Bones of the Dead
Ossi dei morti is Italian for bones of the dead, so let’s play guess for just a moment as to exactly what sort of bones I’m talking about here. Is this the latest in Italian horror feature films? Or perhaps it’s an archaeological dig somewhere near Mt Vesuvius? Could it even be the name of a deep-water reef, off the coast of Sicily, frequented by la cosa nostra seafarers with cargo to unload? Well, these theories are all close but still, no stogie my friend – ossi dei morti are actually biscuits, but with a name so morbid it’s plainly obvious that these are no ordinary sweets.
A whole bunch of Italian foods, especially sweets, are steeped in either cultural or religious significance. Ossi dei morti are not an exception. These addictive almond biscuits are traditionally prepared around November the 2nd, or the Catholic feast, All Souls Day. Wherever Catholicism has travelled (and ‘aint it travelled), All Souls Day is celebrated with a unique cultural slant reflective of the country. However, one factor remains constant, it is the day when Catholics, who lets face it, don’t have the most celebratory view of death, remember their dead - most often those in that Catholic half-way hostel, purgatory. When you throw some non-Anglo Saxon cultures into the mix, things start to get a little interesting. In Korea, families gather to picnic amongst the graves of loved ones, whose memory is honoured with an offering of rice, their most important staple. The Mexicans, with their fabulously over-the-top (and eminently sensible) Day of the Dead have raised this feast day into an art form. Memories of what loved ones gave, rather than mourning for what they have left behind is the order of the day. Amongst much colourful celebration, plenty of feast day foods are prepared, like pan de muertos, or bread of the dead, or frijoles muertos – dead beans. Even the Germans have their seelenbrot - soul's bread.
Ossi dei morti themselves have some regional variation throughout Italy. Some areas, like Piedmont and Lombardy prepare fave dei morti, literally broad beans of the dead. These fava bean-shaped biscuits share pretty much the same ingredients as ossi dei morti, but hark back to Roman days when broad beans were used as offerings to the legion of the passed.
Dio Commande! I do hope that all this hasn’t been too morose, because these biscuits are seriously yummy, and better still, they are gobsmakingly easy to make – much easier than their famous Italian sweet-treat cousins, biscotti. They contain very simple ingredients; almonds, eggs, sugar, flour and the like, and last for ages in an airtight container. If you are careful and take a little time to shape them before you bake them, they really do look like little finger bones! (Actually, a Neapolitan pal of mine calls them “dead men’s fingers”). So don’t wait for next All Souls Day, whip up a batch of the easy, tasty, and history-heavy sweets this weekend.
This recipe turns out, like - heaps. About 50 or so biscuits, but they are small and very more-ish, so you won’t have any trouble shifting them.
Pre-heat your oven to 160° C (320° F).
Using a large sharp knife, chop the almonds into fine chunks. Leave a little texture in the nuts however, because that provides the biscuits with their character. If you wish, you could grind the almonds up in a food processor, or even substitute almond meal (ground almonds) for the whole almonds – but this will result in a smooth, slightly clinical biscuit.
Tip the almonds out onto a small baking tray (baking sheet) and spread evenly. Place in the oven for 8 – 10 minutes to toast them lightly. Don’t cook them any more than a light golden brown or they will taste bitter. Remove the nuts from the oven and cool.
Place the sugar, egg, egg white, baking powder, lemon juice and vanilla in a mixmaster and whisk for a few minutes to combine well. The mixture should be pale and light. This can also be done by hand in a large mixing bowl, using a balloon whisk.
Using a spatula, gently but thoroughly fold through the flour and nuts. If you wish, the dough can be set aside at this point for a few hours (or even a day or two) in the refrigerator.
Line a baking tray with non-stick silicone paper, or a silpat. Take an almond sized piece of dough, and roll it back and forth under the palm of your hand until it is the width of a pencil, and 5 or so centimetres long. If they are sticking to your hands, dust your palms with a little flour. Place each biscuit on the baking tray, well spaced apart, as they will spread a fair bit during cooking. Bake for 12 – 15 minutes, or until they are just the lightest shade of gold. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool before the kids (or you) get at them.
After your first go – when you understand how the dough spreads as it cooks, you might want to experiment with the shape, to make them look more like finger bones (or femurs, or tibias). Of course, if you don’t have a romantic (ahem) bone in your body, you could just spoon them out and make regular round biscuit shapes – they will still taste the same.
Once all the biscuits are baked and cooled, transfer to an airtight container, and store in a darkish spot for up to a week (possibly longer). Serve with tea or coffee, dust them with icing sugar or cocoa, or just eat them as is. Just don’t forget the dead... they might want one too.