I’m an Ashkenazi Jew. My fiancé is Italian-American. Our ancestral food cultures — meat-and-potatoes kosher vs. Mediterranean Traif City — have just about nothing in common beyond, like, the fact that both of our people eat bread and drink wine. (His people’s is better.)
But there is one dish that turns the circles of our respective backgrounds into a Venn diagram — a dry, almond-speckled cookie that old ladies of both the Catholic and the Jewish persuasion have been pushing on reluctant kids for billions of years (rough estimation).
Yep: Biscotti are pretty much the exact same thing as mandel bread, a.k.a. mandelbrot — a nut-studded, crunchy, barely sweet cookie that’s baked twice, once as a loaf and the second time in slices.
The two-tiered drying process yields a treat with heroic shelf life, if not one of the most flavorful pastries you’ll find — though there’s something to be said for a dessert that doesn’t immediately make your teeth ache with an onslaught of sugar.
And hey, as biscotti/mandel bread/mandelbrot go, Nonnie’s version is pretty damn good. Bad biscotti are tasteless and hard enough to chip an incisor; Nonnie’s are addictively crunchy and tasty enough to eat alone, but also mild enough to pair with whatever your hot drink of choice might be.
And regardless of how they taste, you can’t deny that they look surprisingly profesh — especially considering how ugly the mandel-loaves themselves are before getting blasted in the oven for a second time.
Nut Sticks, a.k.a. Mandel Bread, a.k.a. Mandelbrot, a.k.a. Jewish Biscotti; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 cup sugar
1 cup salad oil [a.k.a. whatever neutral oil you’ve got lying around. That’s right: these are pareve, if that’s something that matters to you]
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda [a hand-written addition from Nonnie]
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 1/2 cups unsifted flour
1 cup chopped nuts [I used almonds, because “mandel” apparently means “almond,” but any kind would probably do; I just got a delicious vision of what these would be like with pecans]
Cinnamon and nutmeg
Beat eggs until light and fluffy. Add sugar gradually. Add oil, baking powder, [baking soda,] vanilla, and flour. [Oh, and the salt. Nonnie always forgets to tell you when to add the salt.] Blend well. Add nuts.
Flour hands and divide dough into four sections. [Initially, the dough will seem too batter-y to manipulate with bare hands; just flour them well and have patience, and it should get firm enough to handle pretty quickly. If not, a brief rest in the fridge should help.]
Using two greased cookie sheets, place two sections of dough on each sheet. Pat each section so that it is long and flat (about 1/4″ thick). [This is when you’ll want to dust the loaves with cinnamon and nutmeg. Just eyeball the amount; you won’t use too much.]
Bake in 350 oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven; slice each loaf (about 1″), separating slices — still on cookie sheets. [That’s worded a little confusingly. Basically: Wait until the loaves are cool enough to handle, then cut each one into one-inch slices. Place those slices on their sides on the cookie sheet. At this point, the cookies won’t spread, so you can pack them as closely together as your little heart desires.] Return to oven for 10 more minutes. [And dust with more cinnamon or nutmeg, if you feel like it.]
The verdict: I don’t really drink coffee. If I did, though, I might deem this an excellent coffee cookie — lightly flavored enough that they won’t clash with a strongly-flavored brew, dry enough to benefit from a brief dunk in a steaming cup.
That said, these mandelbrot don’t require a hot bath to be made edible. They’re good as is — though the recipe is also so simple that I imagine it’d lend itself well to any number of adaptations. I’m curious about how their texture and flavor would change if you subbed in butter for oil; I think they might also benefit from addition of chocolate chips, although what wouldn’t?
Oh, and I can tell you from experience that they’ll work with both gluten-free flour and a healthy infusion of cocoa powder… say, a heaping half cup per recipe. You know, just in case you were wondering.