Have you heard of La Befana and the feast of the Epiphany? I hadn’t until a few days ago. I’m always looking for more ways to connect to my Italian heritage. My birthday is on Three Kings Day – aka Epiphany, so I researched ideas of traditional Italian desserts and that’s how I learned about befanini cookies.
What is Epiphany in Italy?
Befanini cookies are soft, cake-like cookies that Italians make on January 5th, the eve of the Ephiphany. People celebrate the Epiphany in Italy on January 6th every year. This holiday is based on the biblical story of the three wise men/three kings offering Jesus the gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. Epiphany is a public holiday in Italy, so schools and most businesses are closed. People celebrate with a feast and also the children get presents from La Befana.
Who is La Befana?
La Befana is a woman who flies around on a broomstick bringing presents to children in Italy. The fairytale is said to be about a woman who is flying around looking for baby Jesus, so she brings the gifts to children in hopes of finding him. Good children get gifts and cookies and other treats, including the befanini cookies, and the bad kids get coal.
This entire story makes me so happy and it feels even more special that my birthday falls on this day. It makes me feel more connected to my Italian heritage, and it’s something I want to celebrate with my children. To start off this year, I made them the befanini cookies and I plan to talk to them about the traditions that Italians do on this day.
Next year, I think we’ll actually start celebrating it properly, it true Italian form, just as if we lived in Italy. 2020 marks the 100 year anniversary when my grandfather immigrated to the U.S. for a better life for my dad and his siblings. Getting to visit their village a few years ago reminded me of just how brave he was and just how much I am proud to be of Italian heritage.
Italian Befanini Cookies
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
4 eggs (save one for glazing)
1 pinch salt
1 splash of rum or Alchermes, optional
1/4 – 1 cup of milk, add 1 tbsp at a time
1 lemon, zested
Colored sprinkles, as needed
Combine flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a wide bowl and make a ‘well’ in the centre. Crack 3 of the eggs (save one for glazing) into the middle, along with the liqueur, if using, and lemon zest. With a fork, begin beating from the centre outwards, incorporating the dry ingredients slowly into the eggs until you have a thick dough. Add one tablespoon of milk at a time until the dough is soft, but not sticky. I needed almost a cup, but I’ve seen some recipes that only needed a few tablespoons. You can always add, but you can’t take away. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let rest in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
Cut the dough in half and keep one half wrapped and chilled until you finish the first half. Roll the dough out on a well-floured surface to a thickness of about 1/4 inch (5 mm). Use various shapes of cookie cutter to cut out fun shapes and place them on a lined cookie tray.
Crack the reserved egg and beat in a bowl. With a pastry brush, glaze the tops of the cookies with the egg wash and decorate with colored sprinkles.
Bake at 170ºC/340ºF for about 15 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and lightly golden on top. Let cool completely and serve or store in an airtight container.
A Fun New Family Tradition
The Italian befanini cookies are simply fun! They are super simple to make and I loved their soft lemony texture and all of the colorful sprinkles. When I make these again, I will definitely use the little colored sprinkles rather than the jimmys. I think they would look cleaner – more like the Italian Easter cookies I made.
Overall, I’m so glad I researched Italian traditions around Three Kings Day or the Epiphany, whichever you’ve heard. It was fun to learn something new and find another way to connect with my roots. Plus, we got tasty cookies out of it!