Sweet Potato Pinza for All Saints

This sweet potato pinza is a typical Venetian cake consumed in occasion of Ognissanti, on November 1st. All Saints (Ognissanti) and the All Dead Souls (Giorno dei Morti) are still relatively hearth-felt festivities in the Italian tradition, and both are celebrated with rituals as much as traditional foods.

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.

 In Veneto, my region of origin, families used to assemble at the cemetery to visit their ancestors. Then, once home, they would gather around the table and share a humble dinner of polenta with beans (poenta infasoà), or with pumpkin (poenta insucà), rice and pumpkin soup, and roasted sweet potatoes. Boiled fava beans (faoline) were also quite common (see Note at the end of the page) – a symbolic food since Roman times, always present at funeral banquets – as were dumplings (gnocchetti dei morti) made either with squash, potato or sweet potato and seasoned with butter, cinnamon and grated cheese. On such occasion, it was customary to eat early and then go to bed, leaving the streets (and any leftovers) for the dead to peruse.

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).

Drawing inspiration from this recipe, I decided to skip the apples and to swap the white flour and sugar with their unrefined counterparts. Unable to find white sweet potatoes, I opted for conventional orange sweet potatoes instead. And instead of lots of butter, I used yoghurt, which gives this cake a lovely creamy, dense texture. The result is that of a rustic, old-school cake, not unlike the one my grandma would make. It’s dense and unrefined, but it’s quintessentially autumnal, too, and perfect for brightening the first gloomy days of the year.

Sweet Potato Pinza

100 g (1/2 cup) raisins
2 tablespoons rum or grappa
100 g  (1 cup) wholemeal flour
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
450 g (1 lb/about 1 large) orange or white sweet potato, roasted, peeled and mashed
 3 medium eggs, lightly beaten
 250 g plain yoghurt
 80 ml whole milk
 165 g (2/3 cup) unrefined cane sugar

 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.

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