Malta's Traditional 'Dead Men's Bones' Cookies Contain A Sweet Surprise

Food is one of the best parts about celebrating, well... anything. What foodie doesn't love celebrating a raise with a nice meal at a favorite restaurant? But, on holidays, the food-celebration connection takes on a whole new meaning — and sometimes an accompanying symbolism.

Pan de Muerto (aka "Bread of the Dead") is a traditional sweet bread made by Mexican families to celebrate Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This bread is just one of the many cultural dishes made to honor certain holidays throughout the world. According to France Bucket List, the French have been celebrating Christmas with Bûche de Noël (a take on a Yule Log cake) since the 19th century. Similarly, Jewish communities make Challah, an elaborately braided bread loaf, in observance of Shabbat and other major holidays like Rosh Hashannah (via Bread Guide).

Today, we're talking about "Dead Men's Bones," the traditional Maltese cookie with a sweet surprise. Mexico's Day of the Dead is celebrated from midnight on October 31 until the break of day on November 2, via History. However, the tradition's schedule is quite a bit different in Malta. According to Atlas Obscura, the Maltese celebrate the holiday throughout November as "Month of the Dead." Dead Men's Bones (aka November Bones) are eaten on All Souls Day, November 2, in preparation for an entire month spent honoring the family's deceased loved ones, per Apron & Whisk

So, what do they taste like? And what's the surprise?

Sugar cookie exterior hides a crumbly marrow inside

Per Atlas Obscura, għadam tal-mejtin are lumpy, thick sugar cookies shaped like bones (either by hand or using a cookie cutter). They're topped with a sweet layer of white royal icing, and sometimes even sprinkled with chopped almonds, says Apron & Whisk. But, inside, there's a special hidden surprise. In the center of the sugar cookie bones is another cookie.

Known as "dead man's bone marrow," this interior cookie is made with almond flour and flavored with cardamom, clove, and sometimes anise. Its crumbly texture and spiced taste are juxtaposed by the surrounding outer layer of chewy, vanilla sugar cookie. Dead Men's Bones also sometimes carry a pop of citrus with lemon and/or orange zest, depending on the recipe.

Not only is għadam tal-mejtin's shape an homage to the deceased, but its flavor is also a nod to Malta's cultural history. Malta may not have a lush domestic agricultural scene, but it has been trading spices with neighboring peoples in Arabia, Northern Africa, and Europe for as long as countries have been engaging in the spice trade. As a result, these traditional Maltese cookies are packed with the spices of nearby cultures' culinary styles.