 tsp of baking soda, but in the description of ‘how to’ it says baking powder. Help 🙂 December 2, 2013 at 7:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: A typo! Please use 1/2 tsp of baking powder, Josephine! I fixed the instructions. December 3, 2013 at 3:01am Reply

  • Melina: Hello, Victoria!
    What a wonderful blog you have created.
    I would like to ask you to create a list of baking supplies – cities of the world.

    Melina from Athens Greece February 18, 2015 at 4:05am Reply

    • Victoria: A great idea, although I’d need help from all of you to make it possible. February 18, 2015 at 6:36am Reply

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