Bumps in the Road to Zaleti

Posted on April 6, 2011

Last Thursday, the day before I left for Boulder, I stopped into the public library to grab a book for the flight.  On my way to the circulation desk, a newly acquired cookie cookbook caught my eye, one I had seen being promoted at New York’s Book Expo last May.  I remembered the book was filled with interesting sounding recipes, so I brought it home too.  I would make cookies, I decided, when I returned to my kitchen at the end of the weekend.

All weekend long I craved a cookie – a single cookie, any kind of cookie – but I didn’t scour the streets of Boulder looking for one to satisfy my craving because I knew I would be cracking open the cookbook and baking when I got home.

Which I did.  On Monday, I leafed through the book and found a recipe for Cornmeal and Dried Fruit Biscotti that reminded me of a favorite Italian cookie, the Venetian zaleti.  Right then I craved not any cookie, but this cookbook’s cookie, a lemony-scented one that promised to be both crunchy and crumbly with the sandiness of cornmeal and chewy with dried currants.  Just like the zaleti.

For the uninitiated, a note about these Venetian gems:  I love them.  Not too sweet, with the crumb of a fine shortbread and the crunch of coarse grain, this diamond-shaped slice-and-bake cookie rings all my gustatory bells.

I first met the lemony, sandy, fruit-chewy deliciousness that is the zaleti at an Italian gourmet shop in Chicago.  Years later, with Chicago and that gourmet shop’s cookies well in the rearview mirror, zaleti returned to my life when a local bread bakery began producing them.  Every once in a while, if I’m in the shop to buy a baguette and need a pick-me-up, I treat myself.  When, more recently while watching re-runs of old Julia Child shows, I saw pastry chef Nick Malgieri bake zaleti with Julia, I copied his recipe and tucked it away in my recipe files.

Confronted with the zaleti flavors in this snazzy new cookbook’s biscotti, I couldn’t resist trying them, and on Tuesday, I baked.

The biscotti disappointed.* The batter was very wet (although, as suggested, I weighed rather than measured the dry ingredients, according to the weights given)

making the long log that the cookies get cut from spread like crazy while baking.

The 30 small biscotti promised turned out to be more like fourteen rusks the length of plantains.

Worse, the sweetness level was intolerable; sugar overwhelmed the lemon zest and detracted from the nutty taste of the cornmeal.

And if it wasn’t bad enough being disappointed and angry at wasting time and good ingredients, the cookie craving was still unsatisfied.

Then it occurred to me: if I wanted zaleti, why not make zaleti?  After all, the recipe I had seen on Baking With Julia was just within reach.

Nick Malgieri’s Zaleti (Venetian Cornmeal Diamonds)

The technique here is more like pastry-making than the typical creaming of butter and sugar to yield cookie dough.  Cut the butter into the dry ingredients by hand or use a food processor as I did; both will give you fine results.  In both methods, you should see small pieces of cold butter in the floury dry ingredients.

Many insist that for the zaleti to be authentic, the currants or raisins should be soaked in grappa before being tossed into the dough.  No grappa on hand, I didn’t soak mine, and Malgieri doesn’t call for this step in his recipe.  But my friend, Mary Reilly, chef and owner of the Italian-inspired Newburyport restaurant, Enzo, made zaleti at Christmas using grappa-soaked fruit.  My goodness, her version was tasty.  Feel free to do whichever way you please.

  • 1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 12 Tbsp. unsalted butter, chilled, cut into pieces
  • 3/4 cup dried currants (or raisins)
  • 2 large eggs
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Line baking sheets with parchment and set aside.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and whisk together to blend.  Cut the cold butter into the bowl of dry ingredients by hand until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  Stir in the currants and toss to coat.

Or, alternately, place all the dry ingredients into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.  Pulse 2 or 3 times to blend.  Add the cold butter pieces and pulse until butter is finely chopped and evenly distributed.  Pour this into a large bowl and stir in the currants.  Toss to coat.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs to blend, together with the lemon zest and the vanilla.

Stir this into the flour-butter mixture with a flork and stir until the dough comes together.  Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide it into two pieces.

Using a piece of plastic wrap, roll each piece into smooth cylinders that are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Flatten the cylinders slightly, forming rough squares.  Press on the top part of the logs, pushing them slightly away away from you to turn the square into a slight diamond shape.  It doesn’t have to be – nor will it be – perfect.  In fact, the resulting logs, when sliced, will yield something more like a kite than a diamond.

Alternately, you may leave the log as a squared-off cylinder and slice the cookies on the diagonal.

Cut each log into slices that are about 1/4-inch thick.  Lay these slices flat on the prepared cookie sheets, about 15 slices per sheet.

Bake sheets one at a time in the center of the preheated oven for about 15 minutes per sheet (begin checking for browning after about 12 minutes; finished cookies will be evenly golden brown).  Remove sheet from the oven to a cooling rack, letting cookies cool completely on the cookie sheet before transferring them to a storage container.

Repeat as necessary to finish baking all the slices.

Serve with tea, coffee, espresso, or vin santo for sipping.

*I tested a second recipe from the cookbook (chocolate chip cookies because, really, how can one screw up a chocolate chip cookie?) in the event the problem was my baking skills rather than the recipe.  I experienced more of the same issues.  My advice: test drive your cookbooks before buying – the public library is your very good friend in this effort.

While some books by some very great chefs/pastry chefs are wonderful – well-researched, thoroughly tested in all kinds of conditions – others are not, and include recipes that are either a) simply reduced down from restaurant-sized quantities rather than being scaled down properly, or b) not ever tested using regular old home equipment, under home conditions.  Trust me, I worked with chefs who were asked to provide recipes for publications.  The words “winging it” come to mind.

©2011  Jane A. Ward