Thursday, April 23, 2009

Biscotti and Bike Racing

There must be an affinity between "b"-named desserts and bikes in my mind. This weekend I'm attending a dinner party for SAS in Brooklyn, and she requested that I bring something "scrumptious" for the last course. Actually, she specifically requested bouchons, but I assured her that I could come up with something different yet equally delightful. Of course, then I had to live up to this promise, so I took a mini tour of my kitchen to see what might inspire me. Aside from basic baking staples, I found four items that looked promising: unsweetened coconut flakes, a small bottle of orange peel, dried pineapple rings, and a bowl of chopped up bittersweet chocolate left over from the bouchons. Eureka!

Now what, you might ask, could I possibly make with those four ingredients other than a very dry and potentially bitter fruitcake? Well, curious one, it just so happens that I have a great recipe for coconut pineapple biscotti; furthermore, if I'm going to go to the trouble of beating together eggs and sugar, why not make some bittersweet chocolate orange biscotti at the same time? To paraphrase my earlier Greek, Yes!

I was never a huge biscotti fan--with the exception of Jordan almonds, I dislike chewing things that sound as though they're about to crack open my teeth. However, two years ago I went with my friends CCW, AB, and LV to a bike race in Philadelphia, the famous Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference's Philly Flyer. As bike racers, even mediocre ones, are often forced to do, we crashed at the family house of a friend of a friend, and squeezing CCW's massive Land Rover--crowned with three bikes--down the narrow cobblestone streets of Society Hill marked the beginning of an amazing race weekend. Before we left Ithaca, CCW had baked several different kinds of biscotti to bring as thank you gifts to our host, so once we inched the Land Rover into a spot originally designed for a horse carriage (Society Hill is a pre-Revolutionary War neighborhood, after all), we presented these to our hosts along with our effusive thank-yous.
We could never truly repay their hospitality, however. Society Hill, like Georgetown and Beacon Hill, is one of those neighborhoods so unique in terms of both architecture and American History that just walking through it is a memorable experience, but we were actually staying in one of those remarkable buildings. The house was in fact two 18th century buildings combined into one modern home, and so there were two narrow colonial front doors and two main staircases at the outer edges of the building. My most prominent memory is of walking up lots of little stairways that opened up into beautiful, cavernous rooms, including a library that looked like a smaller version of Somerville's. Bliss.

At the race course by the Schuylkill early the next morning, fueled by oatmeal and the previous evening's pad thai--I don't even like pad thai, but I was so excited by the Society Hill architecture that I couldn't have cared less what I was eating--CCW and I were warming up on our trainers and talking biscotti. Could I, too, make such magical treats that I might be able to stay in beautiful homes in other colonial neighborhoods? Well, no, CCW said, but I can teach you how to make biscotti that won't crack your teeth open. Sold!
Biscotti Power!
What can I say? The weekend was a huge success. We won our team time trial. No one crashed. I was pushed sideways by a purple cow--who I later identified as a Williams rider with negligible bike handling skills--at the crit starting line and still managed to score points. We ate lunch at Whole Foods. We sang at the top of our lungs the whole drive home and shouted "Scheetz, that's cheap gas!" whenever we passed a Scheetz gas station. None of the bikes flew off the Land Rover's roof. And I learned how to make biscotti that wouldn't crack anyone's teeth open.

The secret, according to CCW, is to bake the slices for ten minutes max (as opposed to the fifteen typically recommended in recipes). When we returned to Ithaca I experimented with several different recipes, and my favorites were a maple walnut version, complete with maple drizzle, from one of Moosewood's cookbooks, and a coconut pineapple version that I developed off of a basic coconut biscotti recipe I found in Sunset magazine's archives.
The coconut pineapple biscotti roll pre-slicing, and the bittersweet chocolate orange roll mid-slice.
My luck with chocolate biscotti recipes has always been hit or miss--either the chocolate melts inconsistently throughout the roll before I slice it, or the taste is indistinct. I had a hunch that the bittersweet chocolate I had used for the bouchons might be just right, however, and my hunch has been validated. Unfortunately, I had no such hunch about the orange peel and as a result I didn't use enough. C'est la vie--the bittersweet chocolate orange biscotti would still be a yummy accompaniment to an espresso (which I rarely drink unless the palate cries out for it, as in this case I think it might be).
A great pairing for the coconut pineapple biscotti--if "pairing" is even the right word--would be Hédiard's Thé Pacifique blend, but given the near impossibility of finding that tea anywhere outside of Paris, a light green tea would be good as well. Fortunately, both espresso and green tea will be in high supply at SAS's dinner this weekend.

CCW and I live far away from one another now, and it's been a couple of years since I stood on a starting line next to her, but I still smile and think about it often. There are few instances in which I've felt the strength of my friendships as powerfully as I have when standing with CCW prior to those bike races, and given all the hazards of that endeavor, it's unlikely that I'll experience it in the same way again. But that doesn't make me miss that feeling, or her, any less.


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