The package arrived, unbidden, two days into New York City’s lockdown in March 2020. We were adapting to our new life, prowling through the apartment at all hours. I was trying to figure out how to hand-stitch masks using old jeans and shoelaces. I wasn’t sure what to do with the mail — whether we should let it sit for a few days, so any trace of the virus would die off (we knew so little back then) — but when I saw the address on the package, I couldn’t wait, and I swabbed it down with disinfectant wipes and tore it open.
It was biscotti. Ten dark, perfect biscotti, studded with cashews. They came with a note from the baker: He was closing up shop because of the lockdown, cleaning out the kitchen, and when he saw he had one packet of biscotti left, he thought I should have them. They were my favorite, he remembered.
Is it ridiculous to cry over a cookie? I ate each one as if it were the last, and then it was the last, and they were gone.
It’s strange to me now, but I was not always a lover of biscotti. (Forgive me, Italy.) Which is to say, I didn’t entirely understand them. Their name comes from the Latin biscoctus, or twice cooked, a technique long used to help grain-based foods last longer; Roman legionnaires marching into battle subsisted for months on rations of bucellatum, twice-baked biscuits. For biscotti, the dough is rolled into logs and given a spell in the oven, then cooled, sliced and slotted back in. The second turn in the oven essentially sucks them dry and gives them that signature crunch. Sometimes too much crunch: The versions I first encountered were flinty and left me with a mouthful of dust.
Is it ridiculous to cry over a cookie?
Crunch is a thrill, a disruption, a rare moment when you’re forgiven for eating loudly. But in dessert I tend to prefer a little yielding — a cookie I can sink my teeth into, not one so hard it might break them. Traditionally, biscotti are meant to be dipped in vin santo, a sweet, syrupy wine, to add back moisture. A cappuccino will do the trick, too. Still, I like a cookie that stands on its own.
Then one Sunday in July, 14 years ago, I wandered into a flea market in a sun-blasted schoolyard in Brooklyn and stopped by a tent with a sign that said Whimsy & Spice. Jenna Park, a graphic designer and branding 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 a decade. Their table was laden with dusky cardamom marshmallows, delicate cookies showing off whorled thumbprints of black-pepper rose jam and lavender-flecked shortbread ready to crumble at a look.
And there, for sampling, 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 at an old-school Italian restaurant. His early efforts were in the Tuscan style, laced with almond and anise, “big, clunky and really hard,” he says. When he moved on to a more relaxed spot, he saw that biscotti could be shorter, narrower and ever so slightly softer, with the addition of butter. Still, at the flea market, he was aware that some might not approve. Once, a couple of Italian tourists passed by and chuckled. “Biscottini,” they said — so small!
To me, they were just right, thin enough to snap smartly under the teeth and then obligingly crumble. Sopchak experimented with different flavors, but the ones I liked best, that I asked for every time and ordered as gifts for friends year after year, were rich with cocoa powder and chocolate chips. Inspired in part by Mexican mole, they had a touch of creaminess from cashews and a wild streak of chile powder, just enough to make you hum. Sopchak kept stealthily upping the amount of chile. In the final packet he sent me, it was five times the original recipe.
Whimsy & Spice is no more — a casualty of the pandemic. Sopchak now grows basil and lettuce at a rooftop hydroponic farm. At home, he’s still working through leftover bakery supplies: saffron from a failed marshmallow experiment; a bottle of rosewater, which recently came in handy for frosting a lemon cake. I wrote this column in hopes of persuading Sopchak and Park to start up the bakery again. But Sopchak insists they were thinking of shutting down even before lockdown. They’d had a good run.
“I never wanted to open a big business,” he says. “I just wanted to feed people.”
Recipe: Chocolate Chile Biscotti
Ligaya Mishan is a writer at large for T magazine and an Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine.