Day of the Dead. Legends for the Living.

I used to look forward to All Saints Day when I was a child. In Catholic schools, All Saints Day was a religious holy day of note, which meant that we had another day off school. November the first blurred into November the second, Melbourne Cup Day, which is a State holiday in Victoria, and if the days lined up nicely with the weekend, even better. The beginning of November meant horses, saints, holidays and good weather, with only one down side, the traipse up the road to Church, a small price to pay for another day off. I don’t remember much about those saints or what the day was about. To me, it all seemed a bit morbid and sinister so I conveniently blocked it out.

Pane dei Morti di Siena

It was in the tenth century that Odile, the abbot of Cluny in medieval France, transmuted the Day of the Dead, Samhain, the ancient Celtic feast of ancestors, into a Christian holy day, All Souls Day. Curses and blasphemy, I missed out on all the Celtic fun and got Odile’s version, made extra ominous by the Irish nuns who taught me. At least in modern Italy, the day still goes by the name I Morti, the dead, and the practices are more in tune with traditional pagan legends than the version I grew up with, though I’m sure there’s a bit of Church attendance involved. Going to mass in Italy often means chatting through the service and ducking out for a smoke. Other than the widows up the front, Italians often don’t seem to take church too seriously. Church is a local catch up and a ritualised prologue to a good lunch.

In Sicily, legend has it that on the evening of November 1, departed relatives rise up from their tombs and rollick through the town, raiding the best pastry shops and toy stores for gifts to give to children who have been good during the year. Children write letters to their dead relatives, just like the Christmas letters written to Santa. On this day, ancestors and relatives “feel an attraction to the living and hope to return for a visit and families set the table for ancestors returning from their graves.”

Small loaves for the day of the Dead. One for now, one for the freezer.

What a wonderful legend. Just to think that you might have a visit from your dearly departed loved ones for a fleeting moment in time. When it comes to a good Celtic legend, adapted along the way by some wily Siciliani, I’m in. Time to write a letter to the dead and make some sweet things for  I Morti

Pan co’ Santi – A sweet bread from Siena to share with I Morti.

Makes two small loaves

  • 300 gr raisins
  • 1 ½ cups tepid water
  • 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 25 gr sugar
  • 3 Tbls lard or olive oil
  • 500 gr unbleached plain flour plus 2 -3 Tbls for the raisins.
  • 8 gr sea salt
  • 1.25 gr freshly ground pepper
  • 100 gr walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 1 egg yolk for glaze

Soak the raisins in the tepid water for at least ½ hour. Drain the raisins, but reserve 1 1/3 cups of the soaking water. Warm the soaking water to 105-115 degrees.

By mixer: Stir the yeast and sugar into the raisin water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the lard or olive oil in with the paddle. Add the flour, salt and pepper and mix until the dough comes together. Change to a dough hook and knead until firm and silky, for around 3 minutes.

First rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, 1¼ to 1½ hours.

Filling. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Without punching it down or kneading it, pat gently with your palms into a 35 cm/14 inch circle. Pat the raisins dry and toss with 2-3 Tbls flour. Work them and the walnuts into the dough in 2 additions.

Bread dough with sweet filling

Shaping and second rise. Cut the dough into two pieces. Shape each piece into a round, tucking the ends of the loaf in and trying to keep the raisins and walnuts under the taut surface of the skin. Set each loaf on a lightly floured peel or on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover with towels and let rise again until doubled, around 1 hour and 10 mins.

Fruit and nut stuffed dough before rising.

Baking. Heat the oven to 220° C fan forced. With a razor or sharp serrated knife, slash the dough with 2 horizontal and 2 vertical cuts. Brush the loaves with the egg yolk, then bake for 5 mins, then reduce the heat to 200 F and bake for 30-40 minutes more.

Also see these little sweet biscuits for the dead.


22 thoughts on “Day of the Dead. Legends for the Living.”

  1. Heaven, I’m in heaven
    And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
    And I seem to find the happiness I seek
    When there’s lots of Pan co’ Santi to eat…

    (A Touch of Class)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My C of E upbringing denied me experience with traditional feast days but having a reason to remember the dearly departed and enjoy special food is worth remembering. I think I must be part Siciliana, I like their swagger

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, the joys of having off from school the day after Halloween! I do remember that from my Catholic school days, also. I cannot imagine anyone here in the States ducking out of church for a smoke–what a hoot that would be!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So much fruit and nuts in those amazing looking loaves! If only I could make a gluten free sourdough loaf that I could laden with such filling. I’m working on it… Your post made me chuckle. I never thought about early November being such a fun time of year, but you are right. The festivities and good weather converge and what more do you need? Oh, Pan co’ Santi, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. These look fab and have the right balance of bread/filling for my tastes. This is such a busy time of year and particularly this year with Diwali/Day of the Dead/Halloween/ Melbourne Cup & Mr Tiffin’s birthday all in the same week. Plan to write about Diwali just flew out the window!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh sugar, Francesca, thank you for putting ‘it’ all in place! Not being Catholic-born I knew nought about All Saints except the name , not living in Mexico or other countries having celebrated the ‘Day of the Dead’ I was still no wiser and Halloween , hmm, simply not my cup of tea 🙂 ! But, oh, I did read all of the Diana Gabaldon ‘Outlander’ series mentioning Samhain with its strange powers, I can at last put all of this into a large package which will be interesting to explore . . . huge smile, huge ‘thank you’ !! Must be lucky, ’cause those departed who had a real influence on me are still with me every day of the year . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An interesting response Eha, especially about your dearly beloveds who are still with you every day of the year. At the end of this post, I had written a letter to my Dad, to leave out with the sweet bread, but then I removed it from the post- it had been written, he maybe heard it, and so it didn’t need to be included.
      It is a large and strange package. I just had another book recommendation from my doctor today called ‘The Good People’, by Hannah Kent, set in Ireland in the 1890s which touches on Samhain. Cholesterol checkup and a book recommendation, and now another from you. Wonderful Day of the Dead all round. Cheers.


      1. Came back ere ‘signing off’! Could and would take unwanted pages: BUT: I am hugely happy for people in their background with whom they still really connect. I was a ‘late’ kid my Mom did not really want so Dad virtually brought me up: it was decades after that I discovered how BFing fortunate I had been in his ever-s0-quiet but definite questioning/listening . . . well, he made me who I am and at the other end of life I feel humongously fortunate as decades past quietly and smilingly remind me every day 🙂 ! Hmmm: I can still see his smile or frown and that is where I stop or start !!!!


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