The dotcom boom in Singapore at the start of a new century meant exploring new possibilities among small and medium enterprises for greater opportunities out there, despite not knowing much about the internet. It was my job to cold-call potential clients, get myself in their office to educate and close the deal. I use the word "educate" because most of my colleagues were hardcore salespeople. Hard-selling was their strategy, something I could not bring myself to embrace.
My sales director was a "cili padi" - a feisty, ambitious, aggressive leader with an insatiable appetite for sales revenue, attractively packaged in but five feet two inches. She was so sharp one had better not try to be funny, especially when one's sales figure had not been up to her expectations. Imagine your name on the whiteboard, with a daily, weekly, monthly and to-date (ie. since your very first day in the job) sales achieved. You'd also receive the printout every Monday morning at the sales team meeting. There were as many as forty salespeople, experienced and otherwise. Staff turnover was regular.
So what does that have to do with biscotti?
I soon learned a trick or two from my better colleagues (hey, still friends with them today). We'd only make our way back to the office after five, going against the flow of MRT commuters in Shenton Way. Meanwhile we'd try mastering the art of skiving, a balance between leisure idle and discretion.
Most of my colleagues preferred window-shopping for clothes and shoes, much like an audition before an actual purchase at a later time. The younger ones - less spending power - would go home for a nap. I know of that one as I've caught a junior under my charge doing it. My choice? I enjoyed resting my feet, taking sips of coffee flipping through magazines at some quiet cafe.
The location was crucial. It must have zero possibility of bumping into anyone from work. So it had to be away from shopping malls, but close enough for me to get back to the office as soon as I wanted. My favorite spot was the Dome Cafe at the Park Mall along Penang Road. It had a cozy layout with dark green leather seats in warm cherrywood furnishing, and their tables hidden away from the outside. As for the mall, its tenants were mainly designer brands for furniture, kitchen and home solutions. Certainly not what my colleagues would be interested in.
While I appreciated the complimentary cookie that came with my coffee at the cafe, their biscotti grew on me. Instead of ordering a slice of cake, I came to enjoy having a packet of their biscotti, which meant significantly lower intake of calories, fat and sugar.
So that was my biscotti story in ancient times. In recent years, I made biscotti at home after JL's mother showed me how she made hers. But it was the Union Square Cafe in New York that I became more daring to play with flavors. On several occasions we were treated to a box of their biscotti to be enjoyed at home. I love that we get to taste them in various flavors: chocolate ones, fruit and nut pairings, fruit and spice pairings.
Later in culinary school, we also learned to make biscotti among many others for pastry module. There I learned to do it more efficiently with subtle but effective techniques, using the right tools for the right job.
In general, making biscotti begins with creaming fat and sugar, incorporating the wet and dry ingredients for the batter, and finally customizing to the desired flavor and texture. When doing it for the first time, one may find it messy hence intimidating especially to roll and shape the moist dough into logs for baking. The trick is to keep one's work surface and hands floured, to roll and shape quickly, and to use a bench scraper (or a clean ruler with thin edges) to straighten the log. The logs are baked partially, cooled slightly, then sliced into what the eyes would recognize as biscotti, and returned to bake further. The right tool for slicing is a long serrated knife. The right technique is not to saw, but to slice in one long, sweeping motion while keeping the log still with the other hand.
I also learned to appreciate the paddle attachment for the KitchenAid stand mixer. This may sound uptight and nit-picking, but if you start with the whisk attachment for the wet ingredients, and use the paddle attachment when the dry ingredients come into the picture, you will be able to work more efficiently, minimizing waste, mess, and loss of time.
Very regularly, students in culinary school have the phrase "right tool for the right job" drilled inside their heads. Sometimes one gets away with using alternative tools - I can think of the many scenarios when one's fingers eliminates the need for a spoon. But in the context of making biscotti, using the right tool for the right job will make you enjoy the entire process, after which comes creativity.
Here is a basic standard almond biscotti recipe for you to start with. Get yourself accustomed to the procedure, focus on the rolling and shaping, and the slicing techniques. I will put up other variations later on.
Adapted from America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
10 oz all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 oz butter, softened
7 oz sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
3.75 oz whole almonds
In a bowl, whisk flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In the stand mixer bowl, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the extracts. Stop, scrape the sides of the bowl and continue beating until homogenous.
Using the paddle attachment on low speed, mix in the flour mixture until just combined. Use a spatula to mix in the almonds. Cut a straight line through the center of the bowl to divide the dough in half. Dust the work surface with flour, and with lightly floured hands, roll each half quickly into a log about 13 by 2 inches. This is where a bench scraper comes in very handy, both to release bits of dough stuck to the surface and to shape the logs into straight ones.
Place the logs with at least 3 inches of space in between on a half sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350°F for 35 minutes, turning halfway through. Remove from the oven to cool slightly, about 10 minutes, and lower the oven temperature to 325°F.
Slice the logs at an angle to about 1/4-inch thick. Work on the smooth, sweeping motion with a long serrated knife to reduce crumbs. Arrange the biscotti lying on the cut sides and bake for 4 minutes on each side.