31 October 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Day of the Dead

CHIAVARI, Italy – I was surprised to see Halloween treats in the windows in the bakeries here in Chiavari this week. There were pumpkin shaped candies and cookies and my favorite cookies, pan dei morti, the bread of the dead. Halloween is not a big deal here, it’s a kind of new cute thing for the little kids, but for the grownups it’s another story. This weekend is a serious holiday. November 1st is Ognisanti, All Saints Day and November 2nd is La Commemorazione dei Defunti, All Souls Day.
 Cemetary in Italy
This is the weekend families travel kilometers and kilometers to lay flowers and votive candles on the graves of their parents and grandparents and other dead relatives. I doubt people still believe that the souls of their relatives return to Earth every year, but just in case it’s true, and anything can be true in Italy, special masses are said for the dead. It is also a time for families to be together and pay tribute to those who have passed.

Celebrating the dead is a very old tradition that dates back to the time of the Roman pagans. The holiday was called the Parentalia, and it was the time of celebration when  Romans would would leave garlands of flowers and wine-soaked bread on the tombs of their dead relatives. By offering the evil spirits gifts of food and flowers, the Romans hoped the evil spirits would be appeased and not dance around in the cemeteries raising havoc and disturbing the dead who were trying to rest in peace. 
 Cemetery in Italy
It sounds kind of silly now but for the Romans the Parentalia was a serious nine day celebration during which neither marriages, or any type of legal business, was allowed. After Christianity took hold, the Parentalia morphed into All Saints Day and became a Christian holiday to pray and honor the dead. Our All Saints Day celebrations today are not very different than those of the Roman Parentalia, except now the celebration only lasts two days instead of nine. 

The celebrations for All Souls day, which follows All Saints Day also revolved around food but in a different way. For example, instead of leaving food on graves, people in the province of Massa Carrara, (Tuscany) distributed it to the needy.  In Monte Argenario, also in Tuscany, there was a tradition of sewing large pockets on the front of the clothes of orphaned children so everyone could give them a little something, food or money, and in Abruzzo they would carve out pumpkins, put a candle inside of them and use them as lanterns. Any of this sound familiar?
 Roman Cemetery in Pompeii
Like every important holiday, Ognisanto has its special treats – the most important being the oddly shaped pan dei morti. And even though pan dei morti translates to bread of the dead, it’s really a cookie made with figs and nuts and other good things.  

The cookies sort of look like hands in prayer, but originally they were supposed to resemble a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes – and plates of the faux babies in swaddling clothes were left on the graves as a sacrifice to the evil spirits who lived in the cemeteries. Everyone knew those evil spirits were beastly ghouls who liked nothing better than feasting on tender and chewy little babies.
 Pan dei Morti
The cookies are symbolic in other ways as well. To begin with they are made with other cookies, amaretti or savoiardi, the ladyfingers used for tiramisu, and that symbolizes the transformation of old into new, as one person dies another is born and life continues.

The recipe also calls for dried fruit and figs, the same ingredients used in pre-Christian offerings to the dead. In the past they would darken honey by heating it on a stove to make the cookies as dark as the earth in a burial ground, but today a little ground cocoa is used instead. The cookies are dense and chewy with a bit of crunch from the ground amaretti and pine nuts, which give the idea of crunching dead people’s bones. Yum, yum crunchy bones.

(Makes 45-50 cookies)

150 g (5-6 oz) dry amaretti cookies
350 g (12 oz) ladyfingers (large Italian savoiardi are best, the kind for tiramisu)
130 g (1 cup) blanched whole almonds, toasted
130 g (1 cup) pine nuts, toasted
120 g (4 ¼ oz) dried figs
120 g (4 ¼ oz) raisins, soaked in Vin Santo (or Marsala) wine
300 g (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
300 g (about 1 ½ cups) sugar
10 g (2 teaspoon) baking powder
60 g (½ cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 large eggs (4 egg whites and 2 whole eggs)
100 ml (½ cup) Vin Santo wine
Powdered sugar

Note: You can use all amaretti if you prefer, but mixing amaretti and savoiardi is really tastier.

Preheat oven to 170°C (350°F)
  1. 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 by stirring constantly in a non-stick skillet on the stove.  Keep separate and set aside
  2. Soak the raisins in Vin Santo
  3. Using a food processor, finely grind the ladyfingers and amaretti cookies, and place them in a very large mixing bowl
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  6. Pour the eggs and the Vin Santo over the dry ingredients and mix well until smooth and doughy
  7. Line the baking sheets with non-stick parchment paper
  8. 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.
  9. 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
  10. Dust with powdered sugar  
  11. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack.

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