Cantuccini, aka Biscotti, and Vin Santo – an Ancient, Instant Dessert
In this post:
- the history of a sweetmeat and a spiced wine as a way of finishing a meal
- cantucci make a good gourmet present
- what is vin santo and what are the alternatives to vin santo?
- what are cantucci or cantuccini?
- recipe for cantucci
“[Talking of Proust and his famous madeleines] For pity’s sake, an epicene Frenchman rhapsodising over a cake damped in tea, no less. At the least he might have poured himself a thimblefull of vin santo. I can’t imagine what he might have written had there been a tin of cornmeal biscotti thick with pine nuts and whole raisins near to hand.”Marlena de Blasi, The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club
The history of a sweetmeat and a spiced wine as a way of finishing a meal
Dessert is the word for a course of something served at the end of a meal – it comes from the French where it is the past participle of desservir, literally to ‘de-serve’, or to remove what has been served. The word was first used in France in the early sixteenth century to designate what was eaten after the main meal had been cleared away and it would have been a spiced wine called hippocras with fresh or dried fruit, crisp thin wafers, or nuts in a hard sugar coating known as dragées.
The custom, however, is much older than the word. The word dragée (which is still the technical term in the confectionary industry for something encased in a hard, candied shell like a sugared almond or an M&M) comes from the ancient Greek word tragemata which meant cakes, nuts, sweets and fruits to nibble with wine after the table had been cleared of the main event.
“The Earl and Countess of Effingham were among the number. ‘They were always seated’ said he, ‘opposite each other at dinner; and no sooner was the dessert placed before us than my Lord, ordering his lady to open her mouth, threw dragées (sugar-plums) into it across the table with surprising dexterity.'”Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, 1815
Cantucci make a good gourmet present
My brother-in-law likes these biscuits so I usually make some for him and give them to him in an unusual jar (IKEA do some good-looking ones) for Christmas.
If you want to make this end-of-meal solution even more instant, simply buy the cantucci.
Vin Santo is an Italian dessert wine made mostly from dried white wine grapes (although there is a type made from Sangiovese which produces a kind of rosé version known as Occhio di Pernice – eye of the partridge). Be careful to look at the label when you buy as it can be bone dry to super sweet. It seems most likely that it derives its name from the fact that it was widely used as communion wine.
My beloved doesn’t like it much – so what are the alternatives? Almost anything a little sweet goes down well with the biscotti – port works well, sherry, madeira and marsala also. If you want to be historically authentic try the Greek mavrodaphne (Tesco offers a box of six bottles for £30). Nothing will be wasted – it will also go excellently in the gravy!
Biscotti, cantuccini, and sometimes cantucci are all, now, more or less the same. The original name, biscotti comes from medieval Latin, literally ‘twice cooked’ and it’s the root of the English word biscuit. By cooking twice a hard biscuit is achieved which keeps well over a long period of time – because they are quite dry they are excellent dunking biscuits, either in sweet wine as described above, or in coffee.
Recipe for making cantucci
- 250g/8 oz/2 cups plain flour
- 200g/7 oz/1 cup golden caster sugar
- 1 tbsp vanilla bean paste (or one vanilla pod)
- ½ tbsp baking powder
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 150g/5 oz/1 cup shelled, chopped pistachios, or a mix of pistachios and macadamia nuts, or a mix of nuts and chunks of good quality 70%+ chocolate
- grated zest of a lemon
- 130g/4 oz/⅔ cup sultanas
- Preheat the oven to 180°C, the baking oven if you have an Aga.
- Mix the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a large mixing bowl.
- Slowly add the beaten egg. You will end up with a very stiff dough – don’t be tempted to add another egg.
- Add the zest, nuts, sultanas and, if you are using it, the chunks of chocolate.
- Divide into three and shape into longish round rolls.
- Place, as widely spaced as possible as they spread and flatten, on a large silicone-lined baking sheet.
- Bake for about twenty minutes and then check them. If they are golden they are done and the chances are that if you have an Aga they will be. If they’re not done put them back for another few minutes until they are just turning golden.
- Take them out and leave them to cool on the baking sheet for about ten minutes.
- Turn the oven down to 130°C (or use the simmering oven of the Aga).
- Cut into 1 cm/½” slices, spread the biscotti out flat and return to the oven for just a few minutes – no more than five – until they are not quite dried out.
- Cool and then store in air tight jars.
This post is dedicated to Richard Hoare.
Music to listen to
Era na Sira i Maggiu, Musica della Mafia…. obviously!