Last updated on October 4th, 2019
Written 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!
- 1 cup (142 grams; 5 ounces) toasted unblanched almonds*
- 1 1/2 cups (300 grams; 3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 1/4 cups (150 grams; 5 3/8 ounces) all-purpose flour
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets 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 the bowl of a stand mixer, blend the sugar, baking powder, and salt on low speed.
- Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then the lemon juice and almond extract.
- Add the flour and ground almonds.
- Beat on medium-low speed until the dough's texture is soft and sticky but elastic, about 3-4 minutes.
- Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and mold the dough into a ball.
- Tear 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 and 24 inches long.
- Cut the rope into 3-inch-long pieces with a knife or bench scraper. You should get about 8 pieces per rope.
- Place the cookies about 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.
- Bake until the cookies are golden and fragrant, about 15-20 minutes.
- Let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for a few minutes to firm up before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Repeat with the rest of the dough.
- The cookies will last a while in an airtight container, though remember that a hard texture is desired and that they will become wonderfully chewy when dunked in a cup of coffee or vin santo.
*To toast the almonds, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
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.