The package arrived, unsolicited, two days after New York City’s March 2020 lockdown. We were adjusting to our new life, sneaking through the apartment at all hours. I was trying to figure out how to hand-sew masks using old jeans and shoelaces. I wasn’t sure what to do with the mail – whether we should leave it for a few days so that every trace of the virus would die out (we knew so little at the time) – but when I saw the address on the package, I could no wait, and I wiped it with disinfectant wipes and tore it open.
It was biscotti. Ten dark, perfect biscotti, studded with cashew nuts. They came with a note from the baker: he was closing the store due to the shutdown, cleaning up the kitchen, and when he saw he had a pack of biscotti left, he thought I should have them. They were my favorite, he recalled.
Is it ridiculous to cry over a cookie? I ate them all like it was the last, and then it was the last, and they were gone.
It’s strange to me now, but I wasn’t always a lover of biscotti. (Forgive me, Italy.) That is, I didn’t quite understand them. Their name comes from Latin biscuit, or twice-cooked, a technique long used to make grain-based foods last longer; Roman legionaries marching into battle lived for months on rations of bucellatum, twice-baked biscuits. For biscotti, the dough is rolled into logs and bitten in the oven, then cooled, sliced and put back in. The second spin in the oven essentially sucks them dry and gives them that signature crunch. Sometimes too much crunch: The versions I first encountered were rock hard and left me with a mouthful of dust.
Is it ridiculous to cry over a cookie?
Crunch is a thrill, a disturbance, a rare moment when you are forgiven for eating loudly. But in dessert, I prefer a bit of yielding – a cookie that I can sink my teeth into, not so hard that it could break them. Traditionally, biscotti are meant to be dipped in vin santo, a sweet, syrupy wine, to add moisture. A cappuccino also works. Still, I like a cookie that stands on its own.
Then, on a Sunday in July 14 years ago, I walked into a flea market in a sunlit Brooklyn schoolyard and stopped at a tent with a sign saying Whimsy & Spice. Jenna Park, a graphic designer and brand strategist, came up with the name. “You can make things with different spices in them,” she suggested to her husband, Mark Sopchak, who had worked as a pastry chef for ten years. Their table was laden with dark cardamom marshmallows, delicate biscuits with squiggly thumbprints of black pepper-rose jam, and lavender-flecked shortbread that were ready to crumble at the sight.
And there, for tasting, were shards of biscotti. It was the summer my daughter was born and I was always hungry. “May I?” I asked.
Sopchak learned to make biscotti in an old-fashioned Italian restaurant. His early endeavors were in the Tuscan style, laced with almond and anise, “big, clumsy and very hard,” he says. When he went to a more relaxed place, he saw that biscotti could be shorter, narrower and slightly softer, with the addition of butter. Still, at the flea market, he knew some might not like it. Once a couple of Italian tourists passed by and chuckled. ‘Biscottini’, they said – so small!
For me they were just right, thin enough to snap cleverly under the teeth and then crumble obligingly. Sopchak experimented with different flavors, but the ones I liked the most, which I asked for every time and ordered year after year as gifts for friends, were rich in cocoa powder and chocolate chips. Partly inspired by Mexican mole, they had a hint of cashew creaminess and a wild whiff of chili powder, just enough to get you humming. Sopchak continued to covertly increase the amount of chili. In the last package he sent me, it was five times the original recipe.
Whimsy & Spice is no more – a victim of the pandemic. Sopchak now grows basil and lettuce on a rooftop hydroponic farm. At home, he still works through leftover bakery supplies: saffron from a failed marshmallow experiment; a bottle of rose water, which recently came in handy for the frosting of a lemon cake. I wrote this column hoping to convince Sopchak and Park to restart the bakery. But Sopchak insists they were thinking of closing even before the lockdown. They had had a good flight.
“I’ve never wanted to open a big business,” he says. “I just wanted to feed people.”
Recipe: Chocolate Chili Biscotti
Ligaya Mishan is a general writer for T magazine and an Eat columnist for DailyExpertNews Magazine.