Hazelnut-Raisin Biscotti

This was my second year judging the biscotti competition at the San Mateo County Fair. Last year’s entries were good, but this year’s were even better. There were classic anise-flavored biscotti, two chocolate versions, two ginger-flavored versions, a couple with raisins and dried cranberries, a full-blown peanut butter, and a rosemary-pistachio. (Apologies for any that I forgot.) Before the judging begins, we take a walk around and give each entry a once over. My first reaction to the winning cookie was that it would be a hard one to beat. It looked like a Stella D’Oro biscotti—perfectly sliced, evenly browned, with a precise amount of chocolate drizzled on each. The winner was a cinnamon-hazelnut biscotti with chocolate.

One aspect of the judging process is to check the recipe for accuracy. And being that this is an amateur competition, invariably there are some faults. I end up taking the longest out of all the judges because I love to examine the recipes and give suggestions. My only complaint with the winning biscotti was that the contestant left the hazelnuts whole. Otherwise, I didn’t have anything else to say other than job well done.

I find biscotti such an interesting cookie because there are so many variations. Texture change considerably when a fat is used and often the amount of egg is balanced by the right amount of flour. It’s pretty apparent when a recipe has gone wrong and a biscotti is either tooth-breaking hard or too soft for dunking. I prefer a little fat in my biscotti and like them nicely toasted or twice-baked to a golden brown. Below is a biscotti recipe that recently created and it has a good balance of flavor, fruit, and nuts (which are chopped).

Hazelnut-Raisin Biscotti

Feel free to save the brandy for another recipe or enjoy as an after dinner treat with the biscotti.

1 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup brandy
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp. vanilla

1. Heat raisins and brandy in a microwave-safe bowl in microwave for 1 minute. Remove, cover, and allow to sit for at least 1/2 hour.

2. Place hazelnuts on a cookie sheet and toast in a 325° oven for 10 minutes, or until fragrant. Remove from oven and place hazelnuts on a clean dish towel. Fold towel over nuts and vigorously rub them together so that most of the skins are removed. Chop nuts and set aside.

3. Mix together flours, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon; set aside.

4. In a standing mixer, beat butter until fluffy; add sugars and continue to beat. Add eggs and egg white, one at a time, until incorporated; add vanilla.

5. With mixer running, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. Add nuts and strained raisins, reserving brandy for another use.

6. Turn dough onto cookie sheet and form three logs, running perpendicular to length of pan, each 4” by 10”. Smooth tops of each log.

7. In a 350° oven, bake for 30 minutes. Remove pan and cool logs for 5 minutes. One at a time, remove logs and slice each into 1/2” cookies, and place back on cookie sheet.

8. Reduce oven temperature to 325° and place cookies back in oven for 15 minutes, or until cookies are lightly toasted.

9. Remove from oven, cool, and store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Tahini Ice Cream with Bittersweet Chocolate and Sesame Candy

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When I wrote an ethnic market piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, I had the opportunity to become reacquainted with the diverse selection of amazing markets in the Bay Area. One Middle Eastern market that had previously slipped through my radar was Alhana Foods in San Mateo. I took some photos of their large display of hookahs for the article, but wanted to also give them recognition for their wonderful array of Middle Eastern products. Unfortunately, space constraints didn’t allow for individual establishments to be noted so I thought I’d post about Alhana here.

When I visited there was one product that stuck out and I kept promising myself to return to purchase it. I finally made it back last week and picked up the Tahini with Honey that I had been pining over. I immediately knew it would make an amazing ice cream, even without tasting it, and I was right. Unlike traditional tahini, the Macedonian version is flavored with honey. It’s the sesame version of Nutella. It’s smooth, creamy, and slightly sweet with an addictive nutty flavor. I imagine it would be delicious on toast or bagels and enjoyed as one would peanut butter or other nut butter.

Alhana Foods not only carries food products from several countries, but also houses a restaurant and catering business. If you don’t mind eating within the grocery isles (and why would you) then drop in for some shopping and lunch. Everything I’ve eaten there has been fresh and delicious.
Alhana Foods. 25 West 37th Avenue, San Mateo, CA 94403. (650) 349-3300. http://www.alhana.net

Tahini Ice Cream with Bittersweet Chocolate and Sesame Candy

If Macedonian Tahini is hard to find, use regular tahini and add 3 Tbsp. of honey in step 5 and reduce sugar to 1/2 cup.

2 oz. sesame candy (Makedoniko Pasteli)
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 1/2 cup reduced fat milk
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. Tahini with Honey

1. Finely chop sesame candy. Candy should measure about 1/2 cup.

2. Shave chocolate with a knife, creating small pieces/shavings. Chocolate should measure about 1/2 cup. Set aside both candy and chocolate.

3. Combine milk and cream in a heavy-bottom saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir occasionally so that mixture doesn’t scald on bottom and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

4. In a mixing bowl, add eggs, yolks, and sugar and whisk by hand until mixture is thick and glossy and pale yellow, about one minute. In a slow stream add a ladle of hot milk mixture to eggs, about 1/4 cup at a time, whisking constantly so that eggs don’t curdle. Repeat until half of milk is incorporated into eggs. Return yolk-milk mixture back into saucepan with remaining hot milk. Place back on stovetop and heat on medium, whisking constantly until custard has thickened and coats the back of a spoon, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat. If there are any lumps, strain mixture through a fine sieve or fine mesh strainer.

5. Add tahini to custard, whisking well to incorporate. Cool custard, stirring occasionally, on countertop for about 15 minutes. Pour custard into a measuring cup and place in the refrigerator to cool completely, about 2 hours. There should be 4 cups of custard.

6. Pour custard into ice cream machine and continue to prepare ice cream according to manufacturer’s directions. About halfway through freezing, add chocolate and candy to machine and continue to freeze. Remove ice cream from machine and place in a freezer-safe container. Keep frozen for up to 1 month.

7. To serve, remove ice cream from freezer and soften at room temperature until able to scoop. Serve ice cream with a drizzle of honey on top.

There Are No Losers at the County Fair

This is my second year judging the culinary competition at the San Mateo County Fair and I must say that yesterday’s open judging event proved to be highly competitive. I ate my way through dozens of cookies, and sampled various dessert entries to award best in show. The winner, an olive-cheese bread, was delicious and did deserve some placement, but not best in show. In general, competition is good, but can’t we all just be winners? The six of us judges gave our best pitch for the winner and majority ruled. But what about the perfect angel food cake? Or the lemon meringue pie with numerous peaks of lightly toasted meringue? And what about the exquisite double crust apple tart? That was immediately disqualified for an undercooked bottom crust. But it was so perfect in every other way.

Tonight I’m judging biscotti and am looking forward to seeing how many people will use savory ingredients such as herbs. If it were up to me, everyone would get a ribbon.