Both festivities seem to be of Celtic origin. For Celts, the new year began on November 1st, in correspondence with the end of the farming cycle. Divinities were called on earth to bless the new farming cycle and so, on the night between October 31st and November 1st, spirits would walk the earth, sharing with the living in this special time of the year.
When Christianity took over, the festivity of Samahain (from which Halloween originated) was turned into the Christian celebrations of All Saints and of All Dead Souls, while still maintaining the semblance of the original pagan cult.
Sweet potatoes have long been at the centre of all All Saints celebrations in my region. Often consumed simply roasted, they also became the main ingredient of seasonal cakes and other baked goods. Perhaps the most widespread of them was a pinza – a dense, rustic affair (not dissimilar to this other one) made with the flesh of sweet potatoes, apples and lots of dried fruits.
This sweet potato pinza (pinsa co’ le patate mericane in the local dialect) is inspired by a traditional recipe, which I managed to get a hold of via a Slow Food trattoria located in Southern Veneto, where the head chef (a wonderful nonna) has been making it for years.
The recipe is pretty straightforward. It calls for combining the flesh of 1 kg white sweet potatoes (boiled, peeled and mashed) with 100 g plain flour, 100 g breadcrumbs, 4 tablespoons granulated sugar, 3 lightly beaten eggs, a small glass of rum, a handful of soaked raisins, walnuts, 2 thinly sliced apples, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 4 tablespoons olive oil, salt, and just enough warm milk to obtain a smooth batter. All the ingredients are then transferred into a buttered and floured tin, and baked in at 180°C until deeply golden on top (about an hour).
Sweet Potato Pinza
Icing sugar, for dusting
Preheat oven to 180C/350°F. Butter and flour a 23cm/9-inch cake tin and set aside.
Soak the raisins in rum (or grappa) for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a separate, large bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon and salt. Stir in the mashed sweet potatoes, the eggs, yoghurt, milk, and sugar and whisk until combined. Next, add the dry ingredients and stir until the batter looks smooth and even. Finally, add the raisins and any remaining liqueur and fold through.
Transfer the batter into the prepared baking tin. Bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick stuck in the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for 20 minutes, then transfer the cake to a rack to cook a little further. Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar.
Note: In time, cookies shaped like fava beans (fave dei morti) began to take the place of the actual legumes, as these were known to cause a reaction in those suffering from favism (quite widespread in Italy). Fave dei Morti were made with almond meal and eggs or just egg whites. However, they never made the house of the poor, who were unable to afford the ingredients and often didn’t even have an oven for baking.