Thursday, December 13, 2012

Befana

Let's see... How's everybody's holiday season going so far? Overwhelmed, excited, stressed, happy? All of the above? 

I love Christmas. It's so pretty. And Santa has been nice to me already: my Russian blog has been featured in Gastronom - Russia's biggest (and oldest) culinary magazine. I remember buying it in Russia years ago and admiring its glossy pages and gorgeous photos of food... And now, here I am! Squeal :). (That's me on the left :))



Now, with that squealing out of the way, what I wanted to talk to you about is something special. Very special cookies called Befana. A few years ago I read an essay about how for immigrants food from the home country becomes very important. Traditions and customs fade away under the pressures of the new way of life, but the food, the favorite family dishes linger on, passed from generation to generation.


Befana



So it is with these cookies. My husband's family comes from Italy, Tuscany. Their ancestors immigrated to the US over a hundred years ago and there is no longer anybody in this family who speaks Italian. However, through generations, the tradition to make Befana has been preserved and passed on. As a first generation immigrant, it is an important lesson to me on the need to preserve my Russian cooking and pass it on to my children.  

Back to Befana. Every year, my husband's family bakes an enormous amount of these cookies (this year the number was 60 dozen) to send as presents to family and friends during the holiday season.


This year I was able to observe, and even participate in, the baking of these cookies and obtained permission to publish the recipe online.


According to the family lore, Befana is an old witch, a hag. In the "olden days," the tradition was to exchange presents on Epiphany rather than Christmas. So it was said that if children are naughty, all they will get is a lump of coal, but if they are nice, Befana will bring them these special cookies available only during the holiday season.


The cookies are made with a large amount of anise flavor, so you better like it if you decide to bake Befana. I really adore these cookies for their ingenious shape: they have these citrusy centers that have thin strips of dough wrapped around them. Very cute design. Recently, there has been a movement within the large family to have some cookies baked without the centers. I personally think they lose their charm, but I want you to know that the filling is not strictly necessary and some of the cookies here are, in fact, baked without the centers.


The recipe I got is meant for a huge amount of cookies so I modified it to make it more manageable. Also, some of the ingredients are very specific. Feel free to be creative in their substitution. All that matters is that you are happy with YOUR Befanas :).




Befana


For filling (Ammazza Pane)

1/4 cups almonds, skinless
1 tablespoon glazed citron
1 glazed lemon rind (usually found chopped) 
1 glazed orange rind
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon (15 ml) Wagner's anise extract (important to use Wagner's as the anise concentration is higher than in most other brands and this affects the flavor) 
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
2 teaspoons (10 ml) whiskey
2 cups (250 gram) powdered sugar
1 egg white

For dough

Makes about 60 cookies

~ 1 1/4 lb (600 gram) flour (this includes the flour necessary for rolling out dough)
1 stick (113 gr) butter, melted and cooled
3 egg yolks
1 egg white
1 1/2 cups (340 gram) sugar
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon (15 ml) Wagner's anise extract
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
2 teaspoons (10 ml) whiskey
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
scant 1 cup (110 gram) powdered sugar

Make fillling:
Mix anise and vanilla extract and whiskey. In food processor, process almonds, citron, lemon and orange rind, allspice and nutmeg. With motor running, add anise mixture. Weigh the mixture, then add the same amount by weight of powdered sugar. Whip egg white to stiff peaks and fold into the almond mixture. Refrigerate while making dough. (This may be more than needed for 5 dozen cookies but it keeps, refrigerated, several months).

Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Make dough:
Whip egg yolks and white adding sugar gradually. Mix in melted butter, lemon juice and zest, the extracts and whiskey. Sift 1 1/2 cups flour and baking powder into the mixture, mix until soft dough forms. Invert dough into floured work surface and knead a few times, adding flour as needed until thick enough to be rolled out. Be careful not to make the dough too stiff. Place dough into bowl and cover with damp towel. Keep the bulk of dough in refrigerator while working with the rest.

Roll out part of dough to about 1/8 in thick. Cut out desired shapes with cookie cutters and place them on cookie sheets. Cut thinly rolled out dough into strips about 3/8 in wide and 2 in long, one strip per cookie. A zigzag pastry cutter makes pretty strips. Spoon about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon filling onto each cookie (a pastry bag makes it easier). Wrap a strip of dough around the filling, covering it completely. Repeat with all cookies.

Bake about 8-10 minutes, taking care not to let edges burn. Cool on wire wrack, dust with powdered sugar.

9 comments:

  1. Congrats on your culinary coup - that's awesome! I've never seen Befana before - their shape is charming and I'm sure they taste delicious. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Renee. I've been asking various Italians about Befana but so far haven't found anyone who knows anything about them.

      Delete
  2. Congratulations! (And I'm so happy to discover your beautiful blog:)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Congrats! Those cookies look delicious! I am always looking forward to trying new recipes for the holidays!

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I greatly appreciate your comments. There is nothing I like more than the two-way communication with my readers. Because I hate word verification I won't make you look at those squiggly letters... but I do have to moderate to protect from spam :).

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