BISCOTTI BAKING; A CHRISTMAS TRADITION
By Eva Perroni
The week leading up to Christmas has always been associated with some level of madness as people rush to tie up business ends and try to navigate through a retail labyrinth of jazzed up Christmas jingles. Growing up, the week before Christmas was always associated with a long-standing tradition in my Italian-Australian household: biscotti baking. Usually a two to three day endeavour, my mother and I would don our aprons, roll up our sleeves and get elbow deep in flour and dusting sugar.
We would prepare at least four varieties of traditional biscuits: almond bread, crescent-shaped shortbread, mostacciolli, diamond shaped cookies spiced with cinnamon and cloves and crostoli, airy fried ribbon pastries dusted with icing sugar. With some recipes calling for double-baking methods, and others, like crostoli, having to be fried in batches, hours would fly by as we’d bake by the hundreds. Once finished, we would compile an array of biscotti on a small Christmas platter and wrap them in cellophane fastened with curled coloured ribbon. Walking door to door, we would distribute the platters amongst our neighbours, friends and families as a gift-giving gesture, sharing our treats, time and tradition with those we loved.
Biscotti trace back to Ancient Roman times, where they were deemed a convenient travel food for both soldiers and general travellers. As they are twice-baked, they result in a hard and dry texture that gives them a long-shelf life. Re-established centuries later in Tuscany, biscotti became the perfect vehicle to dunk into coffee at breakfast or soak up sweet wine at dessert. Nowadays, variations of the simple biscotto (which at first contained not much more than flour, butter, sugar, almonds and citrus peel) have resulted in an array of flavour combinations from pistachio and cranberry to orange pecan to choc-covered mocha. The humble biscotto has become so extravagant that it can somehow be justified for selling at $3.00 a piece at your local cafe.
For me, biscotti baking will always hold sacrosanct cultural value and meaning. Involving the convening of generations of women in a kitchen, the passing down of such a simple traditional recipe is imbued with the cumulative energy of my mother, my grandmother and her mother before her. The process, mixed with their love, time and dedication, helped to define our relationships and strengthened the bonds between both us on the baking end and those on the receiving end. This Christmas custom not only connected me to my cultural heritage, but allowed me to see that by placing care and intention into simple tasks, this act of gift-giving could replace the materialism now often associated with Christmas, with meaning.
This year, I’m baking by myself for the first time. I’m developing the deeply sensual and tactile forms of knowledge required in the ongoing journey towards the perfect biscotto (which I’m nowhere near). My mother scanned and sent me her handwritten recipes via email, although she’s already prefaced that she’ll have to walk me through some steps over the phone. At a time generally associated with mass consumerism and frantic running around, I’m hoping to re-establish the traditional meaning of Christmas with the slow and simple act of biscotti baking.
Eva Perroni is an activist-researcher and writer focused on creating a more just and sustainable food system.