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Taking the plunge

| Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006

Never in history have American diners had such far-reaching choices of sweet and savory products manufactured specifically for dunking.

Pittsburgh was put on the dunking map in recent years with the filming of "The Bread, My Sweet," a 2001 film inspired by Enrico's Biscotti Company, a boutique bakery and cafe in the Strip District owned by Larry Lagattuta. The recent proliferation of gourmet coffee shops and tea houses coast to coast offering racks of biscotti, scones and hard cookies also encourages folks to take a dip or two, regardless of what etiquette experts say.

There even is a trend toward baked goods destined for dunking in wine or spirits.

Vince Taglieri, who co-owns three coffee shops in Pittsburgh suburbs, including Oakmont Coffee Company and Forest Hills Coffee Company, says that he doesn't see many of his customers dunking while enjoying their treats on premises. But he -- a self-admitted dunker of cookies, toast, macaroons and cinnamon twists -- can see sometimes why a patron doesn't feel as if he or she has any choice.

"Some of the biscotti I've tried are really hard, like a rock, or dry as a piece of wood," says Taglieri, who recently opened another site in Harmar.

So, dunking might be the only option. But there are other complications. Sometimes the biscotti "are too big, like a loaf of bread," he says. "You can't fit them into a cup of coffee."

Break and dunk• That means a mess, plus soggy crumbs floating throughout the hot beverage.

Taglieri says that his shops' sweets were selected so that patrons wouldn't have to face this dilemma, nor risk breaking teeth if they are shy about dunking.

"We buy biscotti from La Peri Dolce (Penn Hills) and La Cucina Dolce in Monroeville," he says. "They're the best." La Cucina Dolce also makes macaroons -- "nice small cookies that are very dippable.

The biscotti come in an array of flavors -- his best sellers are double chocolate, cinnamon raisin and lemon almond from La Peri Dolce, which also bakes seasonal items, such as peppermint-flavored biscotti.

Patrons might opt for a crunchy cinnamon twist, a pastry flavored with cinnamon and sugar.

"Coffee and cinnamon go well together," Taglieri says.

Sharon Porta, co-owner with her sister Sue Lugin of Sisters' SpecialTeas Cafe in Robinson, has complete control over the taste, texture and consistency of sweets and savories sold at the shop.

"You don't have to dunk our biscotti (to eat it comfortably)," she says. "It's my mom's recipe. And our scones are small and flaky."

Her sister is the main baker, but Porta, a registered nurse at UPMC Passavant Hospital, assists.

Some Pittsburgh bakeries also offer hand-baked biscotti, and a company called Maria's Biscotti from Carnegie sells its 12 flavors wholesale and on amazon.com.

But dunkers are far from new. Fossier, a French company in the Champagne region, has been making Biscuit Rose de Reims -- The Pink Champagne Biscuit -- for 300 years. It's traditional to dunk these in Champagne or red wine.

And a family of master French pastry chefs in the Provence region is producing dunkers called Savoury "Cookies" and Sweet Cookies under the Le Petit Duc label.

"The savory cookies are really better dunked, as they are not sweet at all and are designed to go with wine," says Erika Taylor, a spokeswoman for quelobjet.com, a web site for gourmets.

In general, if you are pairing a baked item with a wine, be sure the cookie is not sweeter than the wine, otherwise you'll get an unpleasant aftertaste. Dark chocolate, however, is an exception with ports and lusty red wines.

"The sweet cookies can stand alone or be dunked with wine, tea, cocoa, coffee or brandy," Taylor says.

Savory flavors are thyme, fennel, olive and rosemary; sweet choices include shortbread flavored with saffron and crocus; chocolate sticks (almond paste wrapped in chocolate); clover, with a hint of muscat wine and a sprinkle of sugar on top; and one called Anise Moon, featuring almonds and green anise.

The cookies, which were sold out during the holidays, will be available again for Valentine's Day, Taylor says.

Brits and biscuits

No population on earth seems to honor dunking as much as the British.

In the United Kingdom, the term is "biscuit," not cookie, and although dunking is "a time-honored tradition among the working and lower class," writes Andrew Horton, creator of www.biscuit.org.uk -- home to The Biscuit Appreciation Society -- "we ... believe that it is an integral part becoming a world leading connoisseur." The site includes painstaking instructions on the "Fine Art of Biscuit Dunking" and how to buy biscuits suitable for dunking.

McVitie's, a biscuit-making division of United Biscuits (UK) Limited, has gone a step further with www.dunkforbritain.com , featuring animated illustrations of several types of dunking skills (The Pinkie, The Claw, Splash Down) and tips for fishing out sinkers.

Reviews of various dunking cookies -- er, biscuits -- can be found by visiting www.nicecupofteaandsitdown.com .

On a scientific note, in 1998, researchers from the University of Bristol in western England published a mathematical formula for the perfect way to dunk a biscuit. According to the BBC: "The study reveals precisely why we are drawn to dunking -- it seems more of the flavor of the biscuit is released into our mouths if it has first been dunked in a hot drink." As much as 10 times more flavor is released by dunking than eating a biscuit dry, the scientists said.

The research, which took two months, won Len Fisher, one of the team members, an international Ig Nobel Prize for physics. The prizes are awarded to "some of the more questionable contributions to life at the end of the 20th century," according to its committee members, and for achievements which "cannot, or should not, be reproduced," the BBC reported.

Toffee Crunch Cookie Brittle

Elinor Klivans features this "total crunch" cookie in her book "Big Fat Cookies" (Chronicle Books, $17.95 paperback). To avoid pieces of toffee skidding around the kitchen, leave the candy bars in their wrappers when you crush them -- use a hammer or meat pounder.

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups (about 7 ounces) crushed chocolate-covered toffee, such as Heath Bars or Skor
  • 1 cup (about 4 ounces) walnuts, broken into pieces

Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, baking soda and salt together. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk the melted butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla until smooth, for about 30 seconds. Use a large spoon to stir in the flour mixture. The dough should look smooth. Stir in the crushed toffee and walnuts. The dough will look crumbly.

Leaving a 1- to 1 1/2-inch border empty on all sides of the baking sheet, spoon the dough onto it. Press the dough into a rectangle that measures about 13 by 9 inches and is about 1/2-inch thick, then use the palms of your hands to pat it into an even layer.

Bake until the top feels firm and looks dark golden and the edges look light brown, for about 19 minutes. Let the cookie brittle cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes, then use a large metal spatula to slide the cooking onto a wire rack to cool. Don't worry if the cookie breaks, because it will be broken into pieces when cool. The cookie will crisp as it cools.

Break the cooled cookie into 4- or 5-inch pieces. The cookies can be stored in a tightly covered container at room temperature for as long as 4 days.

Makes about 12 (4- to 5-inch long) irregularly shaped cookies.

Big-Hearted Butter Shortbread

This recipe is from "Big Fat Cookies" by Elinor Klivans (Chronicle, $17.95 paperback). Cut the cookies into whatever shapes you desire.

For the cookies:

  • 2 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • /2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the glaze:

  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 1 baking sheet with parchment paper if making 9 cookies, 2 baking sheets if making 13.

To make the cookies: Sift 23/4 cups flour, the cornstarch, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla until smooth and creamy, for about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed during mixing. On low speed, add the flour mixture, mixing until it is incorporated and the dough holds together in large clumps and comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Form the dough into a smooth ball. Lightly flour the rolling surface and rolling pin. Roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a 4 1/2- or 3 1/2-inch long heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out the hearts.

Use a thin metal spatula to transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets, placing them about 1 inch apart. Gather together the dough scraps, roll them and cut out additional hearts.

Bake 1 sheet at a time until the edges and bottoms of the cookies are lightly browned, for about 20 minutes. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then use a wide metal spatula to transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the glaze: In a small bowl, stir 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla with enough of the cream to form a thick, spreadable glaze. Use a thin metal spatula to spread half of each cookie heart with the glaze. Let the cookies sit until the glaze is firm.

The cookies can be layered between sheets of wax paper in a tightly covered container and stored at room temperature for as long as 4 days.

Makes 9 to 13 cookies.

Variations: Add 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, or 2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest, or 3/4 teaspoon almond extract to the dough along with the vanilla.

Nutmeg Cookies with Hot Spiced Maple-Grand Marnier Tea

This recipe is from "The New England Table" by Lora Brody (Chronicle Books, $35). Nutmeg, a "warm" spice, goes well with hot beverages during cold weather.

  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing sheets
  • Vegetable cooking spray, optional
  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 extra-large egg
  • 1/4 cup regular molasses (not blackstrap)
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • Hot Spiced Maple-Grand Marnier Tea ( recipe follows )

Heat the oven to 375 degrees with 2 racks placed as close to the center of the oven as possible. Line 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil or silicone pan liners. If you are using foil, butter it or coat with vegetable cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon nutmeg and the cloves. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, for about 2 minutes. Add the egg and molasses and beat for about 1 minute, until the mixture comes together and no longer looks curdled. Scrape the sides of the bowl as you work. add the flour mixture and mix on low speed just until it is all incorporated.

In a pie plate or shallow pan, stir together the granulated sugar and remaining 1 teaspoon nutmeg.

Drop the batter into the plate by tablespoon-sized scoops, and use your hands to gently roll the scoops into round shapes in the sugar/nutmeg mixture, turning to coat each scoop thoroughly. You will probably only have room to roll 6 scoops at a time.

Place each sugared ball on the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between cookies -- they will flatten and spread during baking. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes, until the cookies have spread and just begin to brown at the edges. They might not look done in the centers when they are removed from the oven, but they will firm as they cool.

Leave the cookies on the baking sheets for about 3 minutes after removing them from the oven, then use a metal spatula to transfer them to a wire rack to cool. Serve with Hot Spiced Maple-Grand Marnier Tea.

The cookies can be stored for as long as 2 weeks in an airtight container at room temperature, or they can be frozen in a zipper-top freezer bag for as long as 6 months.

Makes about 30 cookies.

Hot Spiced Maple-Grand Marnier Tea

  • 12 cups (3 quarts) water
  • 6 Constant Comment tea bags, or other orange-spice tea
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 8 whole cloves, tied in cheesecloth
  • Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur, or more to taste
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup, or more to taste

Bring the water to a boil in a large, nonreactive (nonaluminum) pot set over high heat. Turn off the heat and add the tea bags, cinnamon stick, cloves and lemon juice. Allow to steep for 15 minutes, or until the liquid is a rich amber color. If you like stronger tea, allow the tea bags to seep for another 15 minutes or so.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the tea bags, cinnamon stick and cloves. Stir in the liqueur and maple syrup, then taste and adjust the liqueur and maple syrup, if desired. Serve in warmed mugs or glasses.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Grandma's Biscotti (Twice-Baked Cookies)

Celebrity chef Mario Batali shares this recipe from his book "Mario Batali Holiday Food" (Clarkson/Potter Publishers, $23). He writes, "These were the only biscotti I ever knew as a child, and so when the coffee bar craze hit in the late '80s and suddenly biscotti were a huge success, I was not caught by surprise. The sharp anise flavor in this recipe makes it a great dipper for remaining red wine after dinner, which, much to my real surprise having watched Grandma do this for years, is absolutely a killer."

Anise oil is available in pharmacies or where ingredients for cake- and candy-making are sold.

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon anise oil
  • 1 teaspoon aniseseeds
  • 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour, more if needed
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, waiting until each is incorporated before adding the next one. Add the cream, anise oil and seeds, 3 cups sifted flour and the baking powder and mix until a firm dough is formed.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and form it into 2 logs approximately 24 inches long adding more flour if needed for the logs to hold their shape. Place the logs on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes, or until light golden brown.

Remove from the oven; while still warm, slice each log diagonally into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Return the slices to the cookie sheet, cut-side down, and bake for 15 minutes more, turning after 7 or 8 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Store in an airtight container.

Makes 4 to 5 dozen cookies.

Hazelnut Biscotti

These extra-crunchy biscotti not only dunk well, but they ship or mail, staying intact because they are baked twice. They are easy to prepare, using a box cake mix as the base. The recipe is from "Duncan Hines Complete Cake Mix Magic" by Jill Snider (Robert Rose, $24.95).

  • Butter, for greasing baking sheets
  • 1 package (2-layer size) white cake mix
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup ground hazelnuts
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • 2/3 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or grease with butter.

In a large mixer bowl, combine the dry cake mix, flour, ground hazelnuts, eggs, oil and lemon zest. Beat on low speed for 1 minute or until blended. work in the chopped hazelnuts, using your hands, to form a smooth dough. Divide the dough in half.

On the prepared baking sheets, shape each half into a 10- by 3-inch rectangle that is 1/2-inch deep. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet.

Carefully transfer to a cutting board and cut each rectangle into 1/2-inch slices. Place the slices on their side on prepared baking sheets. Bake, one tray at a time, for 10 minutes. Turn the slices over and bake for 5 to 10 minutes longer or until crisp and golden. Cool for 1 minute on the baking sheets, then remove to wire racks and cool completely.

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen.

Variations: Use your favorite nut. Pecans and almonds work well. Omit the lemon zest, if desired.

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