Welcome to the October installment of Cucina Conversations! This month, we are talking about the Catholic feast day of Ognissanti (All Saint’s Day), which is celebrated on November 1st. The origins of Ognissanti date back to May 609 AD, when Pope Boniface IV formally established the feast day by consecrating Rome’s Pantheon (formerly a pagan temple) into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs. He also established il giorno dei morti (All Soul’s Day) to follow the day after Ognissanti. It wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that the dates of both feast days were changed to November 1st and 2nd by Pope Gregory III, and Ognissanti became a holy day of obligation under Pope Gregory IV. In June 1949 Ognissanti was listed as a national holiday in Italy’s constitution. Businesses and schools are closed and Italians spend the day attending Mass, enjoying the day with family, and visiting the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. This week, the bloggers of Cucina Conversations are bringing you recipes that reflect either the symbolism of Ognissanti and il giorno dei morti, the ingredients of the fall season, and/or the connection they have to a loved one who has passed away. My recipe for apple torta sbrisolona is more reflective of fall, and the abundance of apples and nuts that are now in season. What I was not aware of until more recently were the various regional customs observed and foods made to commemorate both Ognissanti and il giorno dei morti, so this month’s topic has been educational for me.
Every region in Italy has different ways of observing Ognissanti and il giorno dei morti, and many customs overlap from region to region. The belief that most everyone holds is that the souls of their departed loved ones will arrive the night between Ognissanti and il giorno dei morti and visit the places they once did when alive, including their homes. From this belief grew traditions that many still practice today. In Trentino-Alto Adige bells ring to call the departed back to their homes and the table is left prepared for them to eat when they arrive. In Sardegna, the table is not cleared after the family dinner in order to leave it ready for the spirits to enjoy the same meal. In Lombardia, Friuli Venezia-Giulia, and Abruzzo, lamps are lit or fires are left burning, tables are set, and a bottle (or bucket) of water is set out for the dead to find their way home, eat, and quench their thirst.
Many of the traditional foods made to commemorate Ognissanti are sweet. In Umbria cookies known as stinchetti dei morti (“shins of the dead”) are baked. They are similar to ossa dei morti (“bones of the dead”) made in Veneto, Piemonte, and Sicily. In Toscana schiacciata dei santi (“saint’s bread”)–also known as pane dei morti (“bread of the dead”)–is baked using dried fruit, spices, and nuts. Castagnaccio, a thin, crêpe-like cake made with chestnut flour, is popular in Toscana, Piemonte, Liguria, and Emilia-Romagna. It is embellished with raisins, nuts, and rosemary. Fave dei morti (“beans of the dead”) are baked across Italy with slight variations in the spices and shape depending on the region you find them. They are a light, macaroon-type cookie made with almond meal and pine nuts. Other recipes that begin to appear during Ognissanti and il giorno dei morti have nothing to do with the feast days, and are connected purely to the abundance of fall ingredients such as apples, pears, nuts, pumpkins, winter squash, chestnuts, and mushrooms. Torta sbrisolona is a traditional dessert from the city of Mantova in the northern region of Lombardia. It’s an unleavened dessert made with a combination of flour, ground almonds, and cornmeal bound together with butter and eggs into a crumbly dough that is patted into a cake pan. The dough is also used to form the top of the torta, which is lightly sprinkled to create a streusel-like texture. The original version is made without a filling, but other versions (like mine) include a thin filling made with cooked fruit, and some are filled with Nutella. The origin of torta sbrisolona is from the cucina povera (“cuisine of the poor”) and contained modest ingredients of lard, inexpensive nuts, and cornmeal. In the 1600’s, during the reign of the Gonzaga family, torta sbrisolona was enriched with spices and almonds (expensive ingredients of the time), and reflected the ducal family’s patronage of everything lavish–including food–which made Mantova’s food known as “the cuisine of princes and people”.
I recently read a post from a new blogging friend, Lisa, of Very Eatalian where she dressed up a traditional torta sbrisolona with a cooked apple filling. Apples are one of my favorite fall fruits and I especially enjoy them baked into desserts. Apples grow abundantly in the northern region of Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol, where apple trees of many varieties enjoy the alpine-Mediterranean climate of 300+ days of sunshine, warm days, cool nights, and porous soil. Italy’s apples are shipped throughout Europe, and U-pick farms allow locals to bring home their own supply of one of fall’s most popular fruits. Buying my apples at the grocery store was certainly less memorable than picking them myself in Italy, but there are many beautiful varieties in the markets right now and they were a delicious addition to this dessert. I prepared Lisa’s apple mixture and melded it with Anna Del Conte’s traditional recipe for torta sbrisolona with successful and delicious results. Lisa’s apple mixture added a jammy, not-too-sweet, and delightfully spiced filling between the bottom and top crusts, and Anna’s recipe yielded a torta with the crumbly texture typical of this cake. In fact, don’t be surprised if you find it hard to cut clean wedges of this cake because traditionally, it is not meant to be cut at all–it is typically broken by hand into shards and enjoyed while the crumbs fall where they may. After all, the word sbrisolona means “crumbly”. Although torta sbrisolona isn’t a traditional dessert prepared for Ognissanti, I like to think that if the spirits of my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles were to visit my house, they would all enjoy sitting down together to eat this traditional Italian dessert.
My fellow Cucina Conversations friends have made some wonderful recipes for this month’s topic using fall’s bountiful ingredients, so be sure to visit their websites. Francesca has prepared pappardelle con zucca e funghi porcini, Marialuisa baked biscotti ‘nzudi, Carmen made savoiradi, Lisa made fave dei morti, Rosemarie prepared castagnaccio, and Daniela made necci con ricotta. One of the fabulous aspects about being part of this group is getting six new recipes every month!
Apple Torta Sbrisolona
Adapted by Gastronomy of Italy by Anna del Conte and Very Eatalian
Special equipment: 10-inch cake pan or springform pan
For the apple mixture
2 Tablespoons water
Juice of 1 small lemon
¼ cup granulated sugar
3 small (or 2 large) Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch dice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
For the cake mixture
115 grams/4 oz. (¾ cup) skin-on or blanched whole, raw almonds
115 grams/4 oz. (½ cup) granulated sugar + 2 Tablespoons
150 grams/5½ oz. (1¼ cups) all-purpose flour
115 grams/4 oz. (scant 1 cup) fine-ground cornmeal
Grated zest of 1 small lemon
Pinch of salt (about 1/8 teaspoon)
2 large egg yolks
115 grams/4 oz. (½ cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the cake pan
Confectioner’s sugar to decorate
To make the apple mixture
Place the water, lemon juice and sugar in a small skillet over medium heat and stir to dissolve. Add in the apples, nutmeg, and cinnamon and toss to coat. Let the mixture bubble gently until all the liquid has evaporated and the apples are tender. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To make the cake mixture
Preheat the oven to 325°.
Grease bottom and sides of the cake pan (or springform pan) with some softened butter, and line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper. Set aside.
Place the almonds on a baking sheet and toast them for 5-7 minutes until fragrant, making sure not to burn them. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
In a mixing bowl, combine ½ cup sugar, flour, cornmeal, lemon zest, and salt. Whisk to combine and set aside.
Place the almonds and 2 Tablespoons of sugar in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse the ingredients until they form a coarse, even powder. Add the almond-sugar mixture to the flour mixture and whisk to incorporate.
Add the egg yolks to the dry ingredients and using a spatula or wooden spoon, work the yolks into the mixture until completely incorporated. Add in the butter and work it into the dry ingredients until evenly distributed. The mixture will be crumbly but should hold together when pressed between your fingers.
Place 1/3 of the flour mixture into the bottom of the cake pan and press it in evenly using your fingers, making sure it does not go up the sides of the pan. Place the apple mixture on top of the cake base and spread it out evenly. Scatter the remaining 1/3 of the flour mixture on top of the apples and gently spread it out in an even layer, so it covers most of the apple mixture.
Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the cake is golden and a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let the cake cool completely in the pan before turning it out onto a platter. Sprinkle confectioner’s sugar over the top of the cake before serving.
Storage: Store on a platter covered lightly with foil and eat within 2-3 days.