For much of the Western world, the cool, golden days of autumn mean Halloween, grinning jack o’ lanterns and pumpkin pie, tiny ghosts, goblins, and fairy princesses digging into paper bags heavy with candy and caramel popcorn balls or bobbing for apples amid the crunch of fallen leaves in shades of copper, amber, sage. For Italians, this season brings roasted chestnuts, mushroom risotto and pumpkin ravioli, truffles, grapes, and The Day of the Dead.
A holiday celebrated on the second day of November following All Saint’s Day (Ognissanti) on November 1 since antiquity, All Souls’ Day, or Day of the Dead (La Commemorazione dei Defunti or il Giorno dei Morti) is a day many set aside to remember and commemorate the dead. Of course Halloween was born of this holy celebration, but in Catholic countries such as Italy and France, tradition still holds and on All Souls’ Day many French and Italians, arms heavy with chrysanthemums, visit cemeteries, placing the flowers on the graves of loved ones and celebrate accordingly.
Italians, I discovered over the 7 years I lived among them, are a religious and a superstitious people, often melding the two together into intriguing rituals and endearing, wonderful, long-lasting traditions. The long ago pagan and Roman rituals of exorcising malevolent spirits and of appeasing the dead on certain days of the year were embraced by early Christians, eventually evolving, alongside All Saints’ Day, into All Souls’ Day, a day of remembrance and prayer. The celebrations and modern-day rituals surrounding these two holy days are continued in Italy where it is said that the souls of dead relatives and loved ones return to Earth to visit those they’ve left behind. The living welcome their defunct, visiting their graves, offering prayers and flowers and burning candles to their memories, as well as preparing and sharing with them seasonal sweets, dried fruits, nuts and chestnuts, and specially baked breads in their own homes, the homes these loved ones had to abandon to pass into the otherworld. In some homes, children wake in the morning to find cakes and sweets left for them overnight by visiting spirits.
I have always loved holiday time in Italy. As each special festa rolls around, her well-kept secrets pop up unexpectedly, her hidden treasures saved only for special occasions appear just when you’ve forgotten all about them. Wander into the corner bakery looking only for warm bread rolls for dinner and you are surprised to find the shop all dressed up for the next celebration. Trays of treats appear as from nowhere, elegantly wrapped Pandoro or Panettone at Christmas, tortelli, chiacchiere (“chatterboxes”) and frittelle fried snacks for Carnevale piled high on white paper doilies under showers of white icing sugar, or elegant dove-shaped Colomba for Easter. And then they disappear as quickly as they appeared, tucked away until next year, making way for the following celebration.
To each holiday her special creation and All Souls’ Day, The Day of the Dead, is no different.
Pan dei Morti, or Bread of the Dead, are fabulous cookies, possibly my favorite Italian holiday treat, dark, moist, very dense and chewy, rich in flavor, that appear much too briefly in Italian bakeries during the autumn season, showing up shortly before All Saints’ Day and disappearing again just after All Souls’ Day. Pan dei Morti is an intriguing confection, a lozenge-shaped cookie smothered under a layer of white powdered sugar like snow covering the rich, dark earth, a pastry infused with a multitude of flavors; cocoa, cinnamon, nuts, wine weave in and out of each mouthful, a faint hint of gingerbread, tickling your taste buds and then vanishing, making way for the next, each flavor distinct yet balanced and blended together into one surprising taste. And as you chew, the crackle of the ground cookies and figs and the crunch of the pine nuts, or almonds and hazelnuts are meant to remind you of dead men’s bones, a sweet remembrance of loved ones long gone.
And like many recipes of la cucina povera, cuisines of poor countries, this was the ideal way to use up old, stale cookies and other staple ingredients one had on hand and turning them into a flavorful and nutritious treat with the addition of dried fruits, nuts, and spices.
- 14 ounces (400 grams) total of dry, sweet cookies such as crunchy ladyfingers/boudoirs (10½ ounces / 300 grams) and Pavesini (3½ ounces / 100 grams)
- 3½ ounces (100 grams) dry Amaretti cookies
- 4¼ ounces (120 grams) blanched whole almonds
- 4½ ounces (120 grams) dried figs
- 2 cups (260 grams) flour
- 1½ cups (300 grams) sugar
- Scant ½ cup (50 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Pinch salt
- 4¼ ounces (125 grams) whole pine nuts
- 6 large egg whites
- ⅜ cup (100 ml) vin santo or other sweet dessert wine
- Powdered/confectioner’s sugar for dusting
- Using a robot mixer or food processor, finely grind all of the cookies and Amaretti and place in a very large mixing bowl.
- Finely grind both the almonds and the figs and add to the cookie powder in the bowl. The damp figs may clump together, just rub the clumps into the dry ingredients to break it up.
- Add the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and whole pine nuts to the ground ingredients and toss until completely blended.
- Pour the egg whites and the vin santo or dessert wine over the dry ingredients and blend until all of the dry ingredients are moistened.
- Scrape out onto a floured work surface and knead quickly until it you have a smooth, well-blended ball of cookie dough.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degreesC). Line baking sheets with non-stick parchment paper.
- Slice the ball of dough in half and then each half into about a dozen even pieces, each weighing about 3-3½ ounces (90-100 grams). Shape each piece into a lozenge, long and flat, approximately 4½ - 5½ inches (12-14 cm) long and approximately 2½ inches (6 cm) wide, wide in the middle narrowing to a point at each end.
- Place the lozenge-shaped cookies on the baking sheet leaving a little space between each. Bake for 35-40 minutes until slightly puffed, a dull brown color and set. Lift one up carefully and check that the bottom side looks cooked. Do not overbake or the burned edges will be too hard.
- Lift the cookies from the baking sheets and line up on cooling racks; allow the cookies to cool completely.
- Once cooled, sift powdered/confectioner’s sugar generously to cover the cookies.
These cookies are best eaten fresh, the day baked although they keep well for several days. They are dense, chewy, and moist with the crackle of the ground cookies and the crunch of the pine nuts to remind us of dead men’s bones.