Saturday, June 9, 2018

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Italian Cookies/Biscuits

     As I mentioned back in my Australian cookies post (May 5th, 2018), my local ShopRite grocery seems to have upped its game lately, as far as adding foreign products to its shelves.  In this case, I discovered four different kinds of Italian cookies--ladyfingers (aka savoiardi), two kinds of biscotti, and amarettis.
     As it turns out, ShopRite's parent company, Wakefern, also was the company which imported and marketed these cookies.  (Although they were all made in Italy, using Italian ingredients and recipes, so that's why I counting them as Italian.)  Wakefern is an immense retailing cooperative, the largest group of supermarkets in the U.S., and the fourth largest cooperative of any kind in the country.  It is also reportedly the largest single employer in the state of New Jersey, with 36,000 employees.  Wakefern was incorporated in 1946, and its main supermarket, ShopRite (which has stores in the Mid Atlantic states of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania) was begun in 1951.
     Let's move to the cookies/biscuits themselves.  Both of these terms apply to the same type of food--basically small dessert pastries.  The latter term is used in much of Europe, and Australia, while the former is used in the U.S. and some other places.  Ladyfingers are, as the name suggests, roughly similar looking to human fingers, and are dry, low density, egg-based sponge-like cookies.  Although the inventor(s) is lost to history (as far as I could tell--I welcome students of cookies to provide me with any precise details), the place was the former Duchy of Savoy (now part of France), and the time was the late 1400's.  These biscuits are often dipped in syrup, or liqueurs, or coffee, to offset their dryness, and are also commonly used as parts of other, more complicated dessert creations.  They're also good food for teething babies.  Ladyfingers are amazingly popular worldwide too, as they're readily consumed in much of North and South America, Europe, and Australia.
     Amaretti biscuits came along a little later, in the early 1700's.  Once again, details are limited.  It's known that they were developed in the Saronno comune (essentially a township) in Lombardy, Italy, but the name of the creator(s) is not recorded.  They were made to honor an also unnamed bishop or cardinal to the small community.  Amarettis are almond-flavored macaroons, or a sweet meringue-based confection.  In Italy traditionally they're flavored with bitter almonds.  Bitter almonds are a little dicey to use, as they contain forty-two times the amount of deadly cyanide than do their regular sweeter sibling.  Because of this, bitter almonds aren't approved by the FDA in the U.S.  So I only got to try the non-traditional, safer version.
     Biscotti is a bit of a misleading name.  In Italy it refers to cookies/biscuits as a whole, meaning it could refer to dozens of separate types.  However, to Americans such as myself biscotti is synonymous with an Italian cookie called cantuccios.  These are (again) almond-flavored, twice baked (to preserve longer), dry, crunchy biscuits.  As with ladyfingers they're also often dipped in a drink to soften them up--traditionally a dessert wine called Vin Santo.  Their history is even more murky--the place is known (the town of Prato, Italy), but the time period is nonspecific--the Middle Ages, or by most reckoning the years 400-1400 A.D.  Antonio Mattei rediscovered an original recipe and reintroduced them in 1867.  His ingredients consisted of eggs, flour, sugar, pine nuts, and unroasted, unskinned almonds.  And no yeast or fat.  Modern chefs sometimes use cinnamon, baking powder, pistachios, and anise.  Other dipping drinks include orange juice, coffee, and tea.

1) Ladyfingers.  These were roughly rectangular rods, about 4 inches (about 10 cm.) long, 2 cm.  (about .75 inch) wide, a yellowish-brown color, with a white sugar coating.  Very crunchy and incredibly bland.  Disappointing.  Dry and uninteresting.

2) Biscotti, cranberry flavor.  Once again these were roughly rectangular-shaped, about 5 cm. by 2 cm. (about 2 inches by .75 inch), with a light brown exterior, and a whitish-yellow interior, offset by occasional visible pieces of cranberry.  They looked unappetizing--like corners of stale bread.  But, while dry and hard in texture, they're okay.  Some sweetness and a nice cranberry tang to them.  So solid overall.

3) Biscotti, chocolate flavor.  Same size and shape as the cranberry kind, with the only difference being visible chocolate chips instead of cranberry pieces.  Same dryness and hard texture, too.  But once again, they were pretty good.  Sweet enough, and the chocolate was a pleasing additive.

4) Amarettis.  These were circular, about 3 cm. (about 1.25 inches) in diameter, and yellowish-brown in color.  Strong almond flavor, which made sense since almonds are 20% of their makeup.  Tasty.  Weird, sweet flavor.  Crunchy.  Good.

     As you can see, I enjoyed 3 out the 4 kinds.  But the fourth one, the ladyfingers, was awful--one of the worst cookies I've ever had.  To be fair, I didn't know about the standard process of dipping them into liquids to soften them up, and evidently improve the flavor.  I guess it's possible that doing so might have made them palatable.  (And if I'd dipped the cantuccios and amarettis, maybe I would have liked these even more.)  But I have my doubts.  I won't be buying ladyfingers again.  I will probably buy the others, though, and would try those made by other companies or restaurants.

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