Inspired by the many Italian cakes baked on Epiphany Eve as offerings to “La Befana”, this fruity golden cake (with a dash of spirit) is a Witches Cake. According to legend, Befana is an old witch who flies through the night of January 5th on her broom delivering presents to children. And as they lie asleep in their beds, she comes down the chimney and puts gifts and candies in stockings hung by the fireplace. So just as we leave cookies for Santa, in Italy putting out special cakes and cookies out for La Befana is a centuries-old tradition.
All kinds of Befana cakes and cookies (called Befani) are made across Italy. In some regions, La Befana’s arrival is celebrated with a Panettone a round yellow fruit bread, in others, a star-shaped bread called Focaccia Della Befana is made. Italians hide a coin inside and whoever finds it will be lucky all year. You can find my recipe for the Focaccia Della Befana (pictured below) in the Winter Celestial Edition of Enchanted Living Magazine.
This Befana Cake recipe is inspired by the Venetian traditions of Pinza Cake which contain cornmeal, dried fruit, fennel seeds and Grappa. Before ovens, it was wrapped in leaves of cabbage and cooked under the hearth! I kept the traditional elements of cornmeal (so the cake would be golden as the sun) the “fruits of the earth” (currants, candied ginger & orange peel) and the wild fennel seeds for their sunny aromatic spice. But instead of flour, I chose a rustic almond flour (there will be far too much processed white flour this holiday season!) so be warned this is a dense cake! You could substitute regular flour instead of the almond flour – same amount. I also used honey in place of sugar ( just over half a cup) and tossed in some dried apricots for their bright colour. You could also toss in a few cranberries. Normally the recipe calls for a splash of Grappa (a tartish brandy) but I had none, so in went my rosehip brandy instead.
It may not be a classic Venetian Befana Cake – but it’s pretty close to 12th Night Cakes in general. In old world traditions, Epiphany Eve is the date of Twelfth Night (the end of Yuletide) a celebration of the rebirth of the sun. It was marked by plenty of round, sweet spicy bread-like cakes enriched with dried fruit (and a splash of spirits). These circular cakes were symbolic of the growing light and associated with ancient star or sun goddesses whose bright light brought an end to the years darkest period and promised the coming of warmer longer days (You’ll also find more recipes inspired by these cakes in the Winter Edition of Enchanted Living!)
The old 12th Night Feast became the Christian Feast of Epiphany, which was held – and still is – in honour of the night the Three Magi found the baby Jesus. And that’s what’s so interesting about La Befana. Unlike much of the old pagan goddess lore surrounding the winter holidays, Befana remains alive within the Christian traditions (although reworked a bit as a cautionary story). Briefly, it goes something like this… the Three Wise Men encounter La Befana riding on a broom, and ask her to join them to see the baby Jesus. La Befana refuses- but later she regrets her decision. Setting out to bring gifts to the baby Jesus, she cannot find him and instead leaves gifts for children as repentance.
This tale of La Befana can be traced back to the 13th century but I suspect a Christian overlay over what is an older story – what is Befana doing out in winter countryside in the first place? Why should the Wise Men need to address her? Why does Befana need to repent? Could she be some version of the old winter goddesses of the pagan religions that the Church was struggling was to suppress?
According to Italian anthropologists and authors Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, Befana’s origins back to Neolithic beliefs in a great goddess associated with fertility and agriculture. Author Judika Illes writes, “Befana may predate Christianity and may originally be a goddess of ancestral spirits, forest, and the passage of time.”
In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt , the author says: “This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia/Strenua/Strenae, who presided over the new year’s gifts, “Strenae’, from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana. Moreover, her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character”.
From the British Isles to Russia, Befana is one of many crone goddesses who represented the death of the old year and wandered bare winter landscapes. In her book, “European Mythology,” Jacqueline Simpson describes the Scottish Cailleach as “a tall, blue-faced crone” who is “both a personification of winter and a protectress of wild animals.” In Slavic mythology, Baba Yaga is the wild old woman; the forest witch with a strong association with winter. For the Norse, Frau Holda or Holle was a goddess associated with yuletide, witchcraft and female nocturnal spirits. She rode on a distaff, which closely resembles a broom.
But of all these female winter deities of pre-Christian Europe, Befana is still going strong. Her veneration must have been deeply embedded in the local populace that the Church would allow an old witch to play a role in Epiphany Celebrations!
Today the arrival of La Befana is just as eagerly awaited as Christmas Eve. And every Epiphany Eve, children put up stockings for the tattered and soot-covered Befana to fill with tangerines, candies and chocolate coins (for prosperity!)
Many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves, sweeping away of the problems of the old year. Befana also visits grandparents and other relatives so Italian homes are busy with people visiting and of children unwrapping gifts. Tables are laden with cakes and traditional Italian liqueurs, and old songs are sung in honour of La Befana!
Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!
La Befana Cake (Gather Style)
- 1 & 1/4 cup cornmeal or polenta
- 3/4 cup almond flour
- 3/4 cup brown sugar (little extra or sprinkling on top) or 1/2 cup of honey
- 1/3 cup softened butter
- 3 & 1/2 cups of milk
- 2 teaspoons lemon or orange zest
- 2 tablespoons currants or raisins
- 1 & 1/2 tablespoons candied orange peels (chopped)
- 1 & 1/2 tablespoons minced candied ginger
- 2 tablespoons dried apricots (finely chopped) or cranberries
- 3/4 cup diced fresh apple
- 1/4 cup of Grappa (or brandy)
- 1 & 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 & 1/2 teaspoon of anise seeds
- Teaspoon or so of sea salt
- 2 tablespoons of almond flakes for garnish
- Put all the candied fruit, raisins, ginger, apricots in a bowl, pour over the brandy and allow to soften for an hour.
- Bring the milk to a boil with a pinch of salt. Once you have reached the boil, pour in the almond flour and polenta, slowly, mixing well with a whisk, so that it does not form lumps. Reduce heat to low, continue to cook, stirring constantly, for about 10-12 minutes. The mixture should be soft and non-gritty so add more milk if necessary. It will be thick.
- Remove from heat, then add the butter in chunks, the diced apple, brown sugar, brandy-soaked dried fruit, fennel and anise seeds.
- Mix well, then pour the mixture into a pre-greased round spring board cake tin (8 -9 inch). Level it, sprinkle the surface generously with brown sugar. Cook at 350 F for about 50-55 minutes, a beautiful golden-brown crust should form on the surface. If you used honey you may need an additional 7-10 minutes but don’t overbake as it will firm up and set once cool. Let sit overnight so flavours can intermingle and deepen!