La Befana Cake: Honouring The Old Witch of Winter

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! 

Giovanni Pascoli

La Befana Cake (Gather Style)

Ingredients:

  •  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

Directions:

  • 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!

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

48 thoughts on “La Befana Cake: Honouring The Old Witch of Winter

    1. I know its so interesting! Looks like Santa and Rudolph etc. and so many traditions were cherry-picked here and there from a grab bag of previous traditions – but all left the feminine aspects out!

      1. I am sure there was a reason..doesn’t bother me at all..everything in due time-Its all good

    1. Thank-you, and thank-you for taking the time to comment. These nice comments make my day and keep me going!

      1. Thank you very much for this story. I never knew about La Befana. I was raised Catholic (and still am) but over the years i knew of the Old Beliefs before Christianity. This fits right in. I plan on taking your recipe and making this

  1. Befana huh?🌲❄️ I honestly hadn’t heard of her! I’m charmed and fascinated. Thank you for your folklore and food. I’m a patron and proud of it. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you for your time in cultivating the deep soul of delicious-ness in so many ways. May Befana be kind to you this hollyday.

    1. In Ireland the make a golden fruitcake in which the fruit is soaked in a dark tea…you could try that…but may something with flavour might work well… a strong lemon, rosehip or hibiscus or whatever flavour you think might suit the cake!

      1. I have Celtic heritage and am always fascinated with the corollary between the Church and pre-Christian rituals and celebrations, in all cultures. I especially love the respect and honor of the sacred feminine. I wonder — how did patrimony become so intensely afraid of the sacred feminine? The two should work together …

        Thank you for this interesting history.

  3. Question for you, does the brandy get added to the cake or just the fruits soaking in it? I ask because I made this last night and after an hour in the oven it is still pretty liquid and I wonder if it is because I poured the brandy in with the fruits.

    1. Hi Charlie, its a bit wobbly when it comes out of the oven but sets once cool….however “pretty liquid” doesn’t sound right at all! You should put the brandy in with the fruit and let the fruits soak…..how did it turn out?

      1. I think the egregious sin I committed was not being smart enough to realize polenta meant the dry flour not the prepared polenta you get in a tube (I feel very dim for doing that). What I meant about pouring the brandy in with the fruits is that after an hour of soaking we added both the fruits and the brandy they had been soaking in into the cake.

        Bought enough for two more attempts before Befana makes her rounds. Will hopefully perfect it in time for her 😉

      2. Yes both brandy and fruits go into the batter! Better luck next time! You want cornmeal, that is best!

  4. Now I finally understand why my Grandmother insisted each of us children received small bags of gold foil covered chocolates. Thank you so much. I continued that tradition for many years to my children and grandchildren, not knowing why, and will be certain to continue it. Wonderful article

  5. I’ve got this beauty in the oven now, (with a few substitutions) I ended up using a smaller pan at the last moment and now I have a really thick cake baking. I hope it still turns out as the batter tasted great and I used some very special strawberry liquor in place of the grappa.

  6. Oh, this is a great post and the cake looks delicious. Thank you! In south Louisiana, ‘La Christine’ (also referred to by some as Mrs. Claus) visits homes on New Year’s Eve, leaving behind little gifts of fruit, candy, clothing, or small toys in the stockings the children hang in preparation of her visit. I’m curious to know if our tradition has its roots in the story of La Befana.

    1. I love it! I would love to know more! It could have something to do with La Befana but believe it or not there were other witches who left treats during the holidays – there was one from Germany too!

  7. I love all of your posts and hope to one day make it up to Victoria. I made a few substitutions since we are dairy free in this household. Cashew milk, vegan butter, and coconut sugar. Oh, and Grand Marnier instead of brandy. I really hope this sets properly since it still looks like creamy oatmeal with small pools of oil on top 🙁 How long would you say it takes to set? Fingers crossed…

    Blessed Be )o(

    1. Hi Jennifer, never having used those ingredients in this cake I don’t really know how they might affect the baking…it shouldn’t look like oatmeal with pools of oil… it’s best for it to set overnight. This also helps the flavours set too. I hope it worked out! Happy Holidays!

  8. Saluti e Buon Natale, Danielle!
    What a wonderful post.
    I came across this article as I was scrolling through Facebook.
    What an interesting twist You present… using cornmeal instead of flour.
    Being italian, of central and southern descent, I have never had Befanini or torte made from anything other than flour or nutmeals.
    The use of the polenta/cornmeal is definitely of the northern italian cuisine.
    I cannot wait to try this recipe.

    1. Interesting…there are many recipes using cornmeal and regular flour together. Definitely not my creative twist – can’t take credit at all!

  9. wow what an amazing work you are doing.. I was introduced to you from an herb buddy…I love cooking and herbs, and your interweaving of the feminine is like beautiful depth to a fine wine, dandelion that is…haha! I really appreciated this story, this information about la befana. I still have issues with the western santa/christmas theme and always feel like I’m lying to my kids if I support the story. It’s hard to break away from. This cake is something I am baking today for our christmas eve party and I am sharing the story with it. I love Women Who Run with the Wolves, and I can see Baba Yaga and other Befana archetypes in your story aligning with the wild feminine who is rising from the shadows. Can’t thank you enough! Thank you for what you bring into the world!!

    1. Thank-you for your wonderful comments.. Yes I love that book! Time for a reread over the holidays. Have a wonderful Christmas Eve! Blessings!

  10. I am thrilled at finding this site,thanks to a friend who posted on Facebook the story of the female reindeer,bringer of the light at solstice. I will become a patron as this site is rekindling deep soul longings.but it’s late and I must sleep

  11. I made this cake for a12th Night Dinner Party………..Loved by all…..Thank You…..it’s a beautiful Winter Cake

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