In Italy, November 1st is the celebrations of Allsaints (Ognissanti), while on November 2nd, people remember the Day of the Dead (Dì dei Morti). Both festivities seem to have Celtic origin: for Celts, the new year began on November 1st, in correspondence with the end of a farming cycle and the beginning of a new one, and from the night before, divinities were called on earth to bless the new farming year. On the night between October 31st and November 1st, spirits and divinities were known to walk the earth, sharing this special moment in the calendar with humans. When Christianity took over Pagan cults, the festivity of Samahain (which then became Halloween) was turned into a Christian celebration of All Saints (Ognissanti), and of All Dead Souls (Giorno dei Morti) on November 2nd, yet maintaining somehow the origin and the substance of the ancient cult. In Italy, like in other Christian areas, the cult of the dead and the ancestor was particularly meaningful, and especially on this day it acquired big importance as well as a slightly dark connotation.
In Veneto, my region of origin, people were used to meet with the whole enlarged family to go to church and to the cemetery to pay visit to the dead members of the family, and at the end of the day, they would sit around the table to share an early dinner. The meal consisted of poor, seasonal foods such as polenta with beans (poenta infasoà), or polenta with pumpkin (poenta insucà), or rice and squash, or roasted sweet potatoes. Fava beans were also quite common, as they were considered a symbolic food since Roman times, when they were always present at funeral banquets. Fava beans were usually eaten simply boiled and seasoned (faoline); however, throughout the centuries people have invented recipes for cookies shaped like fava beans, which were meant to substitute the real beans in such recurrence, as fava beans were known to cause health problems in people suffering from a special form of anemia, quite diffused in Italy and transmitted genetically (favism). Fave dei Morti were made with almond meal and eggs or just egg whites became therefore very common for such a festivity a bit all over Italy, with some small differences between Tuscany, Veneto and Friuli. Other sweets would assume the shape of bones (ossa dei morti), fingers (dita dei morti), of symbolic animals etc., and they were usually all almond-based. However, they never made the house of the poor, unable to afford ingredients such as almonds, sugar and spices, and who most of the time didn’t even have an oven but only a fire stove. Quite common were also dumplings or gnocchetti dei morti, which could be made with squash, sweet potato or normal potato (plus flour), boiled, and seasoned with butter, cinnamon and grated cheese. A recurrent habit, though, also among the poor people, was to eat early and leave a plate with leftovers for the dead that will pay visit to the house that same night. No one was leaving the house and going around that night –the street and the fields were for the dead.
As mentioned, poor people like farmers and peasants could rely only on seasonal ingredients coming straight from the fields, roasted on the fire place or cooked on a fire stove. In Veneto, sweet potatoes, called patate americane, where eaten with no seasoning, simply roasted and peeled. Traditionally, they were eaten starting on September 8th, and then on special days such as on S. Michele (29th), and for the Giorno dei Morti. White in paste, they were easily cultivated in the area of Polesine and one of the best sources of sugars and sweetness for the country families. Only later in time, with the diffusion of commercial ovens, sweet potatoes started to be used in the preparations of cakes and sweets. Some traditional ones from the lower part of Veneto, called pinze, were very dense and moist, and included apples and dried fruits.
Luckily, I had the chance to get hold of a recipe for a sweet potato pinza coming from a traditional, Slow Food-inspired trattoria in the Rovigo province, specifically from Bellombra. There, they have been making this recipe since years –the cake is called pinsa co’ le patate mericane in the local dialect. The recipe is pretty straightforward. It calls for 1 kg sweet potatoes (the variety with the white paste), boiled, peeled and mashed, 100 gr flour, 100 gr grated bread, 4 T of sugar, 3 lightly beaten eggs, 1 small glass of rum, a handful of soaked raisin, walnuts, 2 thinly sliced apples, 1 bag (16 gr) of baking powder, 4 T of oil, salt, and just enough warm milk to have a smooth batter. All the ingredients are mixed together and then transferred in a buttered and floured pan, placed in a medium heat oven (I guess 175°C), for an hour or more, until the top crust is deeply golden.
Drawing inspiration from this recipe, I wanted to make a similarly dense sweet potato cake, something that could recall it in texture and flavor but made with whole ingredients instead. I chose to skip the apples but keeping the rum-soaked raisins, and turning white flour and sugar into their whole relatives. Unable to find those white sweet potatoes, I opted for the more common orange one –I guess the color would have been lighter but the flavor very close. The result tastes just like an old-school cake, one of those my grandma would make, with intense flavors and a thick, creamy, substantial texture. I love it slightly warm with my coffee, or after dinner with some sweet wine.
Before skipping to the recipe, take a good look at Emiko’s chestnut cookies, Jul’s modern version of Pan co’ Santi turned muffin size, and Jasmine’s Pan dei Morti. I think these will keep you covered for a few fall days.
Sweet Potato Cake
butter and flour for the pan
1/2 cup/large handful raisins
1 tablespoons rum (or sweet wine such as moscato passito or vin santo)
100 g/ 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour or white spelt flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 pound sweet potato (450 gr, about 1 large), cooked, peeled and mashed
3 medium eggs
250 gr full fat yogurt
80 gr milk
165 gr/ 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
icing sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 180C/350°F. Butter and flour a 23cm/9-inch cake pan. To prepare cake, toss raisins and liquor in a small bowl and let soak. Whisk flour, cinnamon and salt in another bowl. Combine mashed sweet potato and eggs using a whisk. Add yogurt, milk, and sugar, and beat until combined. Stir in the dry ingredients until the batter looks evenly moistened. Stir in the raisins and any remaining liquor. Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove using a knife and let cool on a rack. Serve warm.
Torta “Pinza” di Patate Dolci
una manciata di uvetta
1 cucchiaio di rum (o di moscato passito o vin santo)
100 gr di farina integrale o di farro
1/2 cucchiaino di sale
1/2 cucchiaino di cannella
450 gr di patate dolci (all’incirca una media), lessate, sbucciate e schiacciate
3 uova medie bio
250 gr di yogurt naturale intero
80 gr di latte tiepido
165 gr di zucchero muscovado
zucchero a velo
burro e farina per lo stampo
Scaldate il forno a 180°C. Imburrate e infarinate uno stampo da 23 cm. Ammollate l’uvetta col rum per una decina di minuti. Nel frattempo, mescolate farina, sale e cannella in una ciotola capiente. In un’altra ciotola mescolate le patate schiacciate con le uova, aggiungete poi lo yogurt, il latte ed infine lo zucchero, fino ad ottenere un composto omogeneo. Versate tutto nella ciotola con la farina e mescolate fino a che gli ingredienti non sono ben amalgamati in un impasto morbido. Aggiungete infine l’uvetta con il resto del liquore, date un’ultima mescolata e versate tutto nella teglia. Livellate ed infornate per circa un’ora (la crosta dovrà essere bella dorata). Sfornate e lasciate raffreddare per dieci minuti nella teglia (vedrete il centro del dolce collassare, è normale, questo dolce deve essere denso e umido). Finite di raffreddare la torta per altri 10-20 minuti su una gratella, quindi spolverate di zucchero a velo e servite tiepida.