ANISE AND ORANGE. They place me outdoors in a patch of sunlight, glass of ouzo at arm’s length on a marble-topped table. In Athens’ public squares, the scent of orange blossoms hangs heavy in the air after spring rain slakes the trees. Few things (besides olives and figs) call up my visits to Greece—layovers in the bustling capital before heading out to the far-flung Peloponnesian towns of my grandparents’ birth—more than this combination of aromas. I associate them also with the hospitality of my grandmother’s American kitchen, when she knew visitors were coming and she would set out trays of coffee and koulouria, those sweet twists of dough with a touch of anisette flavor; sometimes there’d be a spoonful of preserved fruit (maybe orange) served on a little dish beside a glass of water.
I love these ingredients for their aroma, their taste, and their versatility. The orange yields its sweet supremes of fruit, its juice, its zest, and a bitter peel that you can boil in simple syrup and roll in sugar for a classic glacé treat—no part of the fruit goes to waste. Anise comes in many forms: fresh fennel, with its delicate fernlike fronds and crunchy white bulbs; spicy star anise from the East; fragrant, crunchy aniseeds and the various extracts and liqueurs that bakers can add to their repertoires for a hint of licorice flavor. Less common in home cooking and baking is fennel pollen, harvested by hand from the flowers of wild fennel in Tuscany and California. Its aroma is heady, sublime.
with White Chocolate and Fennel Pollen
In this recipe, traditional Italian biscotti serves as the carrier for the aromas, tastes, and memories of my Greek ancestry. Aniseeds and candied orange peel provide interest in an otherwise unassuming almond cookie; the flavors are boosted with anise extract and freshly grated orange zest. To add a bit of luxury, the rich creaminess of white chocolate holds a dusting of fennel pollen. (Note: fennel pollen is expensive, but a little goes a long way. You can find it and candied orange peel at gourmet specialty food shops. One source is Kalustyan’s.)
Yield: 40 cookies
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons anise extract
1 teaspoon aniseed
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1/2 cup candied orange peel, diced
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup blanched almonds, toasted and chopped fine
3.5 ounces white chocolate, for drizzle (tablet form or chips are fine)
fennel pollen, for dusting
In a large bowl with a hand-held mixer set to medium-high speed, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, and with the mixer on medium, beat until completely incorporated. Scrape down the bowl as needed. Beat in the anise extract, aniseed, and orange zest. With a wooden spoon, fold in the candied orange peel. (At this point, you might have a batter that looks a little funky. If there’s some separation of ingredients, don’t worry—it happened in my own testing, but no harm came from it. Just proceed with faith that when the flour goes in, all will come together.)
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add this gradually to the egg mixture: first combine using the wooden spoon, and then, when stirring becomes too laborious, get your hands in the bowl and finish that way. Knead in the chopped almonds. Throughout the kneading, you might want to dust your hands periodically with flour. The dough is quite sticky at first, but eventually it will gather together and no longer cling to the sides of the bowl. If necessary, add flour above and beyond the amount called for in the recipe, one tablespoon at a time, to obtain desired consistency.
Cover dough and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line an ungreased baking sheet with parchment paper.
Working on a floured board or countertop, divide the chilled dough in half. Working on a floured board or countertop, roll the dough into a log shape, approximately 2″ wide by 13″ long. Place on the baking sheet, leaving room for the second log, which you will make in the same way.
Bake the logs for 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown. Insert a wooden toothpick into the center of a log; the pick should come out clean. Remove logs from oven and turn the oven temperature down to 300 degrees F. Cool logs on baking sheet for 20 minutes before transferring to a clean workspace. Discard parchment paper.
Cut each log into 20 slices (approximately 1/2-inch thick) on the diagonal using a sharp kitchen knife. Carefully place the cookie slices cut-side down on the baking sheet; the cookies will be soft and fragile. Slide the tray back into the oven and bake for 15 minutes on one side. Turn the cookies over and bake 10 minutes on the second side. The cookies should look toasted and feel dry. When the cookies come out of the oven, be sure to let them cool completely on a wire rack.
For the white chocolate and fennel pollen:
Over very low heat, melt chocolate in a small saucepan, stirring constantly. When almost all the chocolate is melted, remove from heat and continue stirring to complete the melting. Using a fork, drizzle the warm chocolate across the top of the biscotti in a back-and-forth motion. Immediately sprinkle a small pinch of fennel pollen over each cookie so that it sticks to the chocolate. Let the cookies sit undisturbed (if you can resist sampling them!) until the chocolate has set.
Keep biscotti between layers of wax paper in an airtight container.
A Note on Crumbs:
Making biscotti creates crumbs and scraps of cookie—don’t throw them away! They add a fabulous, original twist when sprinkled over ice cream.