Pan di mort (All Souls spiced chocolate biscuits from Lombardy)

Italian spiced chocolate biscuits
Italian spiced chocolate biscuits

Here’s another traditional recipe from Lombardy that honours I morti, All Souls. Pan di mort (literally “dead people’s bread”) are quintessential Lombardy biscuits that are sold in bakeries between the end of October and the first week in November. They are diamond-shaped, chocolatey, spicy biscuits, full of nuts and candied citrus peels, quite chewy but not crunchy.
They are generally made with crushed biscuits but I find that too sweet. I prefer the more sombre version from Vecchia Milano in Cucina by Ottorina Perna Bozzi, that does without the biscuits. The dough is bound with white wine and this lends a subtle alcoholic undertone; I have made them with marsala, with vermouth and even with a light red wine and they always turn out delicious.
Pan di mort biscuits keep for a long time – in fact, unlike humans, they improve with age. Over the years I have tinkered with the recipe and this is my latest version.

Pan di mort/All Souls spiced chocolate biscuits from Lombardy
Makes about 30 biscuits
adapted from Vecchia Milano in Cucina by Ottorina Perna Bozzi.

Unrefined caster sugar, 300g
00 flour, 260g
fine wholemeal flour, 40g (I also tried with a light rye flour and it works too)
pinch of salt
½ teaspoon baking powder  update 2020
a mix of toasted walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, finely ground, 300 g (not ground to a powder though)
a mix of candied citrus peels, chopped up, 150g
toasted pine nuts, 50 g
sweet mixed spices, 10 g (see notes)
zest of 1 orange, finely grated
unsweetened cocoa powder, 50g
70% bitter chocolate, 50g, finely chopped
dry vermouth/white wine, 120 ml, approximately
1 heaped tablespoon honey

update 2020: I tried an all in the food processor version, so to speak & they were better (I also included a little baking powder).
I placed sugar, flours, salt, baking powder, whole nuts,  diced candied fruit, pinenuts, spices, orange zest and cocoa in the food processor and pulsed untill I reached a rather fine granular mix. I transferred the mix into a bowl and added the finely chopped chocolate. Then I added the white wine + honey and worked till malleable. I created two logs 18-20 cm long. I wrapped them and refrigerated until solid.  From each log I cut about 16 biscuits (mark each log in half, then quarters, then mark each quarter into four parts).  Lightly press each slice into a (thinner) diamond shape.
Bake in a 160 C preheated oven for 25 minutes. They will crisp up cooling down and consequently they will soften as time passes. The are indeed better after at least 24 hrs. Icing sugar before serving.

Place all the ingredients except the vermouth in a large mixing bowl and mix well to combine.
Add the wine and honey and start mixing the dough. Your hands are your best tool here: squeeze the dough through your hands  and knead with your knuckles. It will look as if it will never come together: be patient and keep on kneading. Add a little more wine only if really necessary and the whole still feels too crumbly and dry.
When the dough has turned into a cohesive mass, portion it into tangerine-sized balls. Flatten them into patties and give them a diamond shape using the sides or your palms. To make them more regular you can now flatten the sides of the biscuits using a bench knife.
Place them onto a lined oven tray. They will not grow much, so they do not need to be too spaced apart.

Bake for 30 minutes at 160 C. They will be still a little soft but this is ok as they will crisp up as they cool down. Eat them when completely cold, even if they do benefit from a 24 hours rest. Keep at room temperature.

On sweet spices: whenever I bake something that requires some complex spicing, I use this mix:: 3 teaspoons each nutmeg and allspice, 5 cm cinnamon bark; 2 teaspoons cloves, 5 cm dry ginger root – all lightly toasted and finely ground in a coffee grinder. This recipe is actually from a beautiful book on English baking by Elizabeth David (English Bread and Yeast Cookery), but they lend themselves to most spiced goods.

8 thoughts on “Pan di mort (All Souls spiced chocolate biscuits from Lombardy)

  1. Hi Stefano, I’ve been hunting for other nut and spice biscuits to add to my festive collection and this must be the place, looking forward to trying these. Grazie, Alice


  2. I find the combination of flavors here really appealing, Stefano. Although I would take issue with the idea that humans don’t improve with age… sometimes they do, although other times, admittedly, they just perfect their imperfections.


    1. ciao Frank, these are lovely and they do improve… u know what?… it is strange I wrote that comment, the older I get, the more convinced I become that we do improve 🙂 … I suspect that was a typo: and it should have been “not unlike people”.


  3. thanks Michelle. I have been researching Lombardy cooking for few weeks now (for my cooking classes) and it has been a revelation. these biscuits are old friends (I started making them many years ago), but there is a whole fantastic repertoire still unknown in the english speaking world.
    + do u have some sort of All Souls’ day celebratory food? here in England they used to have these lovely shortbread biscuits, lightly spiced, called souls biscuits (alas, now forgotten). what about the US?


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