A couple years ago I worked at a bookstore, and when the holidays began looming over the horizon I made liberal use of my employee discount and bought books. Lots of books. I'm too embarrassed to say exactly how many, so let's just say the entire pile of loot weighed, oh, around a hundred and twenty pounds.
I will say this: I agonized just a much over those books as I am agonizing over my handmade gifts this year. Books are tricky. They seem so straightforward, a bestseller here, a critical darling there, maybe a glossy cookbook thrown in to add some color. But - well. Let's put it this way: a couple weeks after I'd been hired as a bookseller, a customer asked me to pick out something for her to read over Christmas break. "What's your favorite novel?," she asked.
"Oh," I replied, "that's a tough question, but if I had to choose just one I'd choose Lolita! Have you read it?"
She smiled politely and shook her head, and soon after she excused herself, saying she had a train to catch. A week later I saw her chatting enthusiastically with one of the veteran booksellers, each of them clutching a copy of 'The Secret Life of Bees.'
This year I thought, to hell with that. Say what you will, there is no awkward subtext to a handknit hat. Handknit mittens don't spark heated (and unwelcome) existential arguments with a customer/relative/stranger on the bus. And homemade cookies, candy, and biscuits? The worst I can expect is for someone not to like them. Or maybe have an allergic reaction.
Actually, I thought that's what happened to Camden when he munched on one of these. He took a thoughtful bite, chewed appreciatively, then sneezed four times in quick, violent succession. I asked him if he wanted some water. "No," he wheezed, "I just sneezed because the taste was so awesome I couldn't contain it in my mouth. I had to set it free."
I know he was just being polite, but the sneezing did illustrate a point. There's a lot of pepper in here. It's potent. But without it the parmesan is a little overpowering, and anyway, the spiciness makes it a wonderful soup dunker or accompaniment to a cold pint.
PARMESAN BLACK-PEPPER BISCOTTI
(adapted from Gourmet magazine)
1 1/2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting (I used half whole wheat, half all purpose)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
4 1/2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (2 1/4 cups)
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F.
Pulse peppercorns in grinder until coarsely ground. (I used a mortar and pestle)
Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, 2 cups cheese, and 1 tablespoon ground black pepper in a large bowl. Blend in butter with a pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Whisk 3 eggs with milk and add to flour mixture, stirring with a fork until a soft dough forms.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and quarter dough. Using well-floured hands, form each piece into a slightly flattened 12-inch-long log (about 2 inches wide and 3/4 inch high). Transfer logs to 2 ungreased large baking sheets, arranging logs about 3 inches apart.
Whisk remaining egg and brush some over logs, then sprinkle tops of logs evenly with remaining 1/4 cup cheese and 1/2 tablespoon ground pepper. Bake, rotating sheets 180 degrees and switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until logs are pale golden and firm, about 30 minutes total. Cool logs to warm on sheets on a rack, about 10 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 300°F.
Carefully transfer 1 warm log to a cutting board and cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices with a serrated knife. Arrange slices, cut sides down, in 1 layer on a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining logs, transferring slices to sheets. Bake, turning over once, until golden and crisp, 35 to 45 minutes total. Cool biscotti on baking sheets on racks, about 15 minutes.