Publishing this recipe shows how conservative I am at heart, when it comes to food – a trait I share with many fellow Italians. Fave dei morti means “broad beans of the dead” and it is the name of these tiny almond and pinenut biscuits, shaped to resemble broad beans, that traditionally have been made for centuries around All Saints day and All Souls Day, the first and second of November, as offerings to the dead ones. They are generally sold at bakeries and patisseries, but, at least in a big city like Milano, where I used to live, they are now on the wane, unfortunately. You could nibble a few of them with your caffelatte at breakfast or later on, during the day, maybe when you want something sweet to cheer you up a little on a gloomy November afternoon. They are also ideal for dipping in sweet wine.
The are unshowy in look and uncomplicated in taste – they are good but no one could say they are amazing. Why bother, one could ask.
I bother (and I am not alone) because it is exactly such food (its ritualist preparation and consumption) that connects me with my past and my culture. Broad beans, called fave in Italian, have a symbolic association with the dead (and the Underworld), that goes back thousands of years – check what the Oxford Companion to food says about broad (or fava) beans (page 111). By perpetuating food that has such an ancient history, I feel I contribute to carrying on the torch of my Mediterranean identity, with its core values of hospitality, openness and sharing – which is something worth remembering right now.
This version comes from Lombardy and it is characterised by its use of almonds and pinenuts (lightly toasted first, to amplify their flavour) that are not reduced to a powder, but chopped into grains and this makes for a pleasant crumbly texture. A little lemon zest and cinnamon contribute to the final flavour of these sweet little things.
Fave dei morti
200 g blanched toasted almonds, chopped finely (rice grain size)
70 g toasted pinenuts, chopped finely (rice grain size)
75 g sugar
pinch of salt
15 g butter
a tiny pinch of cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon
100 g Italian OO flour or plain flour
1 egg + 1 yolk
1 egg white
a couple of teaspoons of grappa or dry white wine or dry white vermouth, to bring the dough together
Maldon salt to finish
Mix all the ingredients minus the egg white and the grappa, using a food mixer on low speed or by hand. Add the grappa to bring the dough together.
Knead gently on a lighly floured surface, wrap in clingfilm and let it rest for half an hour. Divide the dough into three-four pieces and roll each one into long logs, a couple of centimtres wide.
If you want to go for the traditional look (broad bean shape): cut off small pieces the size of a hazelnut and press them lightly with your thumb.
I also made untraditional ridge shapes: I cut off small pieces of dough and pressed them lightly with a fork.
Whisk the remaining egg white to a froth and brush each little “broad bean” with it. Sprinkle each biscuit with a flake of salt – this is my addition because I like the sweet/salty contrast.
Place them on a lined baking sheet and bake at 150 C for about 20-15 minutes, until lightly golden.
Cool and anyoy. They stay crisp for a couple of days, then they start to soften – a different texture, equally good.
I find that chopping the almonds and pinenuts by hand gives the best result. If you use a food processor, be careful not to process them too much: they might become oily and it will be then impossible to create a cohesive dough (I learnt this the hard way!)
I went easy with the cinnamon, because I find it can be overpowering. In some versions up to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon is used
Orange zest could be used instead of lemon zest and ground clove instead of cinnamon.