My mother, The Betty, used to make a biscotti-like cookie called mandelbrot, which means almond (mandel) and bread (brot) in both German and Yiddish.
Known in America as mandel bread, the dough is formed into a long loaf, sliced into slabs, and often twice-baked, which makes the individual cookies crispy and crunchy. The recipe can be modified to add chocolate chunks, walnuts, candied fruit, and cinnamon.
But of all the magical things my mother gave me, her mandelbrot recipe was not one of them.
As a child, I expected the raved-over holiday staple to be similar to a cake-like treat (think banana bread), and not something resembling the texture of sawdust. Once dipped into milk, mandelbrot became a bit more acceptable to my youthful tastebuds even with icky crumbs in the glass. It was a far cry from Oreos, which if dipped correctly are the perfect conduit for milk.
As years passed and I was old enough to upgrade to coffee, I still didn’t grasp the mandelbrot appeal.
Then, this happened.
After The Betty died last fall, I was in Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End waiting to buy a single carry-out cannoli, which I since learned is called cannolo. I had already enjoyed an exquisite saltimbocca dish but knew the delicacy inside the string-wrapped white box wouldn’t make it past the first Downeaster stop.
Regardless of how full I was, Mike’s legendary cannoli are irresistible, making the hype since 1946 the real deal. But, while in line, two women in front of me were discussing their mother’s cannoli recipes and how even Mike’s didn’t come close to the flakiness of the thin puff pastry shells they grew up on.
“Mama spent hours on Saturdays making shells,” one woman said. “We used to eat them without filling. She always added a little bit of my grandfather’s homemade wine to the dough to keep them from bubbling when they were frying.”
“Ahhh, my mama used marsala,” the other woman said wistfully. “The whole house smelled of cannoli. It didn’t matter how hot it was, mama said it reminded her of her Nonna’s house and it was hot there, too.”
Tearing up, I thought of all the dishes my own mother and grandmother had made over the years and how little had changed between their passing of the guard. Like my grandmother, The Betty would insist on young hen shmaltz and yearn for fresh eggs instead of the supermarket dozen she had on hand. Wiping my eyes with the cuff of my sweatshirt, I turned and noticed the case of biscotti.
There were easily a dozen varieties and while my intent was to just buy the fullest traditional cannoli I could spot, I impulsively added a plain chocolate-dipped biscotti for the next day’s coffee. Withholding the temptation to ask the women in front of me about their thoughts on biscotti, I remained quiet as they went on to discuss making homemade ricotta cheese for cannoli filling and how much lemon juice should be added.
Their conversation had me daydreaming of my Bubbie’s (and later, The Betty’s) farmer’s cheese-stuffed, crepe-like blintzes. Wondering if I had that recipe as well, I was startled to attention by the counter person tapping her pencil on the glass.
As I was putting a few bucks in the tip jar I asked the pencil-tapping woman if she liked biscotti. She looked up and said, “Oh yeah, I love biscotti, but I don’t like cannoli. Never did.”
Once settled on the train, I held off on unwrapping the box altogether. I knew I’d enjoy the cannoli, but it had been years since I’d eaten a biscotti. Why on earth did I order it?
The next morning, after digging out The Betty’s mandelbrot recipe, I sat down to coffee and the impulse-biscotti. On the very bottom of the recipe card, in her signature scribble was the notation: “Much like Italian biscotti but smaller and more moist. Dip in glazele tay (glass of tea) or coffee.”
Mike’s biscotti was tasty but didn’t rock my world like the alternate bite of cannoli. But, The Betty said mandelbrot was moister. After the second bite of the biscotti, I had to admit it was tasty. Really tasty. Putting the cannoli to the side, I savored the biscotti slowly.
Since then, I’ve ventured into mandelbrot baking, following the recipe handed down by my grandmother and mother to the letter. No doubt it goes back further than the two of them and honestly, I’m not quite sure if I like it better than biscotti.
It’s just slightly different. Still crunchy, still dippable, and still a canvas for so many different flavor options. And as we all well know, different can be downright delicious.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].