Some people claim Halloween is their favorite holiday. Not me! I respect its origins in Samhain, the Celtic celebration of harvest’s end and remembering those who died in the previous year, but its modern incarnation as a chance for kids of all ages to run a little wild and beg for candy (or whatever the adult equivalent might be)—well, it’s not my idea of fun. I do help carve the requisite pumpkins, I do put out the requisite bowls of sweeties, but as for dressing up and pretending to be a witch, sorry, witchiness is too close to my normal behavior to even think about pretense.
BUT Halloween is not just a Celtic celebration. All over the Catholic world it marks a brief but serious time for reflection. Properly speaking it’s not Halloween but Hallowe’en, short for All Hallows Eve, the evening before All Saints Day (sometimes called All Hallows Day), followed on November 2nd by All Souls Day. These are called cross-quarter days, meaning they fall between the autumnal equinox in September and the winter solstice at the end of December. As such, they have a special kind of fragility, a liminal quality, poised as they are between summer and winter, the living and the dead, between life and the after-life, whatever that might be.
In Europe this is a time to visit graves of ancestors and those who have died recently. Many years ago, I arrived in Spain for the first time on November 1st, a cold grey November with the rain falling and the people lined up at the tram stops in bilbao, patiently waiting in the soft, steady autumn rain, their arms filled with flowers to carry to the graves. In Italy, the flowers brought as tribute are almost invariably chrysanthemums. (Nb: chrysanthemums are thus really, seriously bad luck to bring to an Italian dinner party host.) In southern Italy, especially in Sicily, marzipan, shaped into intricately lifelike fruits and flowers that are colored and gilded is typical of the season.
The ones in the photo come from a shop in Siracusa—those clementinas with their peel pulled back are entirely made of marzipan, everything but the leaves. Marzipan fruits are called frutti della Martorana, named for the Palermo convent where it is said they originated (that’s doubtful) and they also, like the chrysanthemums, represent offerings to the defunct. A diligent researcher can go all the way back to early Greece and even dynastic Egypt to find evidence of similar practices, suggesting that Hallowe’en and the subsequent cross-quarter days are one more link to the ancient Mediterranean religions.
There is one treat at this time that seems universal all over Italy, although the ingredients, especially the flavorings, vary from region to region. That’s the delightful cookies called
ossi dei morti, bones of the dead. In “my” town of Cortona in late October, the pasticcerie windows are piled with these rather gruesome but totally delicious cookies. Flavored with anise or almond or cinnamon, they are there for the Festa dei Morti and never at other times of the year.
Ossi dei morti are easy to make and provide great seasonal gifts. If you make them in quantity and store them in a tin, you’ll have crisp, crunchy biscotti to dip in your morning coffee or your post-prandial vin santo for the weeks ahead. Ice or glaze them if you wish, just sprinkle with a little powdered sugar, or leave them plain—plain is best if you intend to store them for any length of time.
Ossi dei Morti (bones of the Dead)
This will make 16 to 20 good-sized cookies.
What you’ll need:
- About 1 cup of unblanched almonds
- About 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (zest of 1 lemon)
- ¼ cup plus ½ cup regular white sugar
- 1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup almond flour plus a little more for the board
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- Sea salt
- ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 egg whites
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Toast the almonds, setting them on a tray in a 350º oven for about 10 minutes or until they are golden. Remove from the oven and when they’re cool enough to handle, chop them coarsely to make around ¾ cup chopped almonds. Transfer to the bowl of a food processor along with the lemon zest and ¼ cup of sugar. Process, pulsing, to make a coarse, sandy mix, but don’t over-process to a paste. Remove from the food processor and set aside.
In the same bowl of the processor cream the butter, then add the half-cup of sugar in two batches, pulsing to a fluffy cream and scraping down the sides with a spatula. Add the egg whites and vanilla and process briefly.
Combine the all-purpose and almond flours with the baking powder and cinnamon. Add a pinch of salt and toss with a fork to mix, then add this to the food processor. Finally, add the almond-sugar mixture and process the whole very briefly, just enough to mix it all together. Turn the dough out onto a board and knead very briefly. If the mixture seems too dry (mine was not), add a tablespoon or 2 of dry white wine or plain room-temp water. If it seems too wet, knead in about ¼ cup almond flour. Once everything is well combined, cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight or for several hours.
When you’re ready to bake, set the oven on 350º and line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper. Turn the chilled dough out on a bread board and knead very briefly, just one or two strokes. If necessary, sprinkle a
little more almond flour over the board to keep it from sticking. Divide the dough into four pieces. Roll one piece out into a long thick snake and cut it in four or five pieces. Take each piece and roll it further into a long, rough bone-like shape—or a long fat cigar if you don’t have the patience to mold a proper bone. Lay the cookies out on the baking sheets—you should have enough to make 16 to 20 fat cookies. Transfer the sheets to the hot oven and bake for at least 30 minutes, or until the cookies are golden-edged. The longer you bake them, the crisper they will be, better for dunking in coffee or vin santo or apple cider or whatever your Halloween drink of choice might be.
When done, remove from the oven and let cool slightly on the baking sheets, then transfer to wire racks to cool thoroughly before storing. Once cool, you may glaze or ice them, or just sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. Or leave naked—they will be delicious any way you choose. (Note: the cookies will store better if they are not frosted at all.)