Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Tuscan Feast: cantucci con vin santo

Why is it that holidays always go so quickly? I'm sure that last week went far faster than any normal work week. For want of a better cliché, time does indeed fly when you are having fun. I returned yesterday afternoon from a week in a beautiful villa in Tuscany, shared with twelve friends. Days were spent lazing by the pool, books in hand and evenings feasting upon the best of local produce both liquid and solid (!)

I also visited some of the region's charming hilltop towns and villages: Pienza, Montepulciano, Radda in Chianti and Montalcino. The attraction of this area is clear to see - beautiful towns untouched by the passing of time amidst eye-pleasing countryside of rolling hills, vineyards, cypress trees and olive groves. What is not to love?

Although I did venture out for a couple of typically Tuscan lunches, we cooked for ourselves in our villa. It was interesting to be with a number of keen cooks and learn from their inventiveness in the cucina. Each evening we gathered round a huge table outside and feasted on Italian produce by candlelight whilst putting the world to rights (...and fending off the mosquitoes).

Of course, no trip to Italy would be complete for me without taking some time to learn a little more about the nation's wonderful wines. Italy's wine offering is surely the world's most diverse with thousands of indigenous grape varieties and myriad styles. As well as visiting a favourite Chianti producer (Fontodi), I also spent an afternoon visiting the domaine of Gianni Brunelli in Montalcino. The view from his family home (and offices) was stunning. As indeed were his wines.

Having said that, the view from the hammock back at the villa wasn't that bad either...

Usually when I return from a holiday I find myself craving something thoroughly different to eat - perhaps something Thai or a British classic such as shepherd's pie. On this occasion, however, I was still firmly in Italian mode and wasn't ready to move on from one of my favourite cuisines. So, today, I found myself back in my favourite space (my kitchen) pottering about and producing a thoroughly Tuscan feast. Clearly, I wasn't ready to let the sun set forever on my holiday...

(Hope you appreciate that seamless yet entirely gratuitous link to my sunset picture - I just love those rays of light coming from between the clouds?!).

Anyway, as regular readers will know, it is usually the last course that first gets my attention. For that reason, I'm staring with sharing this recipe for cantucci. Cantucci are small, crunchy biscotti which are served throughout Tuscany alongside a glass of
vin santo. The idea is to dip them into the accompanying sweet wine.

Traditional cantucci are made with almonds but today you find them in all kinds of flavours: chocolate, pistachio, raisin, lemon. You name it. A favourite I discovered on holiday was cantucci con fiche (cantucci with figs) and so I decided to try and recreate these. I didn't have any almonds to hand but decided that I'd try using toasted pine nuts. My cantucci con pinoli worked rather well, I think.

Just to clarify the difference between biscotti and cantucci: biscotti is the Italian for 'biscuit' and covers all kinds of biscuits and cookies. Literally, it means 'twice-cooked (and indeed these biscuits are cooked twice). So, cantucci are a type of Italian biscuit. 'Biscotti' is all-encompassing. Cantucci is specific. Are we all clear on that now?! I hope so.

Anyway, you can flavour these beauties however you fancy. I divided the dough in two to create the two types. You could go traditional and choose the almonds (toast them first) or add chunks of chocolate or any other flavour you favour. The world is your oyster.

Cantucci con fiche e cantucci con pinoli
Makes around 24


250g plain flour (plus extra for dusting)
250g caster sugar
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
40g pine nuts (a smallish handful)
6 dried figs

1. Pre-heat oven to 220C. Toast the pine nuts in a dry, non-stick frying pan until fragrant and just brown.

2. Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix with the sugar and salt. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Mix together thoroughly - start with a spoon and then get your hands in there. At first you'll think that it will never come together but resist the temptation to add water - it will come together eventually.

2. When the mixture had just come together, divide in two. To one half add the toasted pine nuts. To the other half, add the figs, chopped into smallish bits.

2. Turn each mixture in turn out onto a floured surface and knead until you have a smooth and elastic dough. This will be sticky so you'll need a fair bit of flour to dust hands and surface. You'll get there eventually! Roll the dough into loaves: round sausages which you then flatted very slightly.

3. Oil a baking sheet and dust with flour. Place loaves on top and bake for 25 minutes until just golden but still softish inside.

4. Remove loaves from tray and slice on an angle. Each biscuit should be around 2cm in width.
5. Place back in oven and bake until crisp and golden - another 10 minutes.

5. Enjoy dipped into a glass of vin santo or a cup of coffee!

Please note - contrary to the evidence, I did not make monster-sized cantucci. The glass is very small!


Peter M said...

I still don't get the dif between cantucci and biscotti but I'll still gladly nibble one with my espresso!

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

They look perfect - very professional! I do like the sound of them with figs instead of almonds...

Very small glass? Yeah, sure... ;)

Anonymous said...

They look lovely, as does your holiday!

I'm really not very adventurous when it comes to cooking sweet things but I do love cantucci at the end of a meal. I'll keep these in mind next time we have people over for dinner.


nicisme said...

A villa in Tuscany? Sounds like my idea of heaven!
Great photos.

David Hall said...

Antonia - first of all, I'm well jealous. Secondly, brilliant story and superb recipe, it looks amazing and one of myfave Italian treats.


Wendy said...

Lovely, lovely photos. I'm feeling rather jealous, especially on this very grey, very wet and bloody cold JULY morning. Harrumph.

Margaret said...

The photo's and narrative are wonderfully descriptive.
I think we all might be a little envious!

Katie said...

Beautiful pictures, I love that one looking through the arch into the village.

Julia said...

Stunning pictures Antonia! It sounds like it was a wonderful holiday.

LisaRene said...

Very sophisticated cookie! I can see where this crunchy, subtly sweet cantucci would be delicious dunked into a dessert wine.