Simple Chocolate Brownies for La Befana

As we lazed around the pool yesterday, I asked the girls if they were expecting a visit from La Befana. They looked at me blankly. I began explaining the legend of La Befana when suddenly the penny dropped- yes Daisy had heard about her from her Italian teacher last year and Charlotte simply said, “You mean that witch lady who does a Santa thing?”

Italian grandmothers fondly relate stories of their childhood in Italy when they eagerly anticipated the evening of the Befana between the 5th and 6th of January, L’ Epifania, the epiphany, is the night when La Befana would deliver gifts. La Befana, personified as a benign old witch with broken shoes, riding on a broomstick, and dressed in gypsy clothes, brings gifts to all children. Legend has it that the three kings, the Magi, dropped by the home of La Befana on their way to see the new-born baby Jesus. They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The Magi invited her to join them on the journey but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. She searched but never found them. And so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broomstick, searching for the little baby Jesus, visiting all children with gifts. She also brings a lump of coal for those times when they have been naughty, and a sweet gift too. In the past, gifts were simple. I remember my dear friend Olga, who grew up in Marechiaro, near Naples in the 1920s, was delighted to receive an orange and a few caramelle from La Befana.

Carbone Dolce?

The epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the end of the seasonal festivities. I like to celebrate this day in a small way: it’s my perverse nature I suppose, but I relate to the simplicity of this legend and the grandmotherly figure of the kindly old witch. Fat Santa, shopping mall Santa, Americanised commercial Santa be gone, and down with that Christmas tree too. The new year has begun in earnest.

This year’s sweet offering will be a tin of old school brownies, the ones we used to make before expensive pure chocolate became the preferred ingredient. This recipe is gooey and rich and is made using cocoa powder, a pantry staple. You won’t believe it’s not chocolate. They last for three days or so and as they get older, I serve them with custard or icecream as a small pudding.

Old School Chocolate and Walnut Brownies 
140g unsalted butter
55 g natural cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp strong coffee, made from instant coffee or leftover espresso
2 large eggs at room temperature
250 g sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
105 g  plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¾ cup chopped walnuts, plus extra chopped for topping
Method
  • Preheat oven to 180 C.  Line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin pan with baking paper. If you don’t have a square tin, an old slab tin 18 cm by 28 could be used, but the brownies might be slightly lower in height.
  • Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and salt until smooth. Stir in coffee.
  • In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the eggs and the sugar vigorously until thickened and lightened by a shade. A stand mixer makes the job easy.  Add the vanilla extract. Whisk the cocoa and butter mixture into the sugar mixture.
  • Sift the flour and baking powder over the mixture and fold it in until combined. Fold in walnuts.
  • Spread batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with extra walnuts.  Bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven, cool and cut into small squares.

Recipe from Christina at Scientifically Sweet.

Cute, very Italian and kitsch, this cartoon caught my attention. It’s good to know that La Befana is still alive and well in Italy as a quick search will show.

 

Chasing Stars with a Cake for La Befana

I’m not a religious person but am very partial to a good legend. The Epiphany, which falls on January 6th each year, is one of those. I usually celebrate the day with an exotic cake- something a little Middle Eastern, conjuring gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Epiphany marks the day when the Three Wise Men, Magi or Kings, found Jesus in Bethlehem after following a star for 12 days. All three scholars, from Babylonia, Persia and India, would have paid particular attention to the stars, each having an international reputation for astrology.  What did they talk about along the way and what did they eat?

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.
Orion. Photo courtesy of my brother Michael, who also likes to hunt stars. His photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

In Italy, the Epiphany is also marked by a visit from La Befana the night before. A benign old witch, she visits on a broomstick, bringing gifts to children in her sack- carbone or garlic to those who have been naughty, and caramelle or fruit to those who have been good, or a little of both. The family typically puts out a glass of wine and a small tasty treat for La Befana. This is an equally important part of the Christmas celebration, and in the past, before the commercialisation of Christmas, gifts were given on January 6th. Legend has it that La Befana was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey but was too busy with housework and so missed out. To this day, she rides about on the night of January 5th looking for the little baby.

Viva, Viva La Befana
Viva, Viva La Befana.

I have made a banana cake to mark the day, using Stephanie Alexander’s recipe which always works out nicely, adding extra spice and some chopped cedro or frutta glassata leftover from the Panforte that I didn’t have time to make for Christmas (La Befana and I have a lot in common). The exotic part comes in the icing, which is laced with ground cardamom and sprinkled with chopped pistachio and a little more chopped cedro. The recipe comes from Selma, another shining star: her original cake and icing recipe can be found here.

Note. I halved Selma’s original, as I only had one larger cake to cover. I kept the quantity of coconut powder and milk and also used the ground seeds from more cardamom pods than listed, because I love that spice. Her icing recipe can be adapted to use on any cake.

Selma’s Coconut Cream Cheese and Cardamom Icing

    • 3 Tbsp coconut powder
    • 1-2 Tbsp warm milk
    • 100 g cream cheese
    • 125g mascarpone cheese
    • 3-4 Tbsp icing sugar
    •  ground seeds from 4 or more cardamom pods
    • chopped pistachios (optional)
    • edible dried rose petals (optional)
    • finely chopped cedro or glacé orange rind (optional)

While your banana cake is baking, make the icing: stir the coconut powder into warm milk until smooth. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the cream cheese and the mascarpone with a rubber spatula then add the coconut mixture and stir in. Sift in the icing sugar, mixing well and taste after you have added half the sugar – it may be sweet enough. Stir in the cardamom powder and set aside in the fridge. When the loaves are cold, spread with the icing and top with the chopped pistachios and rose petals if using them.

Selma's exotic icing.
Selma’s exotic icing.

As you can see, I added chopped glacé orange rind and pistachios. The iced cake stores well in a covered container in the fridge.

Notes and links

  • My earlier epiphany post and recipe for Almond and Honey Spice Cake from 2014 can be found here and includes the words to the famous poem about La Befana, which all Italian children learn, as do most young students of Italian in Australia.
  • Stephanie Alexander, The Cook’s Companion, 1996, p77
  • Cedro and other glacé fruits are available at The Royal Nut Company, Brunswick 3056. They have a great range.
  •  Selma’s beautiful blog, go to https://selmastable.wordpress.com/

And now for the best bit

This lovely animation by Arseny Lapin and music by Aquarium also reminds me of the Epiphany. One of my young Viking visitors adores it and asks for it often. He sings along in his perfect pitch soprano voice, imagining all sorts of things that a fish might whisper in a lady’s ear. If you like it too, play it to a young visitor and see what happens.

© Almost Italian, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material, including photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to http//almostitalian.wordpress.com with appropriate direction to the original content.