Viva La Befana!
“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 the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!”
Truth be told, Christmas is not over in Italy until La Befana makes her rounds on the night before the feast of the Three Kings on January 6th. For Italians this is not only a day to commemorate the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, it is for children a holiday much bigger than Christmas and Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) because of the anticipation that builds for a visit from a kind old hag of a witch dressed in tattered clothes and known as La Befana. Her name is derived from epifania, meaning epiphany.
There are countless stories as to how the Befana became part of the Italian Christmas season. Many believe that the legend of the Befana came from Rome. According to the oral tradition, she rides around on her broom stick delivering candy and toys to good little boys and girls because of a regretable decision she once made.
It seems that the Magi stopped at her neat as a pin house asking her to join them in finding the newborn king but she was too busy sweeping her cottage to go with them. That is why she is always depicted with a broom.
Regretting that decision, she is still flying around trying to find the Christ Child and her visit to Italian children is an attempt to locate him.
On January 6th Italians celebrate Capodanno (New Years Day) with good food, including Befana cake, which according to tradition contains a fava bean and whoever is fortunate enough to get the slice of cake with the bean is crowned king or queen for the day and will be the recipient of good luck in the year ahead. Lentils, another symbol of good luck, because they resemble small coins, is also served on this day along with zampone (pork sausage).
In the past other traditions included embracing the New Year by getting rid of the old, literally throwing things out the windows onto the streets below where it all succumbed to a bonfire signaling the passing of the old.
Torta di Befana - Befana Cake
1- 1/4 cups raisins
1/2 cup diced, candied lemon peel
1/2 cup diced, candied orange peel
1/4 cup brandy (optional)
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
5 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 stick unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces
2 large eggs
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1 dried fava or other large dried bean
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons coarse brown sugar
Put raisins in bowl, cover with warm water and set aside. In a bowl, mix the citrus peels with the brandy and set aside.
In a medium size bowl dissolve the yeast in warm water. Add one cup of the flour and mix until a ball of dough is formed. Fill a large bowl 2/3 full with warm water. Place the ball of dough in the water, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the "sponge" rise in a warm place until doubled, about 20 minutes
In a food processor, combine 4 cups of the flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest. Add the butter, eggs, and milk and process to a slightly stiff dough. With a slotted spoon, scoop the risen sponge from the water and add it to the dough.
Process until thoroughly incorporated into the dough. If the dough seems too stiff, add a little water. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for a few minutes. Butter a large bowl; add the dough and turn to coat it in the butter. Cover with plastic wrap, then a towel, and let rise in a warm spot for one hour or until doubled in size
Butter a 10 x 3- 1/2 inch round cake pan or tube pan. Dust with flour and shake out excess. Drain the raisins, pat dry with paper towels and toss with one tablespoon of the flour. Drain the candied citrus peels, reserving the brandy. Toss the peels with the remaining 1 tablespoon of flour. Punch down the dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. With your hands, work the raisins, candied peels, almonds, and dried bean into the dough, and knead until you have a uniform ball of dough. It should feel slightly tacky.
Place the dough in the pan, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for one hour, or until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a small bowl, beat the egg yolk and reserved brandy together. Brush the top of the cake with this mixture and sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Bake for 45 minutes, or until nicely browned. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Carefully run a knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake, and turn the cake out onto a cooling rack to cool completely. To serve, cut into wedges
NOTE: To freeze, wrap the cake well in aluminum foil. Freeze for up to a month.