This month we’re celebrating the most anatomically correct cookie there ever was – one whose astounding details should make it a favorite with medical students everywhere, and one who would be well placed at every white coat graduation buffet. The origins of this beautiful cookie are far humbler than you might think – November Bones hail from the small island nation of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea.
Why November Bones?
Forget dress up and trick-or-treating; most people in the island nation of Malta skip right over Halloween in favor of All Saints and All Souls Days, two feast days that honor the dead (these more reverent holidays are not about vampires and zombies, but about taking time to honor cherished family members who have passed on). On November 1st and 2nd the graves are cleaned and decorated, but it’s the November Bones (a.k.a. l-għadam tal-mejtin) that stretch the holiday well beyond the two days (they’re sold all month long in many bakeries).
Anatomy of a Cookie
Usually cookies are just a “shape it and bake it” operation, but November Bones could come straight from a real operation. The “bone” itself is a sugar cookie infused with lemon zest and vanilla extract. The inside is where it gets interesting – each cookie has a light brown “marrow” made from marzipan, vanilla extract, cardamom, and cloves. The burst of spice is a delight that walks the border between European and North African flavor profiles. Once the cookies are baked and cooled they’re often topped with a sugar glaze and crushed almond ” graveyard dust.”
But November Bones are no more creepy than Mexican Skull cookies or Italian ossi dei morti – it’s simply that Malta’s rendition is has the spook-factor of being anatomically correct. Simpler renditions can be found without the marrow, but all the best Maltese home cooks and bakeries include this festive detail – even going so far as mixing up their own marzipan.
TIPS: I’ve simplified things a bit here: store-bought marzipan saves time and several steps. Also, I recommend making these cookies in an assembly line – dividing the cookie dough and marzipan “marrow” into 24 pieces each before you begin shaping will ensure all the cookies come out the same size and cook for about the same amount of time.
NOTE: Take care to freeze the cookies before baking and set the oven temperature nice and high – both will go a long way to keeping your bones from spreading too much as you bake them.
Makes 2 dozen
For the “bone”
4 cups flour
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
the zest of one lemon
pinch of salt
For the “marrow”
7 ounces marzipan
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
For the “dirt” garnish
2-3 cups powdered sugar
a little water
Let’s go to Malta!
Prepare the “Bone” dough:
Add the flour, butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, zest, and salt to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat for a few minutes, until all ingredients disperse evenly and when pressed with the fingers, hold their shape. Scrape the bowl as needed.
Prepare the “Marrow”:
Combine the marzipan, vanilla extract, cardamom, and cloves in a small bowl. Work the ingredients together with the fingers until evenly mixed.
To assemble the bones:
Divide the bone dough into 24 pieces (about 1 1/2 ounces each). Do the same with the marrow (1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons each). Pat the bone dough flat, then lay a short rope of marrow down the middle. Roll the dough around the marrow and shape into a bone. Repeat with all 24 pieces.
Freeze for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. This will help them hold their shape when they bake.
Preheat the oven to 450F. Cook the frozen cookies on a cookie sheet for 10-12 minutes. They may look a bit underdone but will be perfectly chewy when cool.
Enjoy with hot tea and a loving thought for your ancestors.