Fig & Walnut Biscotti

I didn’t know she’d died. But then again, I did. I just hadn’t remembered until I began researching the creator of these delicious biscotti. Gina DePalma, a James Beard Award-winning Pastry Chef at Babbo in New York City (Chef Mario Battali’s place) and cookbook author, died of ovarian cancer at 49–a year ago this past December. These are hers.

I recently found her on the Smitten Kitchen website and only then had I remembered reading a touching tribute about her on Adam Roberts’ food blog a year ago.  He had written about the lentil soup with sausage and swiss chard she made for him–the same soup her mother made for her while she was recovering post-surgery. More on this soup in an upcoming post–because I can’t stop thinking about it and as soon as the current snowfall subsides, will be on my way to the market for the ingredients.

But back to these biscotti…they are made for dunking in your mid-afternoon cup of tea or coffee. Crunchy from the walnuts, soft and chewy because of those sweet dried figs, this traditional Tuscan dolce carries in every bite the essence of winter flavors: orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves. They’ll last in an airtight container for two weeks, however I truly believe they’ll be enjoyed long before that.

I’m sorry Ms. DePalma is gone. I would’ve liked to have written her. To tell her that she’s inspired me to remain true to my heart which says to always keep desserts simple and to allow the flavor of whole ingredients to come through–without getting all fussy about it. We know this to be true for cooking, but yes, it should be true for baking as well.

She says, You might look at one of my plates and think, ‘Wow, she really just slaps it on there.’  But when there isn’t all that busyness to distract the eye, the beauty of the actual food itself has to shine through.

and…I feel very strongly and quite personally that desserts should not be an object of whimsy or nonsense.

*Both quotes are from her obituary in The New York Times.

And now, Ms. DePalma’s Fig & Walnut Biscotti (Makes approximately 24 biscotti, although I didn’t count before eating them and giving some away; also, I followed Smitten Kitchen’s recipe as author, Deb Perelman, cut the recipe in half and that was enough for me.)

  • 1 cup walnut pieces
  • 1 cup dried Black Mission figs, quartered (original recipe calls for Turkish or Calimyrna figs–for a guide to figs, check out Martha Stewart’s website)
  • 3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
  • 6 tablespoons dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • grated zest of 1/2 a large orange
  • 1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten with a fork to a froth

Take out the butter to soften. First grate the nutmeg and set aside (that way your microplane will be easy to wipe clean before zesting the orange). On a baking pan (the same one you’ll use to bake the biscotti) toast walnut pieces until fragrant–about 5-7 minutes. In the meantime, quarter the figs. When the walnuts are completely cooled (I removed them from the pan and placed them on a dish to speed up the wait time) finely chop them in a food processor along with the figs (if you put the walnuts in first, it may help the figs not stick to the bottom and the blade).

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, first beat the butter for 30 seconds or so, then add the sugars until light and fluffy. In a small bowl, beat the eggs gently with a fork and add to the butter and sugar mixture one tablespoon at a time until fully incorporated.  Scrape down the sides, then beat in the vanilla and orange zest.

In a medium bowl, gently whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. In three parts, add the flour mixture to the butter/sugar mixture beating each time until just combined. Take the bowl off the mixer and stir in the walnuts and figs by hand, again until just combined.

Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator until firm–2 hours or overnight.

When the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 325° and lightly butter a baking sheet. Sprinkle flour onto your kitchen table or other work space and using your palms roll the piece of dough gently back and forth until it becomes a log slightly shorter than the length of your pan (it will expand as it bakes in the oven). Place the log on the baking sheet.

Brush with the frothy egg white and sprinkle generously with sugar (I used about 2 tablespoons). Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden brown, firm to the touch and just beginning to crack slightly.

Allow the log to cool on the cookie sheet until cool to the touch, about 40 minutes. Here’s the tricky part, carefully, using two spatulas, move the log to a cutting board. Mine broke in half, which really wasn’t a problem. Using a serrated knife, slice into 1/2-inch slices. Lay the slices on the cookie sheet in a single layer; return biscotti to the oven and bake for 20 more minutes until toasted and crisp. Centers will continue to be soft.