Italians favor something quick, light and sweet for breakfast, usually enjoyed with a creamy cappuccino or a spremuta at the neighborhood bar. Rich, buttery brioches and cornetti filled with fruit jam or pastry cream are standard, but the sweet breakfast lineup can also vary from region to region. In Florence, you might start the day with a creamy budino di riso or a warm bomboloni; in Torino, you can get your morning rush from sugar-topped, buttery, roll swirled with almond paste, or flaky pastry folded over gianduja; in Friuli, have an apple strudel with your caffé.
South of Naples, the morning traditions were once far simpler and much less sweet. In Calabria, my mother remembers having crumbly, biscotti-like toasts called frese for breakfast before leaving for school. Just slightly sweet and spiked with anise or fennel seed, they were perfectly suited for dunking into a long-pulled shot of espresso with warm milk. Her grandmother made them with yeast, to rise high and light before they were double-baked: once to cook them through, then again to toast them crisp for keeping.
My own grandmother carried on the tradition by making the same frese for me; she insisted on buying her anise seeds from Arthur Avenue, where she knew she could find them imported for Italy. Cocoa Puffs they were not; there was no mistaking that this was a recipe born from lean times, made with a only few other ingredients besides flour and a little bit of sugar. But as most grandmothers do, she managed to turn them into a special, cherished bit of food nostalgia.
This is my non-yeasted version of those same breakfast biscotti, but instead of anise seed, I loaded them up with a generous amount of ground cinnamon and some cornmeal for some extra textural dimension. Feel free to use anise or fennel seeds instead of cinnamon, but my advice is to limit the flavor to a perfect, singular note, because that's they way my nonna would have liked it. Transportable, dunkable, loveable, and pennies per piece, they're breakfast, 2009-style.
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup light olive oil or vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling the dough
- 1/4 cup fine cornmeal or instant polenta
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- Optional toppings
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1 tablespoon raw or demerara sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Place the eggs, sugar and oil in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, beat them together on medium speed for one minute, until light and foamy.
While the egg mixture is beating, whisk together 2 cups of the flour with the cornmeal, salt, baking powder and cinnamon until thoroughly blended. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and beat them together until a thick dough is formed. Remove the bowl from the mixer, and discard the whisk. Use a spatula to fold the remaining 1/4 cup of flour into the dough. Let the dough sit for five minutes so the flour can absorb the moisture from the eggs.
While the dough is sitting, lightly grease a cookie sheet with non-stick vegetable spray, line it with parchment paper, and lightly grease the parchment.
Flour your work surface and fingers, and divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a log, about 1 1/2 inches wide and place the logs on the prepared cookie sheet, evenly spaced. The dough will be tacky, but easy manage; you can continue to shape the logs them after placing them on the cookie sheet.
Use a pastry brush to brush away any excess flour. If you want add a bit more sweetness to the toasts, brush them with the milk and sprinkle the raw or demerara sugar on top.
Bake the logs for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are puffy, golden brown and firm to touch. Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and turn the temperature down to 300 degrees. Let the logs cool for 15 minutes on the tray.
Use a serrated knife to slice the logs on the bias about ½ of an inch thick and lay them flat on the cookie sheet. Return the slices to the oven and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until the slices are browned and toasted. Allow the toasts to cool completely and store them in an air-tight container.