They were always soft and crumbly the first few hours after being made and hard and crunchy and perfect for dunking in coffee a day or two later. Her recipe called for a Tablespoon of Anise extract, but Auntie insisted on using the entire 2 oz bottle. She was right to do so. Her Biscotti burst with an inviting, aromatic sweet flavor and family and friends craved them and because of the excessive amount of Anise she used her house smelt licorice-warm for days after.
Auntie taught me in order to form the Biscotti loaf correctly you had to oil both hands, “forming the loaf is the hard part”, she’d say as she rubbed her oily hands together. She had bony, pinkish arthritic knuckles and in her humorous and self-deprecating way as she worked the loaf on her seasoned cookie sheet, she’d go on about her “damn ugly hands” and this would ignite fits of my silly laughter that would only spur more of her infamous sharp, cutting wit, “You like laughing at your old Aunt don’t you!”
She was tiny, thin and quick. She had the best of clothes from Jordan Marsh and Filenes and wore Chanel No. 5 and had a closet of expensive shoes she once wore when she worked. At home she wore polyester blue and black “slacks” and over-sized flannel men shirts that she’d buy at dollars stores, these shirts swallowed her but she said they kept her warm. She had horrible feet that troubled her, filled with corns and on occasion, the year I lived with her, she asked to see my bare feet that she said were “perfect”. I’d show her and proudly wiggle my best feature her way while laughing like an imbecile at the oddity of what was requested and what I was actually doing. I was 44. She’d exclaim “Show off” and we’d both fall into a fits of laughter.
She’d dye her hair jet black, had the same hairstyle all her life: matted down close to her scalp and curled on the ends. She made those curls every night while watching Jay Leno, her Bobbie pins in a pink plastic container that sat on her lap, she twisted, curled and rolled her hair methodically. In 2006 the last year of her life I lived with her and while she curled her hair precisely at midnight, I’d sit on her sofa with pencil and scarp paper in hand making a list as she called out food items we needed at the Stop& Shop the next day, “We better get some Anise, you never know who might stop in this weekend.” At one time she had eight bottles of Anise lined up in her cupboard and they’d always dwindle down to one or two at the end of any given month.
After the Biscotti loaf was baked, she made me watch her cut them and showed me how to toast them just so. She was not a cook, but one of the first career women of her time. She started working for New England Telephone in the 1940’s and worked her way into a management position in the 1950’s. Her mother Emily was the cook in the house, and my father tells me stories of him delivering my Grandmother’s fragrant and magnificent hot turkey dinners to his older sister every Thanksgiving at the New England Telephone building where she worked as an operator. Auntie may have not been a natural cook, but her biscotti are legend to all that knew and loved her, and there were many.
She said food was love, and her biscottis reflect this belief. She made them for her first cousin Rosemary who she called “posy” who came up from Maryland a few times a year. She made them for her cousin Vincent “the gentleman” who came from Western Massachusetts and she made them for her beloved cousin Franny and for my mother and her three sisters and for her aunts and uncles. Two of her aunts are still alive. One is 96 and the other 105. She made them for her 11 nieces and nephews and their spouses. She made them for decades of priests who came to her house to give my grandmother and her holy communion. She made biscotti for her 14 great-nieces and great-nephews and her neighbors. She made them for her former co-workers at the New England Telephone Company who were at one time mostly working mothers who Auntie supervised and protected if they were running late due to their motherly duties. Auntie was revered by these women who when I met them were elderly and with grandchildren and every time we ran into them whether it at church, a food market or department store, they’d practically mow Auntie down with hugs and kisses and tears would flow. They’d tell me endless stories of acts of great kindness committed by Auntie their once dearly loved supervisor and protector and I’d stand proud and in awe, mostly though wondering why elderly women wore so much perfume.
In 2002 when I went home for a visit and before returning back to New York City to start rehearsals for my first Play, “The Sweepers” Auntie made a box of her Biscotti for the cast and crew and tied a red string around the container, “There” she said, “Now, be a good boy!” I kissed her goodbye and on the train ride down to Manhattan I took the string off because I was embarrassed by it (but it was okay for a 44-year-old man to bring homemade cookies from his Auntie).
Auntie never had children and in our time together she treated me like I was her son and although I was a grown man and indeed had a mother, Auntie acted as if I were twelve-year-old boy and I didn’t resist this treatment and I’m glad I never did.
1 cup sugar
½ cup oil
Anise (use the whole little 2oz bottle like Auntie did) or a tablespoon.
3 cups flour (maybe more, maybe less)
3 teaspoons baking powder
¼ cup milk
In a bowl mix the eggs, oil, anise and sugar until well blended.
Add the salt and baking powder, next slowly add the flour and alternate the milk until it all comes to a firm, but still wet dough, (use all the milk) meaning that when you place it on a cookie sheet and form a long, thin flat loaf with your oiled hands the dough is loose enough to expand a bit as you work it, think of it as a big hunk of warm taffy. Depending on your pan you might have two loaves or one long one. After the loaf is formed (don’t forget it will move a bit because it’s a firm, but still loose dough) place the pan in a preheated 325 oven until the top is slightly golden and the loaf has risen.
When done take the loaf out and let it cool for a while. Don’t start messing with it. Then cut the loaf on an angle and into inch (or whatever size you like) wide slices. Lay the Biscotti on a sheet pan and bake in the oven making sure you turn them until they start to brown on their edges.
I leave them out and get them crunchy and hard, but if you don’t like them this way make sure you cover them tightly. Make many pots of coffee and enjoy.