O, Ye of little faith! You thought I’d never come across, didn’t you. Granted, I’ve really dragged my heels with this recipe, and after taking so long with it, of course I feel like my reputation’s on the line.
I can’t count the number of people who’ve asked me – begged! – for a good recipe for biscochos, and for longer than I’m comfortable admitting. (Okay. Years.) There are two very good reasons for so much pleading, and for so much stalling on my part.
First (or second): Biscochos – Sephardic cookie rings – are a treat often first experienced in early childhood, and never, ever forgotten. You might even have teethed on them, though I also recall gnawing on Zwieback biscuits. (“She remembers teething?” you ask. Yep. Tastes and textures die hard).
Second (or first): What constitutes a “good” biscocho is entirely subjective, and a good biscocho recipe is very elusive. It can take ages to get it right. I’m still working on mine.
We Sephardim can’t claim biscochos as our own; they’ve been made in various guises for thousands of years and are ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean. What we can claim – and it’s a very subjective claim – is a style and preferred flavor that says “ours!” Depending on your roots, that might mean wine or cognac or anise in the dough, or no alcohol at all. Laced with vanilla, encrusted with sesame, dusted with sugar and cinnamon, rolled in chopped walnuts – all Mediterranean flavors, and all of them fine. I’ve never forgotten my first biscocho, made by my Rhodes-born, Ladino-speaking Great Grandma Amateau (Nona to my elder cousins). The flavors were orange juice and sesame seeds, a divine combination. Divine! My eyes popped from the first taste, and I devoured several biscochos while my mother looked on, smiling.
As for the cookie’s many cousins, here’s a small sampling… Mizrahi Jews – or anyone from the Middle East, for that matter, will recognize biscochos as ka’ak. Are you Italian? Your biscocho cousins are taralli dolci, very dry, made with red or white wine or anise and perhaps dusted with granulated sugar. If you’re a Sephardi from the western Balkans, you probably use the Italian word or taralikos (Ladino for little taralli), but still make them with orange juice. My grandfather, whose mother was from Izmir, called them reshas; he liked them flavored with orange juice and dusted with cinnamon sugar or chopped walnuts. Romaniote Jews (indigenous Greek Jews) make koulourakia. Same concept, different execution. The dough is much richer than the Sephardic version, made with butter and cream and some strong alcohol – either cognac or ouzo. What Ottoman Sephardim think of as ‘our’ version, the Greeks call koulourakia me portokali – biscochos with orange, an indication that they consider it secondary to their own. Our Ottoman Sephardic version is lighter than the Greek, made with oil, without cream or alcohol, with orange and sesame, and with a light hand on the sugar. In short, it’s ours. That is precisely my idea of a biscocho. You might add vanilla (I do!), and if you grew up in Mexico that’s almost certainly your preference. Mexican biscochos have the same texture as Ottoman Sephardic biscochos, which should come as no surprise. In Spain, the cookie cousins are anise-flavored rosquillas (bizcocho refers to cake), though the similarity ends with the shape. I have yet to see anyone here even eating rosquillas, let alone wax rhapsodic. But I live in Catalunya. I’m sure it’s a different story in “Spain proper.”
Texture is a major challenge. A Sephardic style biscocho shouldn’t be very thick or fat or large. (Remember that post about eating daintily?) It’s doughy but not too dry, a little crumbly but not sandy, firm on the tooth, with a touch of crispness but not too much snap… at this point you’re either very confused, or thinking I am, or nodding your head in total agreement. As I said, elusive. Anyone can make a biscocho, but a good one? Subtle, subjective, elusive. Some recipes are easy. Only practice, and lots of it, makes a perfect biscocho.
Where to begin?
Between its two Ladino names, you’re guided as to what’s to be done: resha is an old Arabic word meaning “rope” (reshikas are little ropes); biscocho means “twice cooked”, just like biscotti or biscuit. So the task is to make little ropes and bake them twice. I came across one recipe that said to make a ball of dough and poke a hole through it. Don’t do that. We’ve called it rope for at least a thousand years. Make the rope.
I read dozens of recipes. Most I found way too dry and doughy, and one went so far to counter the problem that it yielded puff pastry cookies. Nice, but that’s not a biscocho, which is a rustic cookie of substance.
Last year – last year! – I had help narrowing down and testing a few recipes from the lovely Estelle, who was one of the first readers to ask me for a good biscocho recipe. She baked huge batches, reported results, fretted about her waistline, and even was brave enough to re-test my grandfather’s notes that I’d worked from years ago with shall we say dubious results. Gramps left very entertaining instructions in his flowery handwriting, and he did warn that his dough was messy, but he also said to stick with it. And I have. I’m still tinkering, but I’ve gotten the flavor darn close to my great grandma’s, and her daughters’ and daughters-in-law, who are all gone now save one, who’s about to turn 99 (though I think she’s really turning 100): subtly sweet, with that hint of fresh orange, a whisper of vanilla, and a coating of sesame seeds. It’s not overly doughy, though I’m still aiming for a little more delicate crumb. Tinker, tinker…
You’re not getting photos. (What kind of food blog is this!?) Okay, one, but you’ve seen it already and it’s sans sesame:
You wouldn’t be impressed with my other attempts, and I’ve got some pride. The oven I’m condemned to for now is a baker’s nightmare, which has aggravated my challenge tenfold. A single cookie comes out raw on one half and very dark brown on the other. Top versus bottom? No, I’m talking left versus right! I’ve become philosophical about the situation, telling myself it’s like learning to cook on a medieval hearth, though frankly I really have gotten better results over a campfire. I tell myself I’d have perfected my biscochos long ago if it weren’t for this daunting electric warming box, though the real secret’s in the kneading. Anyway, my own glorious range is in storage, my landlord’s a Simon Legree, and negotiations are best left for things more dire.
Though to you and me, making a perfect biscocho is indeed of dire importance.