If cooking something produces a tasty dish, wouldn't cooking it twice make it even better? Answer: Maybe so.
The idea of double cooking is ancient, and it probably goes back to attempts to preserve food and to reduce waste. When I was in Calcutta some years ago, I stayed at a middle-class hotel that catered to British people and Indian businessmen. The kitchen gave us fresh bread only every few days; the rest of the time, the bread tray held thin slices of toast, parched in the oven until it was fully dried out and brown.
In the wretched Bengal climate, which manages to be clammy and hot at the same time, bread goes stale while you're eating it. But converted to rusks, it will remain palatable for quite a while.
The idea of double cooking appears in many cultures. Words such as "zweiback," "biscuit" and "biscotti" carry the same idea: "twice baked" or "cooked again."
Zweiback, of course, refers to the toasted rusks often given to children to help them with teething. The meaning of biscuit has grown well beyond the original idea, but in Britain the term still signifies cookies, and that brings us to biscotti, the very same word in Italian.
Actually, biscotti probably came first in a historical sense. In Italy, the word refers to cookies in general but particularly the kind made by baking dough in a flat loaf, cutting the result into slices and then baking again until the resulting cookies are dry and very crisp.
These have become increasingly popular in this country. Not too sweet, they are wonderful for dunking. For a real Italian touch, the beverage should be cappuccino or a sweet wine. Biscotti are widely sold these days, but here's how to make your own.
From "Biscotti" by Lou Seibert Pappas (Chronicle Books).
Biscotti di prato
Yields about 3 1/2 dozen.
3/4 cup whole almonds
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups unbleached or all-purpose flour
7/8 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
-- of salt
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place nuts in shallow pan and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool.
In small bowl, beat eggs, vanilla and almond extract with wire whisk.
In large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add egg mixture and mix until blended, about 1 minute.
Cut nuts into halves or thirds and mix in. Divide dough in half. On greased and floured baking sheet, pat out dough into 2 logs about 1/2 inch thick, 1 1/2 inches wide and 12 inches long, spacing them at least 2 inches apart.
Bake in middle of 300-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer from baking sheet to rack. Let cool 5 minutes.
Place on cutting board. With serrated knife, slice diagonally at a 45-degree angle about 1/2 inch thick.
Lay slices flat on baking sheet and return to 275-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until toasted, turning them over once to dry other side.
Store in tightly covered container.
Chocolate glaze variation: Coarsely chop 3 ounces semisweet chocolate and place in small pan that fits snugly over saucepan of barely simmering water. Heat until chocolate melts; stir to blend. Or place chocolate in microwave-safe bowl and microwave on medium for 2 minutes, or until chocolate melts; stir to blend.
With spatula, spread over entire top surface of cookies. Let cool at room temperature until set.