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How Not to Make Biscotti

I never experienced Pittsburghers' helpful nature first-hand like I did weeks before a biscotti-baking fiasco when Las Velas, the restaurant in Market Square that my husband and I own, caught on fire in the middle of the night.



Illustration by Patrick Neil

As I stood in my kitchen one evening using a hose attachment to vacuum flour off the pants I was wearing, I eyed the ugly, lumpy rectangle of cranberry-dotted dough that rested on my baking surface. It mocked me with its misshapen, impossible-to-handle stickiness. It was being difficult and stubborn and refused to cooperate with me no matter how kindly I encouraged it to do so.

It was the teenager of dough. It rolled its eyes at me. I considered taking away its driving privileges and unlimited texting plan.

I realized then that the basic laws of cooking and physics and, heck, gravity dictated that this blob of goo would never, ever turn into crispy cranberry biscotti despite the recipe I followed and its promise, “difficulty: easy.”
Lies. All lies.

Irately, I tweeted that my attempt to bake biscotti took a turn for the worse—“disastrous” is how I described it. I even included a picture of my malformed dough, which, by that point, was laughing at me and texting its friends about me as I shook the flour out of my hair and ears. I considered dumping all three batches of dough into the garbage can and nursing a bottle of wine while cursing Martha Stewart and her unattainable, irritating, Stepford wife, dead-souled perfection.

Wine, at least, would cooperate.

In an instant, I was met with helpful tips and hints (via Twitter) from Pittsburghers eager to see me succeed: “You just need more flour.” “Shape it a little thinner and longer.” “Smooth the edges.” “Cut it on the diagonal and re-bake it.” “My grandmother used to make that and she … .”

My inbox was hit with helpful e-mails from ’Burghers who knew exactly where I went wrong. They sent me links to YouTube videos that showed me what to do. They included their own biscotti recipes. They encouraged me in solidarity to keep on trying. “Don’t let the moody, adolescent ball of dough win.”

An hour later, as I gazed at my platter of almost-perfect, delicious cranberry white-chocolate biscotti, I marveled at the helpful nature of ’Burghers. It’s something I have experienced time and time again—and something I’ve written about before.

But I never experienced it first-hand like I did weeks before my baking fiasco when the restaurant in Market Square that my husband and I own caught on fire in the middle of the night, heavily damaging the establishment and sure to put us out of operation for months.

It was our livelihood, swept out from under us and leaving us to navigate a confusing insurance process fraught with uncertainty and fear. As news of the fire spread, offers of help began pouring in from ’Burghers far and wide.

When the ashes weren’t even five hours old, dozens of people I never met already offered to show up at any time—day or night—to help clean. They offered to paint. They offered money. They offered jobs for our employees who were now out of work.

A displaced ’Burgher in Germany offered to have cupcakes delivered to my house from a local bakery if I needed comfort food.

Members from a local church offered up their already-planned volunteer day to clean and rebuild.

Other ’Burghers who suffered through fire losses e-mailed me their personal stories.

Lawyers offered to “put [their] lawyer voice on” if my husband and I ran into difficulty with the insurance process.
Offers of free child care poured in from moms all over the city.

All sorts of offers poured in: Did I need a lasagna? A casserole? A truck? An empty restaurant on the North Side to operate out of until ours was fixed?

And there were offers such as these:

“Can I purchase your kids’ Christmas gifts for you?”

“I’m available every day after 3 p.m. to help. I have tools.”

“I don’t have anything special I can offer, but if you need a body, I’m there.”

Perhaps the greatest number of e-mails, so very many of them from people I’ve never met, simply said, “Anything you need help with. Anything at all.”

And I truly believed without a doubt that if I had put out an urgent call for a hippopotamus, Pittsburghers wouldn’t have stopped until a hippopotamus was delivered to my door.

I witness it every day, often through the power of social media: Pittsburghers helping Pittsburghers without questions, reservations or expecting anything in return. Quite simply: Help is offered. Needs are filled. Fears are allayed.

Everyone leans at some point, and everyone provides the shoulder at some point.

It’s a beautiful circle of support that makes Pittsburgh what it is: a town full of people like no other.

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