The night before Epiphany in Italy, the good witch Befana delivers sweets to good kids, coal to bad ones

The holidays have passed and the New Year is upon us. In Italy, Jan. 6 marks the day when the three wise men bring gifts to the infant Jesus. This is Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season.

In Italy, the night before Epiphany, also known as a twelfth night, is known to most children as a night when the good witch, known as the Befana, arrives on her broomstick and brings sweets, chocolates, fresh fruit and treats to the children have been good and coal to those who have not. Usually the children leave socks out so the Befana will fill them with the gifts.

After doing some research, I found out the name Befana is derived from the word epifania, the Italian name for the festival of Epiphany.

Legend has it the Befana was approached by the three wise men a few days before the birth of the infant Jesus. They were lost and asked for directions to where the son of God was as they saw the star in the sky but did not know how to get there.

She provided them with shelter that evening and they invited her to join them on their journey to see the baby Jesus. She declined, stating that she was too busy with housework. Later on, the Befana set out to look for them and join on the journey but could not find them. Supposedly the Befana is still searching for baby Jesus.

To this day, the good witch leaves the children with the special treats and the bad children with coal or “carbone” along with garlic and onions. It is said she leaves the gifts for the children hoping that one day one of them will be the infant Jesus.

I contacted my cousin Gaspare (Jasper) in Sicily and he reminded me that Epiphany is sometimes a bigger holiday for our family then Christmas. He recalls, as a child, his mother baking some special cookies and also a colored candy mixture resembling coal that she placed in little lunch sacks. He would place his stockings on the fireplace mantle for Befana to fill.

For this chef, I was very interested in finding a special recipe so I started doing my research and found out that really the cookie is just a simple butter cookie flavored with orange and anise seed and decorated on top with sprinkles.

The coal or “carbone” is a different story and I set out to find a recipe for this unique treat served on the twelfth night.

Now it was time to call upon my good friend, cookbook author, cooking authority and teacher Judy Francini in Tuscany. I asked her about the “carbone.” She responded that there is a candy shop right down the street from her home that makes this and she sent me the pictures posted here.

My friend Paolo DiCamillo from Abruzzo remembers his mama baking Pupa con l’ouvo for Epiphany. This was a cake or bread baked with colored eggs braided into the bread and marked the beginning of Epiphany. Paolo also discussed leaving stocking in the kitchen on the twelfth night and his mama baking cookies shaped like a witch and a horse. I asked why a horse and he laughed and said he had no idea. He too enjoyed coal blackened with food coloring and placed in small bags.

Judy Francini claims “carbone” recipe is made with simple syrup, egg whites whipped with sugar and added color, then folded and press into a loaf pan, cooled and then broken into pieces. I like the idea that some of the recipes are also flavored with liqueur, anise and orange rind.

Here is a recipe for Bafanni cookies I tested in my kitchen this past week. I do hope you make a batch and share with your family on the twelfth night. Who knows, perhaps the Befana may just stop in and leave some special treats for your children.

Buona Befana! Buona Epifania!