The legend of La Befana is an ancient Italian tradition that takes place on January 6. The benevolent but ugly old witch with a hunchback, wearing a baboushka and ragged clothing, makes her rounds to children the night of January 5, leaving treats of candy (and sometimes coal or garlic for naughty children) inside shoes or stockings left out overnight.
The legend harks back to the 12th night of Christmas, or Epiphany, when the three wise men were searching for the baby Jesus. They found La Befana sweeping her doorway and asked her to join them, but she initially declined, saying she had too much cleaning to do. Later when she realized it was the Redeemer that the wise men were in search of, she changed her mind. She left right away, but unfortunately for her, couldn’t find the baby. That’s why she still goes out each January 5 on her magic broom, hoping to find the baby Jesus, while leaving gifts for other children as well. To this day, children in Italy still receive gifts on January 6 and celebrations and parades are held all across the peninsula. Two years ago on the night of January 5, we were skiing near Bressanone, in the Italian Alps, when we heard drums in the distance. Nearer and nearer came the sound, and along with the drummers appeared a parade of people dressed in costumes from the Middle Ages, with La Befana in a carriage at the very end, tossing out candies to everyone.
This year La Befana surprised us and flew across the ocean to my hometown in Central New Jersey. There at the meeting of “Le Matte,” my weekly Italian chit-chat and coffee group, the ladies were gathered at my friend Vanda’s home. Just when we were having our second round of espresso and pannettone, who walks in but La Befana, wart-y face, babushka and all! She even handed out burnt almond treats for the women — at least the ones who had been nice this year. She truly looked wretched. I sure hope she makes it back across the ocean on that broom!
I’m including a recipe for the burnt almonds that La Befana handed out.
This recipe is taken from Delicious Day’s blog entry, Semifreddo of Burnt Almonds. I made only the almonds, not the semifreddo. The original recipe is in metric measurements, so I converted and doubled the amounts. My almonds turned out crunchy, with a hard-shell candy-like exterior, and they were good, but I must have gone astray somewhere. The ones on Delicious Day’s blog have more a more crystaline-sugary texture to them. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I do know that I have a seriously burned pot that will require a lot of steel wool and elbow grease to clean.
2 cups almonds, with skins
1/2 cup water
2/3 c. sugar
2 T. vanilla sugar (I used vanilla)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Boil the water, sugar, vanilla sugar, and cinnamon in a large saucepan. Add the almonds and let cook over medium to high heat while stirring occasionally. The liquid will have evaporated after 5 – 8 minutes and the sugar will cover the almonds with a dry crust. Now reduce the temperature and keep stirring until the sugar turns liquid again and coats all the almonds evenly as caramel. Pour onto the prepared tray. Quickly separate the almonds from each other with two forks (not with your fingers, very hot!) and let them cool (they keep for several days in an airtight container).