The Pan dei Morti (bread of the dead) are traditional Italian cookies prepared for the Day of Dead (Commemorazione dei Defunti) celebrated on November 2nd, the day following All Saint’s Day (Ognissanti). On these two holy days Italians honor the souls of deceased relatives and loved ones, and many believe that the spirits return to Earth to visit those ones they have left behind. In fact, the use of other cookies (amaretti and savoiardi) or left over sweets as ingredients clearly symbolizes the transmutation of the old into the new. It is also interesting to note that dried fruit and figs, also fundamental in this recipe, were always present in pre-Christian offerings to dead people. Cacao is a modern acquisition to render these sweets as dark as the earth in a burial ground. In ancient times, honey, browned on the stove with a little butter, was used to get the same result for color and sweetness. The Pan dei Morti recipe has as many variations as there are regions in Italy, and this particular one is a specialty of my own region, Lombardy.
This version has the advantage of being easy to prepare, but at the same time it is delicious and fun to eat. The cookies are dense, chewy and moist, with a little crunch from the ground cookies and toasted pine nuts to remind of dead people’s bones. (My husband remarks that the ghoulish background to these cookies makes them perfect for Halloween, too.)
PAN DEI MORTI (BREAD OF THE DEAD)
150 g (5-6 oz) dry amaretti cookies
350 g (12 oz) ladyfingers (large Italian savoiardi are best)
130 g (1 heaping cup) blanched whole almonds, toasted
130 g (1 heaping cup) pine nuts, toasted
120 g (4 ¼ oz) dried figs
120 g (4 ¼ oz) raisins, soaked in Vin Santo
300 g (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
300 g (about 1 ½ cups) sugar
10 g (2 teaspoons) baking powder
60 g (about ½ cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 large eggs (4 egg whites and 2 whole eggs)
120 ml (½ cup) Vin Santo
Preheat oven to 170°C (350°F)
- Toast the pine nuts and the almonds separately for about 5 to 6 minutes on a baking sheet in a preheated oven at 170°C (350°F) or stirring constantly in a non-stick skillet on the stove. Keep separate and set aside
- Soak the raisins in Vin Santo
- Using a mixer, finely grind the ladyfingers and amaretti cookies, and place them in a very large mixing bowl
- Finely grind the almonds, and then separately grind the figs as well. Add both to the cookie mix (the damp figs may clump together; just add the clumps into the dry ingredient mix). Add raisins.
- Sift together the flour and the baking powder, then add to the cookie-almond-fig mixture. Stir in sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and pine nuts. Toss until completely blended
- Pour the eggs and the Vin Santo over the dry ingredients and mix well until smooth and doughy
- Line the baking sheets with non-stick parchment paper
- To form the cookies, first flour your fingers. Scoop out a ball of dough of a size somewhere between a golf ball and a tennis ball. Using as little flour as possible flatten the ball into an oblong shape with pointed edges, about 4 ½ -5 ½ inches (12-14 cm) long and about 2 ½ inches (6 cm) wide. Use just enough flour to work the dough and keep the cookies from sticking to the baking paper.
- Place the cookies on the baking sheet, leaving some space between each. Bake for 15-20 minutes until slightly puffed, with a brown color and crisp look
- Dust with powdered sugar sprinkled on top
- Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack.
Note: This recipe makes about 48-50 cookies. These butter-less cookies are light and pretty healthy, and they are rich in nuts and dried fruits. Some recipes also call for candied orange peel, another good flavor for this time of year, so feel free to throw in a handful if you wish. This “dead man’s bread” is best eaten fresh, although the cookies keep well for several days, too. -Paola