Written and photographed by Carrie Vasios
Chestnuts and almonds; warming spices like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg; the light and airy textures of summer giving way to denser, more hearty designs: these are what I look forward to when fall comes to my local Italian bakery. Italians cook seasonally, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they bake that way as well. Yet I’m afraid that the only sweets many people think to find in an Italian bakery are the wonderful but routine rainbow cookies and chocolate dipped crescents, and of course the ubiquitous tiramisu. Autumn in particular brings many new confections. I urge you to run to your nearest Italian bakery and see what is cooking, and if you get there soon you may stumble across one of my favorites: ossi dei morti, or “bones of the dead.”
Traditionally, ossi dei morti are made to celebrate the Day of the Dead. You see, rather than dress up in costume on All Hallows Eve, Italians customarily save their energy for the first of November, when they visit cemeteries to remember those who have passed. Graveyards are filled with flowers and families picnicking. Far from being a day of sadness, it is a day of celebration and love. And what better way to celebrate than with sweets?
The cookies are called “bones of the dead” not only because of the day on which they are eaten but because their shape greatly resembles that of bones. The cookies are long and flat with the occasional knob, and a tray of them will be whimsically irregular in shape, like a true pile of bones. Creepy? A little. Delicious? Absolutely.
Ossi dei morti make use of the season’s first almonds, which are harvested in September. While one of the virtues of nuts is that they are pretty delicious year-round, there is nothing like the intense flavor of freshly harvested almonds. (In fact, another of my favorite fall specialties is torrone, a chewy white nougat liberally sprinkled with almonds, made throughout Italy.)
The texture of the Day of the Dead cookies is bone-like as well; similar to traditional biscotti, meaning “twice baked,” they are chewy, bordering on hard. The texture and intense almond flavor of the ossi dei morti makes them perfect to dunk in a frothy cappuccino or bitter espresso.
Without a doubt, as the leaves begin to change and the wind gets a chill, there is nothing I’d rather do than sit in the warm, sweet air of a bakery and dunk some cookies into a steaming hot latté. And of course, if I sit for long enough, the panettone and other Christmas sweets will slowly start to appear.
If your nearest bakery doesn’t have ossi dei morti, or if you’d rather stay in the comfort of your own home, you can certainly make these cookies yourself. Don’t be worried about the irregular shape; they might not be the prettiest of desserts, but once you try them, I promise you won’t mind!
Ossi Dei Morti (Bones of the Dead)
Adapted from Chez Panisse Desserts
Prep time:15 minutes
Cook time:15 minutes
Makes about 12 dozen cookies
- 2 cups unblanched almonds, lightly toasted*
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Pulse the almonds in a food processor until they are finely ground (but not until they have turned into almond butter!). Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the sugar, lemon juice, baking powder, and salt. Beat in the eggs and almond extract. Add the flour and ground almonds and beat until the mixture has come together and gained a soft, elastic texture, about 4 minutes.
Transfer the dough to a clean work surface and mold the dough into a ball. Use a sharp knife to cut off a piece of dough roughly the size of a baseball. Keep the rest of the dough covered with a damp kitchen towel while you are forming the cookies so that it doesn’t dry out.
Use your hands to roll the piece of dough out into a thin rope about 1/2 inch wide. Cut the rope into 3-inch-long pieces and place at least 3 inches apart on the cookie sheet to ensure the cookies don’t touch as they spread in the oven. Repeat with the rest of the dough. Bake until the cookies are golden, about 12 to 15 minutes.
Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool. They will last a while in an airtight container, though remember that a hard texture is desired and that they will become wonderfully chewy dunked in a cup of coffee or vin santo.
*To toast the almonds, preheat the oven to 350˚. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and put the sheet in the oven for 8 minutes, or until almonds are starting to become fragrant and just lightly brown. Watch them carefully, since they will continue to cook as they cool.