America's commercialism has ruined so many holidays, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Easter this year was nearly unbearable. Hopefully, by the time I set foot in the supermarket again, giant pastel Easter eggs will no longer dangle overhead, and all those bilious yellow and pink marshmallow creatures will have been hauled off to a landfill.
I do like to celebrate the changing of the season, though. The return of the robins, the brave exuberance of daffodils, the daily upward thrust of hyacinth and tulip, are reason to rejoice throughout April and May.
One of the loveliest ways I know to welcome springtime is with a glass of vin santo and a plate of biscotti. Vin santo (or 'holy wine') is a magnificent dessert wine made in the Chianti region of Italy, where it's drunk year-round. Vin santo is considered 'the wine of hospitality.' It's what you take to a house-warming, or to welcome new friends. In Italy, a small glass of this luscious amber wine and a couple of biscotti might be served to guests at any time of the day. And, it makes an especially delicious end to a meal.
The tradition goes back for centuries in Tuscany, but no one seems to agree on how vin santo got its name. Some say it's because the grapes are pressed ' or the wine bottled ' during Holy Week. Others say the wine is 'holy' because it was used to celebrate mass.
The most widely accepted theory credits the name to a mistake: a Greek bishop visiting Florence in 1349 was served the wine and misidentified it as a sweet wine made on the Greek island of Xantos ' and the name stuck.
At one time, every family in the Tuscan countryside made their own vin santo, and had a cask or two salted away in the attic. Chianti was made for sale, but vin santo was for family use. Now, a growing number of wine estates in Tuscany are making vin santo for sale in limited quantities.
The best of them can be expensive ' up to $100 for a half bottle. But you can find some wonderful mid-priced vin santo at Madison wine stores. Barriques has two: a 1997 Isole e Olena ($37) and a 2000 Vigna del Papa ($27).
In the glass, vin santo can range from pale amber to deep caramel in color. The taste is extraordinary ' raisiny and nutty, with aromas of dried figs and prunes, almonds and honey. It's like sipping mellow late afternoon sunshine, with all the warmth of sweet sherry or tawny port and the golden, honeyed perfume of Sauternes. In fact, the best vin santos have a perfume so intense it will last for days in an empty glass.
The traditional accompaniment to vin santo is little almond biscotti (called cantuccini), which can be dunked in the wine. Biscotti, by the way, means 'twice-cooked,' and since some biscotti are hard enough to crack a tooth, softening them in a glass of vin santo can be helpful to those of us who enjoy their taste but are unwilling to risk an unexpected trip to the dentist. The biscotti I make at home are crumblier than the tooth-cracking Starbucks variety, which is one of the reasons I prefer to bake my own.
Hmmm, biscotti and 'holy wine' ' sounds like a sacrament, doesn't it? Springtime is a blessing in itself, of course ' but this month, while the earth greens, the trees bud and the daylight grows, why not celebrate your own rite of spring? Bake some biscotti, gather some friends and raise a glass of vin santo ' in praise of all things green and growing.
This is one of those recipes that get passed around a lot. I got it from my mother, who found it in Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours. Dorie got it from the owner of one of her favorite New York restaurants. Now it's yours. Vary it as you like: substitute hazelnuts for the almonds, add chopped figs or dried cherries, or some grated orange or lemon zest. Mixing up a batch of these is as easy as making chocolate chip cookies. But be warned: They have a way of disappearing just as fast.
1-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons almond extract
3/4 cup sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and cornmeal together. Set aside. Using a stand or hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed for 3 minutes, until very smooth. Add the eggs and continue to beat (2 minutes) until light, smooth and creamy. Beat in the almond extract. Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just until incorporated. Toss in the almonds and mix just to blend. You'll have a soft, stick-to-your-fingers dough.
Scrape half the dough onto one side of the baking sheet; pat into a log about 12 inches long and 1-1/2 inches wide. Form a second log with the remaining dough on the other half of the sheet.
Bake for 15 minutes until the logs are lightly golden but still soft and springy to the touch. Let cool for 30 minutes.
Bring the oven back up to 350 degrees F. Using a long, serrated knife, cut the logs into 3/4-inch thick slices. Stand the slices up on the baking sheet and bake the biscotti for another 15 minutes, until they are golden and firm. Cool to room temperature.