Monday, January 5, 2009

La Befana brings burnt almonds

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.

Burnt Almonds

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).


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  2. Linda, I love your chit chat group, and the visit of La Befana!
    Nice post!

  3. I didn't know about this tradition but my memory-a bit clousy-seems to remember something that looked like La Befana hanging in my mom's kitchen when I was young(er.) Cool story and as always everything sounds so good-I have yet to have tried anything but am learning alot!

  4. Great story! You can clean your burnt pot by rubbing a mixture of equal parts of table salt and vegetable oil into it. It may take a round or two, but it's fairly simple - and nontoxic. :)

  5. Oh my! That's one scary Befana! LOL

  6. Oh that is so cute! I love your pic and that your surprised everyone!!

    Thanks for the recipe! The almonds look delish.

  7. Oh, Linda!

    I love your chit char group. How I wish I were closer! And a visit from La Befana herself, what a coup!

    This one actually brought a tear to my eye! When I was growing up our parents kept us inline at Christmas with "Santa won't bring you any presents, just a bag of coal." Needless to say we kids walked the straight and narrow after that threat. We always thougth the coal thing was odd, but never gave its origin anythought. It was not until adulthood that I learned about La Befana and figured out that my dad must have grownup hearing the bag of coal line too.

    But the best of all is the Croccate di Natale! My grandfather who was from Abruzzo where that treat is a VERY big deal. Every Christmas my grandmother would purchase the most astounding almonds and make it for him. I recall standing back from the stove as she cooked the sugar and marveling as it changed colors and perfumed the kitchen. Thanks for reminding me!

  8. La Befana did indeed hang out in my mother's kitchen. We don't know what happened to her. Love the idea of "burnt" sugary almonds to bring in the day - isn't there something with almonds and luck? Or is that the French? I want to write a play about La Befana - visiting different parts of the world ... it's been percolating for awhile.

  9. ho una collezione di Befane nella mia cucina,la tradizione vuole che porti dolci ai bambini buoni e carbone a quelli cattivi. Una volta, ero molto piccola, trovai un sacchetto di carbone portato dalla befana e stavo per piangere ma mi accorsi che era dolce e buonissimo, era stato uno scherzo della Befana ! Buona settimana Linda, un abbraccio !