In Italy, the festive season does not end with New Year celebrations. So, if you’re hoping that I’ll be posting about something a little bit lighter after all those deep fried zeppole I posted about just before Christmas, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. There’s still Epiphany, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, which falls on the 6th January. A public holiday in Italy, this feast day commemorates the physical manifestation of God as a human being in Jesus and the visit of The Three Kings to the newborn Christ. And this occasion is by no means lacking in rich foods to celebrate!
Unlike in other European countries, Italian folkloristic traditions on this day don’t centre directly around The Three Kings. Instead, you’ll find figurines of a broomstick-riding old woman called Befana hanging from mantelpieces and shop windows in the lead up to Epiphany. The story goes that Befana provided The Three Kings with shelter while they were making their journey to visit the baby Jesus. Busy with her housework (Befana was said to be the best housekeeper in the village), she declined the opportunity to accompany them and bring a gift to the Christ child. Later, she realised her mistake and she now makes up for it by bearing gifts to other children in the night between the 5th and 6th January.
Some believe that Befana’s name was derived from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek epiphaneia. Another school of thought claims that her name has its origins in bastrina, the word for the exchange of gifts that took place at the beginning of the year in honour of the Roman goddess Strenia. This pagan custom was later adopted by Christians. In fact, the word strenna or strenna natalizia once meant Christmas gift in Italian.
Today, Italians make all sorts of sweets in Befana’s honour. Probably the most eccentric ones are those candied lumps of ‘coal’ symbolising that dreaded gift she brings to naughty children. In the past year though, I’ve come across several recipes for la focaccia della befana, a flower-shaped, brioche-like focaccia that is made in Piedmont for Epiphany. So, as a lover of baked goods (and local ones at that!), I felt this was the sweet to make for this occasion.
The customs surrounding la fugassa d’ la Befana (this is its name in the Piedmontese dialect) are very similar to King Cakes made in France for Epiphany. Like la galette and le gâteau des Rois, many fugassa recipes call for the insertion of a portafortuna or good luck charm in one of its petals. In the past, this was generally in the form of a fava or bean. Beans have long been considered a symbol of fertility and health and whoever found the one hidden in the fugassa would have good luck. These days though, a ring, a coin or porcelain charm (anything resistant to the heat of being baked will do!) can be used in its place. Interestingly enough, in some Piedmontese recipes, two ‘beans’ – one white and one black – are inserted. In this case, however, pecuniary obligations rather than good luck are bestowed upon the finders; the white bean finder pays for the fugassa and the black bean finder covers the wine costs!
The following recipe for la fugassa d’ la Befana is one I’ve come up with after a couple of weeks of experimentation. The dough is very buttery so I recommend using a dough mixer if you have one. Also note that a simple egg yolk glaze with nib sugar sprinkled on top can be used instead of the richer almond glaze I’ve suggested here.
Buona epifania and wishing you all a peaceful, convivial and food-filled 2016 !
- 30 g milk, room temperature
- 8 g active dried yeast
- 350 g strong bread flour, plus extra for dusting
- 4 eggs
- 80 g sugar
- A pinch of salt
- 150 g butter, chopped into pieces
- 50 g sultanas
- 50 g candied orange peel, chopped
- 1 good luck charm (optional)
For almond glaze
- 100 g sugar
- 1 egg white
- 40 g almond meal
- 30 g almonds, slivered
- Dissolve active dried yeast in milk.
- Add milk mixture, flour, eggs, sugar and salt to dough mixer bowl. Knead for 10 minutes ensuring that you add the pieces of butter one at a time. Towards the end of the kneading time, add the sultanas, candied orange peel and good luck charm.
- Transfer dough into a large bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea-towel. Leave to rise in a warm place[i] until dough has almost doubled in size.
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
- Remove risen dough from bowl and transfer to a clean and lightly-dusted work surface.
- Form a ball with the deflated dough then flatten it form a circle with a thickness of about 2-3cm.
- Transfer circle of flattened dough onto a large lined oven tray.
- Place a drinking glass in the centre of the circle and make an imprint with it.
- Make 4 symmetrical incisions into the dough ensuring that you do not cut beyond the imprint made in previously. Repeat this step until you have made 16 incisions in total.
- Curl the 16 ‘petals’ around each other.
- Cover, leave to prove and prepare almond glaze by beating egg white, sugar and almond meal until well combined.
- Spread almond glaze all over focaccia.
- Sprinkle slivered almonds on top of glaze.
- Bake for about 30-35 minutes or until almond glaze is crisp and dough is golden brown.
[i] You could also leave the dough to rise in a cold place (such as a fridge) . The dough will take longer to rise (you’ll need to prepare the dough the night before you plan on baking the focaccia) but chilling it will make it easier to shape afterwards.