UPDATE: We were saddened to learn about the death of Bonnie Tempesta, whose company, Boncora Biscotti, is the subject of this blog post. Click here to read her obituary. We’ve been told that Boncora Biscotti will continue as part of Bonnie’s legacy. How wonderful that she shared her talents with so many.
I cherish a memory of eating biscotti during Bill’s and my first trip to Italy in the mid-1990s. We were at a restaurant in Florence, and decided to cap off our dinner with an order of the house-made biscotti, the traditional Italian cookie, paired with the local vin santo. The small slices of biscotti were light, crisp, and redolent of almonds, and the famed Tuscan dessert wine was a little sweet, but not cloying. The combination was magical.
The biscotti I’d tried since then just hadn’t lived up to that red-letter occasion. Most of the biscotti I’d find in food stores were the Americanized large slabs, unappetizingly hard, thick, dense, and dry. Biting into them seemed like risking a cracked tooth or a dislocated jaw. Often, they were overly laced for my taste with anise or other spices, liqueurs, or dried fruits.
I’ve also baked biscotti myself. I have a favorite double chocolate recipe and one that uses lemon and lavender. While enjoyable, they have a more cake-like consistency than the Florentine version.
Fast forward to our recent extended stay in Sonoma County, CA, and Muscardini Cellars‘ tasting room along Highway 12 near our rental cottage in Kenwood. Bill and I stopped there one day for a quick post-hike pick-me-up of their Italian-style wines. We noticed festively packaged tubes of Boncora Biscotti lining a shelf, and asked our hostess about them. She presented a small bowl of biscotti to sample. Just one light, crunchy, crispy bite, brimming with almonds, was instant time travel back to that memorable evening in Tuscany. No surprise that we bought a couple of packages. In addition, we were intrigued to learn that Boncora’s kitchen was just a few hundred yards up the road in Kenwood Village.
The next afternoon, we walked over to the bakery, essentially a small storefront, and they happened to be open. They were finishing up a day of baking part of a 400-pound order of biscotti for Google. Suzie Sheridan, Boncora’s affable general manager, nodded and laughed in recognition when we told her how Boncora Biscotti’s triple chocolate variety had become our new obsession.
It turns out that Boncora Biscotti isn’t just any biscotti.
Bonnie Tempesta, the founder of Boncora Biscotti, is the undisputed queen of biscotti, a title she earned in the 1980s when she ignited the craze for biscotti in America. Back then, based on the simple, authentic recipe she inherited from her Aunt Isa, Tempesta and her mother sold their Tuscan treat to gourmet shops and restaurants in San Francisco. It didn’t take long for Tempesta’s eponymous company, La Tempesta, to dominate the market, eventually becoming the largest commercial biscotti baker in the U.S. with sales of nearly $9 million.
Tempesta sold her company in 1997 and stepped away from commercial baking altogether until 2012, when she re-entered the business with Boncora Biscotti. The catchy name marries “Bonnie” and “ancora,” which means encore in Italian.
“Bonnie called me to say she wanted to start baking again, and would donate a portion of the proceeds to support the nonprofits Share Our Strength and Pet’s Lifeline,” Sheridan recalled. “We rented kitchen space in Sonoma. The New York Times picked up that she was baking again, and all hell broke loose.”
The new enterprise was an instant success. On the wall Bill and I could see framed clippings of glowing reviews from such prestigious media outlets as Vogue, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, and, most certainly, The New York Times.
I was eager for a first-hand look at the baking process, and Sheridan kindly invited me to a behind-the-scenes tour during their next baking day. Baking days are intermittent and held as needed based on orders in hand.
When I arrived at the appointed time at their small kitchen, Sheridan, wearing a red T-shirt with yellow lettering, the company’s signature colors, cheerily greeted me. They already had prepared the first of two 50-pound batches of dough in the industrial Hobart mixer. On a given day, they bake 100 pounds of biscotti, and it takes about five hours.
The basic ingredients are: almonds (loads of almonds!), sugar, unbleached white flour, eggs, spelt flour, vanilla extract, and baking soda. Spelt, an ancient grain, gives this biscotti a rustic texture and a rich flavor. The chocolate in both the dipped variety and our favorite triple chocolate is top-of-the-line Guittard. Sheridan said they source everything from California.
Sheridan had asked if I would leave the premises temporarily when it was time to mix up the second batch of dough, for the quantity of each ingredient and the order in which they add them are closely guarded secrets. I was happy to oblige.
Biscotti derives from the Latin word “biscoctus”, which means twice baked. Using a scraper, the bakers each removed a just-right-size portion of dough from the bowl, and placed it on the floured board in front of them. They deftly and quickly shaped it into a rounded mound and rolled it out into long ropes, which they laid on parchment-lined baking sheets. Then into the oven went the trays for the first baking.
When the trays came out, the bakers used French knives to slice the loaves, now flattened a bit from the heat, into little pieces maybe a quarter-inch thick. They cut at right angles to avoid tips, which can poke through the cellophane packaging. When a slice inadvertently fell on the floor, they shouted in unison, “Chubby!”…meaning it was earmarked for Tempesta’s dog. Lucky pooch. It was back into the oven for the re-loaded trays.
The second baking really makes a difference in the almonds. Sheridan let me try a piece after the first baking, and they just didn’t have that crisp, uniquely roasted flavor.
One of the things that impressed me most is that each piece of Boncora Biscotti is rolled, shaped, cut, dipped, and packaged a mano – by hand. The bakers manipulated the dough without wearing gloves so they could really feel it.
“We do a lot of hand-washing,” Sheridan smiled.
How and when to eat biscotti?
“They’re good anytime, in the morning with coffee or in the evening with wine,” Sheridan said. “They’re not too sweet, a nice little something that gives you just enough of a taste in your mouth. I don’t think ours should be dunked, though.”
Boncora Biscotti sells wholesale and online. Thankfully, that means we can keep feeding our obsession…and enjoying the affogati recipe below.
Almond Biscotti Affogati for Two*
½ cup small almond biscotti pieces
1 cup of vanilla ice cream
2 cups of sliced strawberries
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
Mix strawberries, sugar, and vinegar and let sit for one hour (OK if it sits longer).
Place biscotti pieces in the bottom of a wine glass. Cover with one scoop of ice cream, heap the strawberry mixture on top, and serve.
*Reprinted with permission of Boncora Biscotti.