Good mornings don't come naturally to me. Night time's my time. I get a second wind around ten, hit my stride by eleven, and soar through the wee morning hours. Well, the early ones, anyway. The later ones, when it's time to start over, all fresh and perky-like? Less soaring, more dragging. Which I'm the first to admit is pure causation. But my kids (like all kids, and, ahem, all the world) seem to love this kooky, alternative, sun-centered universe. So while I'll always be an owl at heart, I adapt. And in all honesty, there's a lot to love about mornings.
Like buds. A few weeks ago, I wasn't sure those tight-fisted fuzzies up there would ever open. By all rights, they shouldn't have, having been sheared clear of their tree by a tumble of ice. But we stuck them in water anyway, and checked on them daily, seeing almost no change for four days, maybe five. Then one morning, BOOM! Snappy white bloom. Sneaky buggers, magnolia buds; obviously overly fond of the surprise factor. Which is fine by me. After all that other white, you can imagine what a good morning this flourish made for.
Dan Zanes doing Jump Up. Daisy Mayhem's Big Old Life. The Muffin Man, the Nields' version, the one with Waffle Woman and Granola Gramps and Nerissa and Katryna's swell, twangy harmonies. Really, every last song on my sons' Good Morning CD, the one I compiled last year to sub in for my own awful falsetto. Improves my early a.m. mood mmeasurably. Gelato sunrises are nice. Silhouettes, too. Sleepyheads, better still. The more shiny-eyed, blankie-warmed, bed-headed, the better. Even if they go from unconscious to "Let'sPLAY!Where'sbreakfast? Ineedwaternow!UpUpUUUP" before either one of my eyes have found focus. Let alone both, together.
Lists. Bird song. Crisp early air. The day's paper. The sweet stink of real ink. Oily beans, freshly ground. Golden bolts of sun, dust mites and all. The whole morning light business. Glorious stuff, that last one. So much better, really, than the midnight glare of a compact flourescent. It's almost enough to make me an early bird. Almost.
Add to that the industry of small children in the early hours. Especially when there's no agenda, nowhere to go, no hassle, no hurry up! Most especially, when they sport pajamas until lunch. You know how it is then, how sometimes, they just get to work? I marvel over their attention, their purpose, at times like these. And over what they make, all by their lonesome, save a little "wheels, help peas!"
Daffodils, a buck-fifty a bunch? Makes any morning. (Waking, this week, to a few free gems in my own backyard was pretty fine, too.) Any later in the year, they'd border on gawdy, all sassy and frilly and traffic-stripe yellow. But right now? Feels like a benediction. And I'm not the only one to notice. After months of pulling out white tempera and blue paper, Henry finally cried foul after breakfast the other day. "Hey, let's get some blue. And yellow! And red, we neeeeed red." Need, indeed. Those jolly primaries went way beyond want, lighting up our paintings and spirits.Next Time quietly to myself? Not a good morning. Though the fact that I ran out, that very same day, of my favorite go-to breakfast, that might have played a part.
Breakfast hardly seems a predicament, to look at it. After all, a crisp waffle, a crumbly scone, a hot bowl of lightly salted, brown-sugared, milk-splashed oats are, three for three, among this world's finest foods. I adore them as much as the next carb-a-vore. For dinner, when I want to fall asleep soon after. But first thing in the morning? Good grief. Feed me pancakes before eight, and I'm likely to skip the school run altogether, to climb right back under the covers, ASAP. And I don't know about you, but I think Max was late for school today because his mum ate too many flapjacks sort of undermines my tardy-slip-signing authority.
So, straight-up starch is out. And full-on protein doesn't sit well with coffee. Homemade hash is a nice compromise, but St. Paddy's Day comes but once a year. And because my coffee's thick as tar and absolutely non-negotiable, it requires something to go with. Something slightly sweet, to offset the rich bitter; with crunch, to offset the slosh; with protein, to offset the zzzz's; with no prep time, to offset my children; with a small footprint, to offset the fact I'm not really very hungry but just need a little something to offset that right-back-where-we-started coffee. Something delicious. Did I mention delicious? Because what's the point of eating if it's not? (Did I mention I was particular?) Something like biscotti.
Now, biscotti hardly need an introduction. You and I both know these hockey pucks masquerading as biscuits, half-filling glass cannisters in coffee shops across the land. Commercial biscotti fill a funny niche, not food so much as ballast against that awkward end-of-day hour when all the light, flaky, good baked goods have sold out. Sturdy, tough, practical, biscotti make a perfect pastry of last resort. Orthopedics in a sea of Manolo Blahniks. With a taste to match.
Maybe, it occurs to me, this isn't the best lead-in to a biscotti recipe. But the biscotti that I love, that I mourned running out of not long ago, isn't really of the same species as those over-the-counter billy sticks. Not even the same Phylum, actually. Take the texture. Fine cornmeal yields a sandy crumb; heaps of nuts, a toothsome give; a bit of butter, much-needed lightness. This biscotti has a pleasant, welcoming crunch. It snaps. It crumbles. It doesn't need to be soaked an hour for fear of undoing expensive dental work. I don't even dunk it. Hockey puck has never sprung to my mind while eating one. Addictive has.
And then there's the flavor. To read the recipe, there's a lot going on here, orange and rosemary, anise and almond, and I'm not sure anyone other than Claudia Fleming could have pulled it all off. But pull it off she does, and along the way makes this motley crew taste like manifest destiny, twice-baked. Of all those star players, not one gets out of hand. (Who knew anise could be a background note?) The original is subtle, harmonious, just lovely as is. But for me, they are lovelier still with double the nuts. I like how their tender crunch plays off the crisp biscuit, and appreciate the protein they pack alongside. They're not perfect, these biscotti. They can't undo the effects of turning in too late, and were totally deaf to my Daylight Savings wailing. They don't guarantee a great morning. But they've made for many, many a good one.
Cornmeal Biscotti with Orange and Rosemary and Heaps of Nuts
Adapted from Claudia Fleming, The Last Course
Experiment with the nuts, here. I've used hazlenuts and pine nuts as well as the almonds and walnuts called for below, sometimes all together, sometimes just solo. I'm especially fond of the walnuts, here, for their buttery crunch and sweet flavor, but each variety offers something special. Play around.
Also, a polenta note: Fleming calls for medium-grind, which I've used often and liked fine. What I've loved though, of late, is a finely ground, instant Italian polenta, which provides all the sweet flavor and sandy texture of corn, without the grit factor. The brand name evades me, but if your grocery has such a good, it will make these biscotti sing.
1 1/2 cups almonds and walnuts, lightly toasted, roughly chopped
4 Tablespoons salted butter
1 1/2 Tablespoons orange zest
1 Tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 cup unbleached flour (or 50/50 white and whole wheat flour)
1/2 cup fine polenta, Italian instant if possible
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon anise seeds
2 large eggs
Egg wash made with 1 egg and 1 Tablespoon water
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread nuts out on rimmed baking sheet and toast gently in oven, tossing occasionally, 8-10 minutes, until lightly golden and fragrant. Transfer to a plate to cool. Keep oven on.
Melt butter in a small saucepan on the stove, turn off the heat, and add the chopped rosemary and orange zest to melted butter to infuse. Allow to cool, but not harden, 20 minutes or so.
In the bowl of an electric mixer set to low speed, mix together dry ingredients (flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda, and anise). Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Add cooled, melted, downright heady orange-rosemary butter, and mix to combine. Stir in the cooled nuts. Let the dough rest 5 minutes.
With wet hands, form dough into a log roughly 2 inches wide and 10 inches long, and place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush log with egg wash and bake until top is a deep golden brown, around 30 minutes. Let cool, 20-30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 200°F.
Using a long serrated knife (a bread knife is best), slice the log on the diagonal into 1/2" thick slices. The steeper the diagonal, the longer your biscotti. A 20° angle will get you respectable biscuits; 45° and you're approaching serious fortification territory. When I scale up the batch, I try for both. (Some mornings, you know.) Arrange biscotti on parchment-lined baking sheet, 1/2" apart (they do not spread), with cut sides exposed (set on their bottoms). Allow to dry in the low oven until crisp, about 1 hour. Cool completely, then store in an airtight tin or jar. These keep beautifully for months.