“ La Befana vien di notte, con le scarpe tutte rotte. Col vestito alla romana, Viva, Viva La Befana!” (“The Befana comes by night, with her shoes all tattered and torn. She comes dressed in Roman clothes, long live La Befana”)
These rhyming versus in Italian may not resonate with everyone but for me they signify the last hoorah of the holiday season. The celebration of the Epiphany on January 6th when we gather to conclude the Christmas season with a meal that warms both the belly and the heart; and raise a glass of spumante in good cheer before enjoying a twelfth night treat. There is also preparation in anticipation of a visit from the Christmas witch, La Befana on the eve of the Epiphany. Old lore tells us that prior to reaching the baby Jesus on January 6th, the Three Wisemen, who were being guided by a star, stumbled upon an old woman and asked for direction. The old woman gave them shelter for the night, and was asked to join them on their journey, to deliver gifts to the newborn king the following day. She declined stating that there was much work to be done in keeping house and bid them farewell. It is said that she later had a change of heart and set out that night in search of the child. She was unable to find Him, and thus continues her search ever year. She hasn’t found the Christ child, but leaves behind gifts of small toys, clementines and candy because it is her belief that Jesus can be found in all children. So each year, on the night of the 5th of January Italian children put a stocking by the chimney, or by a window or door before going to bed. They anxiously await morning to see what is in their stocking, hoping not to find a lump of coal.
Similar to North American children who write letters to Santa and leave out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, little bambini write letterine to La Befana and the family sets out a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food (often regional or local specialities) for warmth and sustenance as she sweeps her way through the night.
It is not uncommon to prepare plates of sausage and broccoli, minestrone, eggs baked in tomatoes, and bread, cheese and fruit for both the family and La Befana to feast on. These are accompanied by desserts such as the classic panettone; carbone dolce (rock candy that is made using black food coloring to resemble coal); pinza veneta (a sweet polenta cake that is cooked in a skillet); focaccia della Befana (a sweet focaccia, dotted with candied fruits or raisins, and a coin baked into it for luck); and Befanini (traditional Tuscan cookies made of short crust, cut into holiday shapes and decorated with festive sprinkles).
I decided to prepare a batch of Befanini for the occasion and had fun shaping them into brooms to honor the little old woman of Italian folklore. Buona Festa della Befana and Buon Appetito!
Befanini (recipe adapted from Sharing My Italy)
- 3 cups of flour
- 1 ½ cups of sugar
- 7 oz softened butter
- ½ cup of milk
- 3 eggs plus 1 for the egg wash
- Zest of one orange
- Zest of half lemon
- 1 tbls baking powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 2 tbls Sambuca or rum or vinsanto
- Colored sprinkles
- Pretzel sticks (for the broom shaped cookies)
- Melting Chocolate (for the broom shaped cookies)
In the bowl of a food processor combine the flour and sugar. Then add the softened butter and process slowly. Add the eggs and continue processing. Next add the orange zest, lemon zest, baking powder, salt and liqueur. Work the dough for 10 minutes on medium speed adding the milk as necessary to make a smooth dough. Process the dough until it detaches from the side of the food processor bowl. Transfer the dough onto a floured pastry board and knead it to form a ball.
Place the dough in plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Add flour to a working surface and roll out the dough to the thickness of ¼ inch. Use cookie cutters in different shapes to cut the cookies. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Make an egg wash with one egg and a little bit of milk then proceed to brush the cookies and add the sprinkles. Bake for 12-14 minutes until golden in color. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack.
For the broomstick variation:
Roughly form the dough into the shape of a broom then lightly indent the bottom half with a fork. Once they have cooled dip a pretzel stick in melted chocolate and place at the top of each cookie. Proceed to drizzle the top half of each cookie with chocolate to hold the broom handle in place. Allow to set and enjoy.