Tag Archives: Cookies

Pan dei Morti (Bread of the Dead)

28 Oct

The Pan dei Morti are traditional Italian cookies prepared for the Day of Dead (Commemorazione dei Defunti) celebrated on November 2nd, the day following All Saint’s Day (Ognissanti).  On these two holy days Italians honor the souls of deceased relatives and loved ones, and many believe that the spirits return to Earth to visit those ones they have left behind.  In fact, the use of other cookies (amaretti and savoiardi) or left over sweets as ingredients clearly symbolizes the transmutation of the old into the new.  It is also interesting to note that dried fruit and figs, also fundamental in this recipe, were always present in pre-Christian offerings to dead people. Cacao is a modern acquisition to render these sweets as dark as the earth in a burial ground.  In ancient times, honey, browned on the stove with a little butter, was used to get the same result for color and sweetness.  The Pan dei Morti recipe has as many variations as there are regions in Italy, and this particular one is a specialty of my own region, Lombardia.

This version has the advantage of being easy to prepare, but at the same time it is delicious and fun to eat.  The cookies are dense, chewy and moist, with a little crunch from the ground cookies and toasted pine nuts to remind of dead people’s bones.  (My husband remarks that the ghoulish background to these cookies makes them perfect for Halloween, too.)


Preparation time: 40 min.               Baking time: 15-20 min.

150 g (5-6 oz) dry amaretti cookies
350 g (12 oz) ladyfingers (large Italian savoiardi are best)
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
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
Powdered sugar

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 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 mixer, 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 sprinkled on top
  11. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack.

Note: This recipe makes about 48-50 cookies.  These butter-less cookies are light and pretty healthy, and they are rich in nuts and dried fruits.  Some recipes also call for candied orange peel, another good flavor for this time of year, so feel free to throw in a handful if you wish. This “dead man’s bread” is best eaten fresh, although the cookies keep well for several days, too.  -Paola


7 Oct

A pick-me-up that really picks you up

Tiramisù, arguably the most popular Italian creamy dessert, combines the flavor of mascarpone cheese, coffee and savoiardi cookies.  The name literally means “pick me up”, metaphorically “make me happy”, and usually the diner’s expression when eating it betrays this emotion.  The “pick me up” may refer to the caffeine in the espresso and the effect of cocoa used in the recipe.  The name may also have another meaning; it is commonly thought that this dessert is stimulating and aphrodisiac!  Tiramisù is not an “exotic dessert” and is not even too difficult to make.  My own tiramisù recipe is a very light  (no raw eggs and no cream), but at the same time it still has a smoothy and creamy  texture. One secret is to use very good, fresh mascarpone (if you can not find fresh mascarpone, I recommend the brandGalbani“) and to prepare the tiramisù one day in advance. If you are reading this recipe, you may have tried traditional tiramisù at least once in an Italian restaurant, but I hope you will find that this tiramisù will be an even more intense sensorsial ecstasy for your palate.

Preparation time: 20 min. + 4 hrs refrigeration time      
650 g (1 ½ lbs) fresh Italian mascarpone cheese
90 g (1 cup) powdered sugar
400 ml cold (and strong!) espresso coffee
3-4 tablespoons rum
200 g (7 oz) Ladyfingers (large Italian savoiardi are best, the bigger the better), about 28-30 cookies
cocoa powder

1. Place the mascarpone and sugar in a medium mixing bowl
2. Mix with an electric mixer for 1 minute or until sugar dissolves
3. Add rum and set aside

4. Dip one Ladyfinger at a time, very quickly, into a bowl of coffee, placing them in a single layer to cover the bottom of an 11-cup serving dish (23 cm x 18 cm, approx. 9 in x 7 in)
5. Spread half the cheese mixture evenly over the layer of sponge fingers
6. Repeat to make one more layer with the remaining Ladyfingers dipped in coffee
7. Spread the rest of the cheese mixture on top
8. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours (overnight is best for the flavors to mingle fully)
9. Before serving, cover by evenly sifting some cocoa powder on top

Note: The traditional tiramisù recipe calls for raw eggs too, but I prefer not to use them for a couple of reasons: a) to reduce cholesterol; b) raw eggs can cause salmonella.  Also, if the mascarpone is very thick, as some pre-packages cheeses are, you may have to add a few tablespoons of cream to make it a little more workable.  -Paola

Rose del Deserto (Desert Roses)

23 Sep

Kids need between-meal pick-me-ups.  Why not make this Italian variation of yummy chocolate chip cookies? “Desert roses” are delicious, perfect for a tasty and healthy snack to enjoy with a glass of milk.  Even adults love them with a nice cup of tea or, even better, with an Italian espresso or cappuccino.  These cookies get their name from the rosette-shaped formations of  ocher-colored minerals found in desert areas.  


Preparation time: 20 min.               Baking time: 10-12 min.      

130 g (⅔ cup) granulated sugar
120 g (½ cup) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
240 g (1 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
5 g (1 teaspoon) baking powder
Pinch of salt
180 g (1 cup) chocolate chips
200 g (7 oz) approx., cornflakes (like Special K) or similar
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 170°C (350 °F) 

  1. Cream the butter and sugar in a medium-sized bowl with an electric mixer
  2. Add the eggs and the vanilla extract
  3. Mix the flour and the baking powder in a small bowl
  4. Add the flour mixture to the creamed butter
  5. Stir in the chocolate chips
  6. Roll teaspoon-sized balls of dough in a bowl of cornflakes
  7. Place the cookies, well-spaced (about 3-4 cm), on a greased cookie sheet
  8. Bake about 10-12 minutes
  9. Remove from pan and cool on a rack
  10. Cover with powdered sugar sprinkled on top, just before serving

Note: This recipe makes about 50 cookies.  If the dough is too sticky, add one or two spoons of flour. You can substitute chocolate chips with other ingredients such as raisins, for an even healthier snack.  Store in a airtight container.   You can also store the baked cookies in the freezer; before serving, let them thaw at room temperature and then sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.  -Paola

My friend Chiyo kindly wrote a note about this recipe.  As Paola notes, this name apparently derives from its likeness to a mineral in the desert, but I’m still waiting for someone to tell me whose wild imagination tied the Saharan desert to an Italian cookie.  While American type chocolate chip cookies vie for excellence on its soft chewiness, the Italian version is half cake/half cookie that has a firm bite and an additional crunch that comes from the corn flakes.  Paola says the best thing about these cookies is that it is fun to make with her kids who love to eat the corn flakes while they shape the dough.  My kids are much more greedy, they delight in eating the cookies which they say are their favorite biscotti.   -Chiyo

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