Thursday, 1 November 2012
Pane dei Morti
Italy has never really had a Halloween tradition per se; the important days at this time of year are Ogni Santi, All Saints' Day, on November 1st and Il Giorno dei Morti, All Souls Day, on November 2nd. During these celebrations, you won’t find costumes, scary decorations or children trick-or-treating on the street. Instead, people go to mass to pray for the deceased, followed by the cemetery to visit their loved ones and bring flowers and candles to their graves.
As with other feste in Italy, each region makes their own particular delicacies on these occasions. Pan dei Morti, or Bread of the Dead, are dark, spicy, chewy biscuits, originally from Lombardia, that are sold in bakeries around this time although they disappear after November 2nd. They are usually eaten after dinner on Ogni Santi and Il Giorno dei Morti. The biscuits, in common with many traditional Italian baked goods, are quite dry but full of complex flavour: cocoa, cinnamon, pinenuts, figs, raisins, wine, ancient flavours that have been used for celebratory occasions for hundreds of years. These are biscuits firmly rooted in Italy's past which is perhaps why they remind Italians of their ancestors.
I won't deny that there is a long list of ingredients and the method, though simple, is rather long-winded and fiddly. However, I think they are worth the effort...
Auguri per Ogni Santi.
250g sponge fingers
150g dry biscuits (I used gingernuts but Rich Tea would be good too)
50 g cocoa powder
250g plain flour, 00 if possible
120g dried figs
60g blanched almonds
60g pine nuts
300g caster sugar
6 egg whites
100 ml vin santo or other sweet wine
10g baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
some freshly grated nutmeg
First, put the raisins in some hot water to plump up.
Put all the biscuits (amaretti, sponge fingers, other biscuits) in a food processor and blitz to make crumbs. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Next, blitz the almonds, dried figs and pine nuts together and put in the mixing bowl with the biscuit crumbs.
Add all the other dry ingredients to the mixture and mix well. Finally, drain the raisins and add to the mixing bowl, together with the baking powder, sweet wine and the egg whites.
Start to mix it all together. It's extremely sticky so it's easiest to do this by hand (I wear latex gloves to make this a bit easier).
When the mixture has come together, transfer to a floured board and form a loaf shape. Using a sharp knife dipped in flour, cut vertically into 1 cm thick slices.
Using your hands, form the slices into vaguely lozenge-shaped biscuits.
Put them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, leaving room for them to expand slightly as they cook.
Bake in the oven for 25 mins.
Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool, dredge generously with icing sugar before serving.
They last very well for 4-5 days in a cake tin and go very well with a glass of vin santo.