By Murray SchulmanBy Murray SchulmanOctober has rolled around again. We are all back into our routines of work, school, football, Columbus Day and of course Halloween. I have always been fascinated by the lore and mystery that predate our version of Halloween. As you would expect, my thoughts turned to Italy. Today, primarily in Italy’s metropolitan cities, our version of Halloween is becoming more popular. This is mostly true among the younger set in those large cities.On the other hand, ancient traditions dating back as far as 605 A.D. still are very much alive across the various regions of Italy’s countryside. The Triduum of Allhallowtide runs from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. The feast days start ramping up during the last week of October. Italians all over Italy flock to the cemeteries armed with brooms and rakes. It is time to clean and visit the family plots in preparation for what is to come. The Triduum kicks off with All Hallows Eve. Originating in Paganism and eventually being adopted and adapted to Catholic tradition, it is a day devoted to remembering the dead. It is also the foundation of what we celebrate as Halloween here at home. The next day, Nov. 1, is La Festa di Ognissanti (All Saints’ Day). This is the Catholic holiday of remembrance of all the Saints of the Catholic Calendar. Finally, on Nov. 2 is All Souls’ Day or Day of the Dead. All three days are considered feast days. However, none are stranger or more deeply rooted in ritual than All Souls’ Day. This day is dedicated to honoring and remembering dear departed members of the family. Traditions differ by region from simple and straightforward: Family plots are decorated with brightly colored chrysanthemums. These flowers are traditionally used for funeral and mourning purposes. Few Italians will give these flowers as gifts or use them to decorate their homes. Many families set a place and chair at the feast table that departed family members would have occupied. In some households, particularly in the Piedmont region, the feast table is left intact at the conclusion of the meal. While the family visits the cemetery, the souls of the departed are believed to return and partake of the feast. In Rome, it is traditional to have a family picnic at the gravesite of dead loved ones. This allows the departed to participate in sharing a meal with family members. In Sicily, children hunt for sweets and treats supposedly left for them by departed family. In Northern Italy, families leave the home overnight. This practice allows the souls of the dead to return and visit the family home undisturbed. By daybreak, these spirits depart without being seen. In Cremona in Lombardy families get up early on All Souls’ Day and make the beds right away. In this way wandering souls have a place to find rest. Elsewhere, gifts from the living are received, children go from house to house and receive sweets for being good and remembering their dead relatives through the year. In some regions it is traditional for the poor to receive gifts of charity from the dead.Of course, my favorite traditions tied to these feast days involve the food. In the northern regions of the country, the temperatures drop more drastically than in other regions of the country.It is only natural that a hearty soup is featured as part of these Feast days. Ceci con le costine (chickpea with pork rib soup) is part of the tradition. It is said that if you eat this soup on All Saints’ Day, you will be blessed with good fortune and protection. Preparing this soup is somewhat time-consuming. However, you will agree that the time is well spent once you taste that first spoonful. My family doesn’t want any part of picking the pork off the bones. They want to dig in and enjoy. I cheat a bit for two reasons. First, when I make soup, I make soup. I break out the big 20-quart pot and get busy. Secondly, I see no reason to fish around for a bunch of pork ribs. Instead, I use a big ol’ pork butt in my recipe. It works perfectly. After about three or four hours, that meat falls right off the bone. When the pork is finished, I strain the stock and separate the fat. I use some of the pork fat mixed with olive oil to saute’ my onions and garlic. I sprinkle on a handful of flour to form a roux. Then, deglaze with dry red wine. Add in my pork, stock, water, celery, carrots and a bit more diced onion. When the mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken, I reduce the heat to a good simmer. At this point, I add diced tomatoes, some fresh thyme, kosher salt, ground black pepper and a pinch of crushed red pepper just for a little warmth. Give the soup a little stir and add in my favorite greens (I like escarole). Drain and add the Ceci beans, another stir and let the soup simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes more. Serve, topped with croutons and shaved Parmesan cheese. Now, that is one hearty soup.Another of my favorite purely Italian traditions is the baking and sharing of Ossi Dei Morto (Bones of the Dead). These bone-shaped cookies are left at family grave sites for the enjoyment of the souls. The cookies are also a fun and unique treat that are part of the All Souls’ Day feast. This year, Halloween falls on a Thursday. Why not stretch the holiday through the weekend? Have fun sharing the old-world rituals with your children and grandchildren. This is a great way to keep the traditions of Italy alive today and for future generations of Italian Americans to come. IAH
OSSI DEI MORTO COOKIES
2½ cups confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup ground almonds
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
¾ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1¾ tablespoons milk
1. Prepare two baking sheets with parchment paper
2. Whisk dry ingredients in medium bowl. Beat in wet ingredients to make a soft dough.
3. Transfer the dough to a heavily floured work surface and divide into eight pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope about 16 inches long.
4. Cut each rope into four pieces.
5. Pinch the center of each piece into a ½ inch thin “waist” and form the ends into knobs resembling a bone.
6. Transfer the bones to the prepared baking sheets and refrigerate overnight uncovered.
7. The next day, remove the baking sheets from the refrigerator and allow to rest at room temperature for one hour. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
8. Bake the cookies for about 20 minutes. The outside should be crunchy and the centers should be chewy. Bake five minutes extra for a fully hard cookie.
9. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool. Roll cookies in confectioner’s sugar to coat.
10. Yields approximately 32 cookies.