Biscotti di PratoBy Pamela Sheldon Johns
From The Art of Eating no. 87
A walk down the narrow, cobbled Via Ricasoli in the center of the small city of Prato, just north of Florence, brings you to the Antonio Mattei bakery, where small groups of people are gathered, reluctant to leave the charming and elegant shop. The marble counters and wooden shelves are laden with biscotti, and the air is rich with the aroma of eggs, sugar, and almonds. As you sink your teeth into the crisp exterior, the biscotti resist only slightly, and you long for a small glass of vin santo, the sweet Tuscan wine made from partly dried grapes. With its honey and almond aromas, it’s the perfect accompaniment.
Antonio Mattei was a baker in Prato during the Risorgimento, the galvanizing mid-19th-century period of Italian unification. His good friend Pellegrino Artusi, author of the important and still-popular cookbook La Scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), described him as “that good man from Prato,” saying “he had the genius of his art and was honest and industrious.” In 1858, Mattei created a cookie that was baked twice in his wood-burning oven. He found a following for these biscotti, and received important awards from international fairs held in Florence in 1861, London in 1862, and Paris in 1867, launching his cookie into the greater world.
The word biscotto, “cooked twice,” comes from the Latin biscoctus; a second slow baking is an ancient way to dry bread to preserve it. Nowadays, especially outside of Prato, biscotti like Mattei’s are often called cantucci, “corners,” and the smaller ones are cantuccini. The name refers to the end pieces that were often cooked to more of a crisp. Mattei had based his recipe on a twice-baked, sourdough-leavened bread flavored with aniseed. At the turn of the last century, it was eaten by peasant farmers, who bought it when they entered the city walls on Mondays to sell their wares. The same unsweetened rusks are still sold at the Mattei bakery, while for the biscotti we know today, Mattei developed an egg-based, sweetened dough.
Before Mattei died in 1885, he asked that his son Emilio leave the recipe for his beloved creation unchanged. And it remained just as it was when the business was sold to a woman named Italia Ciampolini in 1904 and when it was inherited by Ernesto Pandolfini, an orphan she adopted. He continued to make Mattei’s biscotti, and he added new recipes, such as the chewy brutti buoni, cookies made with chopped almonds and pine nuts in whipped egg whites, and the glorious filone candito, a brioche loaf filled with candied cherries and covered with a thin layer of almond paste. In 1961, Pandolfini’s son Paolo and Paolo’s cousin Renzo Guarducci took over, keeping the biscotti just as Mattei has made it.
Since 1991, the bakery has been overseen by Paolo’s four children, who compare themselves to the four ingredients used to make biscotti. Francesco, the flour, manages the bakery and is in charge of quality control; Marcella, the almonds, handles the accounting; Elisabetta, the eggs, does the marketing; and Letizia, the sugar, is responsible for the design of the store and packaging. Francesco remembers, “I took my first steps in the rooms above this bakery. I have been breathing these aromas since I was born. My father left this work to me, and I had to continue. It was hard to be a young man with new ideas, but I knew I couldn’t change anything.” He has, however, introduced a separate label, Deseo, with innovative recipes and flavors, such as rose, pistachio, candied orange zest, and peperoncino.
The Biscotto di Prato is simple; its secret lies in the quality of the ingredients. Today the dough is made with type 00 flour (for pastry, very pure and with somewhat low protein). Eighteen percent of the weight of the dough is almonds from Puglia, 1 percent is pine nuts from Pisa, and there are eggs, with more yolks than whites — no other leavening, yet the cookie is not dense. This is a result of beating the whole eggs with sugar for at least 15 minutes, which unfolds the proteins and creates a network holding air and water — a foam. The flour gives it even more stability. The moist dough is shaped by hand, stretched into logs.
As the cookies bake, the oven’s heat swells the bubbles of trapped steam and the dough expands. When there was a single wood-fired oven, the cookies were baked a second time to dry them, but modern ovens give more crispness, and because the cookies are quite small, one baking is sufficient. Within two minutes of being removed from the oven, they are sliced by machine. Once cooled, they are packaged by hand in Mattei’s blue bags and tied with string.
In the days when the logs were still sliced by hand, the last few waited too long and cooled too much, so they tended to break. The crumbs were collected and eaten by family and friends. Today, the crumbs are fewer and are sold by weight. Customers use them to garnish desserts.
Mattei biscotti are available in the US in such stores as Zingerman’s (zingermans.com), the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills (cheesestorebh.com), Straub’s (straubs.com), Tony Caputo’s (caputosdeli.com), and Formaggio Kitchen (formaggiokitchen.com).