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Christmas Befana Cookies
December 16th, 2009 by

My grandmother used cookie cutters shaped like the four suits on playing cards. All I have is the spade cutter, which I use along with a star-shaped cookie cutter.

My grandmother used cookie cutters shaped like the four suits on playing cards. All I have is the spade cutter, which I use along with a star-shaped cookie cutter.

La Befana is an old woman who visits children in Italy on Jan. 6 in celebration of the Epiphany. Similar to Santa Claus, she enters their homes through the chimney in order to deliver gifts.

Small towns throughout Italy celebrate her arrival each year, including Barga, in northern Italy, near where my family is from. Many people from Scotland have settled in this area and this year the local school put on an outdoor show, featuring Father Christmas and La Befana.

My grandmother, Bruna, made these Befana cookies every Christmas. Requiring 8 cups of flour, her recipe made enough of these biscuit-like treats to last well past Valentine’s Day. Here, I’ve cut her recipe in half, which still makes about 100 cookies.

This recipe is pretty easy as you just dump all of the cookie dough ingredients in a bowl and stir.

This recipe is pretty easy as you just dump all of the cookie dough ingredients in a bowl and stir.

Ingredients For the Cookie:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter
  • Skin of 1/2 orange, grated
  • Skin of 1/2 lemon, grated
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Milk, just enough to work with (about 1/4 - 1/2 cup)
  • Crisco shortening (enough to grease a few cookie sheets)

The egg white makes the filling expand in the oven.

The egg white makes the filling expand in the oven.

Ingredients For the Filling:

  • 1/2 cup of almonds
  • Sugar (1/4 cup plus 1/8 cup)
  • Skin of 1/2 orange, grated
  • Skin of 1/2 lemon, grated
  • Vanilla (1/2 tsp.)
  • 1/2 ounce of Anisette or Whiskey
  • 1 drop of red food coloring
  • 1/16 tsp. of cinnamon
  • 1 egg white (beaten until foamy)

Keep a close eye on the cookies while they cook, so they don't burn.

Keep a close eye on the cookies while they cook, so they don't burn.

What I did:

To make the cookie dough, put all cookie ingredients in a bowl and stir well to blend ingredients.

Put flour over your hands and over a flat surface. Take dough from bowl and knead a few times until all ingredients are blended well.

Take large chunks of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface with a rolling pin covered with flour. Roll it out to about 1/4-inch thickness.

Grease a couple of cookie sheets by spreading Crisco shortening over them and then flouring them.

Take your cookie cutters and cut out cookies. Put on a greased baking sheet and with your index finger, make a small indentation in each one (This is where the filling will go.)

Here, even Santa celebrates La Befana!

Here, even Santa celebrates La Befana!

To make the filling, put almonds and sugar in a food processor and mix until very fine.  Empty into a small bowl.

Add the rest of the filling ingredients, except for the egg white, and mix well. Then fold in the egg white.

Put a small drop of the filling on each cookie and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, until the cookies turn a dark golden brown on the bottom. (Note: You only need about a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of filling for each cookie as the egg white makes the mixture expand during cooking.)  (Warning: If the cookies are too thin, they will cook quickly and could burn if you don’t watch them.)

Let them cook on a rack and bake the rest in batches.

Find more recipes in the Food section.

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