Pane dei morti
Pane dei morti, or Bread of the Dead, is a cookie that was traditionally baked throughout Italy and Italian Switzerland to commemorate the dead—coinciding with the festivals of the dead, All Saints and All Souls, on November 1st and 2nd.
Historically, many cultures commemorated the dead by distributing bread (and flour and salt) at wakes and funerals. According to the Kulinarisches Erbe, this was also the case in Ticino, where the wealthy would give bread to poorer families when someone had died. There was even a tradition near Lugano similar to trick-or-treating, where children would “search” for the bread of the dead, knocking on doors and receiving bread and dried fruits.
In late October and early November some Ticino bakeries still sell Pane dei morti (often in the style of the most common version of the cookie, from Lombardy).
For bakeries, it is not only a way to use up leftover biscuits and desserts (which were often incorporated into the dough) but also to give customers a taste of the (similarly spiced) Christmas treats to come. Panettone anyone?
The Kulinarisches Erbe lays out some of the typical ingredients in a Pane dei Morti: flour, biscuits or crumbled amaretti, chestnut paste or marrons glacés, honey, cocoa, yeast, ground almonds, grated lemon peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, pine nuts, raisins, a little ammonia and possibly candied fruit.
In concocting the recipe below, I tried to use the most Ticinese ingredients possible, like walnuts (and the delicious walnut liqueur, Nocino) and chestnuts. And I threw in quite a lot of chocolate, because Switzerland.
200 g flour
200 g ground nuts, toasted
150 g sugar
100 g very finely chopped chocolate
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp each cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cloves
120 ml coffee, hot
200 g chestnut puree
1 tsp each lemon and orange rind
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
2 shots of Nocino (or other spirit)
100 g raisins, soaked in spirits
sugar for dipping
Preheat oven to 170 C / 325 F / gas mark 3.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, nuts, sugar, chocolate, cocoa powder and spices.
Prepare your hot coffee, and whisk in the chestnut puree. Add the citrus rind, vanilla and spirits.
Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix gently until it forms a dough. Mix in the raisins.
Take golf-ball sized bits of dough and shape into long diamonds. Dip in sugar and place on a parchment lined baking sheet.
Bake for about 30 minutes or until you can smell the cookies and the outsides have hardened slightly.
I used a tube of commercially prepared chestnut puree, which is already sweetened. If yours isn’t, sweeten to taste.
Nocino, Ticino’s delicious walnut liqueur, was perfect in this recipe, but other possibilities include grappa or even rum. More about Nocino here.
I used raw sugar for rolling, but many recipes also use icing sugar.