Painting by James Lewicki, from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales” 1956
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Today is the Feast of the Epiphany or La Befana.
In Italy, January 6th is a national holiday and is a big part of the Christmas celebrations. It commemorates the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bringing gifts to Baby Jesus.
In Italy, this day is especially significant for Italian children who wait for the arrival of La Befana, the old witch. La Befana (formerly called Stria – hag or witch) is the name of an old peasant lady. She had lost her husband, she had never had a child, and she lived in a tiny house alone in the hills of Italy spending her days cleaning and cooking.
One night she noticed a bright light in the sky but she ignored the light and went back to sweeping her home.
According to the Italian legend, La Befana was approached by the three Wise Men (Magi), Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, who asked her how to get to the road to Bethlehem and they asked her to join them on their journey to bring gifts to the Christ child.
She initially refused to join them because she was too busy doing her housework,
When she started to regret her decision a few hours later, she then filled a bag of cookies and dried fruits and went to look for them. But she never found the Magi, despite her relentless search. This is why Befana is always seen with worn-out shoes from her search.
After failing to find baby Jesus, she decided to offer the presents she had planned for him to all the other children she met. Italian children leave out their shoes or put up stockings for La Befana to fill on Epiphany Eve or January 5th.
The legend states that every Epiphany Eve, the old witch covered in soot and tattered clothes flies around the world on a broomstick and comes down chimneys to deliver candy and presents to children that have been good all year.
For those that haven’t been good, La Befana leaves coal. (some shops in Italy sell black rock candy to represent the coal so even the naughty children can still have a sweet treat.
I have included a recipe for coal cookies if you are interested at the end of this post.
The arrival of La Befana is celebrated with traditional Italian foods such as panettone and marks the end of the holiday season in Italy. In honor of the Three Wise Men, Italians go to church and enjoy spending the day with family.
In my home, it was also the day to take down the tree and all the holiday decorations.
Panettone is an Italian cake that is recognized by its tall domed shape. It is a sweet dough with raisins and candied fruit and today there are many varieties on the market and you can buy chocolate, pear, and chestnut to name a few.
Growing up, we would have panettone for breakfast on the morning of January 6th, which was a great sweet treat for us to have cake for breakfast.
My grandmother would make special cookies on January 5th to leave for La Befana called Befanini – they are traditional shortbread cookies in honor of La Befana. The original recipe included rum but I don’t have my family’s original recipe. Italian housewives would prepare these cookies for La Befana to nibble on between her deliveries.
When I was a child, we followed tradition and left a plate of Befanini cookies and a glass of wine for La Befana (this is similar to leaving milk and cookies for Santa). The cookies were always in the shape of a star to signify the Star of Bethlehem that La Befana saw through her window.
These are my cookies this year.
I have posted the recipe for La Befana cookies below that I have been using for years and I don’t remember where I copied it from so I am sorry to the author of the recipe that I can’t mention your name for full credit but it is not my recipe or my grandmother’s recipe- it is a typed copy from an article but very good.
This recipe doesn’t use rum but vanilla and anisette with orange zest- delicious!
La Befana Star Cookies
- 3 ½ cups unbleached flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons anisette
- Freshly grated zest of 1 orange
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Multicolored sprinkles
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together and set aside.
In an electric mixer (the paddle attachment), cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until creamy and light.
Beat in the egg and egg yolks, one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition, followed by the vanilla extract, anisette, and orange zest. Beat in the dry ingredients at low speed to form a stiff dough. Remove the dough from the bowl, flatten it into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and chill until it is firm enough to roll for about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray or line them with parchment paper.
Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces; work with 1 piece at a time, keeping the remaining pieces refrigerated. On a floured surface, roll the dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Using a floured 2-inch star-shaped cookie cutter, cut the dough into stars. Place the cookies ½ inch apart on the baking sheets.
Gather the scraps together and repeat rolling and cutting until you have used all the scraps; it may be necessary to refrigerate the scraps until they are firm enough to roll again.
To make the glaze: In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk with the cream. Using a small pastry brush, lightly brush the surface of the cookies with a bit of glaze and decorate them with sprinkles ( I use confetti sprinkles).
Bake the cookies until they are lightly golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through the baking time.
Allow the cookies to cool slightly on the baking sheets, then gently remove them with a spatula to a wire rack to cool completely.
If you are interested in reading the story of “La Befana” to your children or just want to have the book as a keepsake, the classic story is told by author Tomie dePaola and is sold on Amazon.
Bob and I will enjoy these cookies tonight with some espresso with a touch of anisette and lemon rind.
Lump of Coal Cookies – Courtesy of PassionforSavings.com
- 16 oz. of Oreo Cookies
- 4 Cups of Miniature Marshmallows
- 1/4 Cup of Butter
- Plastic Bag
- Place Oreo Cookies in a Large Gallon Size Ziploc Bag.
- Using a rolling pin or measuring cup crush the Oreo Cookies into small pieces.
- Place Butter and Marshmallows in a bowl and heat in the microwave on high for 1 minute.
- Stir marshmallows and butter until smooth.
- Add in Crushed Oreos and stir well.
- Roll into Small Cookies and flatten to create a “Coal” Shape.
- Allow them to cool completely before storing.
- Store in an airtight container.
Until my next post, make every day a celebration!
Happy La Befana and I hope it brings a peaceful and joyous end to your holiday season.
photo courtesy of BottegaDellaNonna.com