For Italians Christmas hasn't quite reached its peak, in fact you might say it was just getting started. The Christmas season in Italy is traditionally celebrated from December 24 (Christmas Eve) to January 6 (the Epiphany). This time is often referred to as the Twelve Days of Christmas marked with holiday events, special foods and celebrations extending the yuletide well into the New Year with 12 more days of seasonal festivities. The days after Christmas honor saints and olive oil (olio nuovo), which is traditionally pressed in early December, and presents from La Befana, the Christmas witch.
January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, is considered a little version of Christmas in Italy and a national holiday, commemorating the arrival of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts for the Baby Jesus. This gift-bearing tradition is celebrated on the 12th night Eve when La Befana, the Christmas Witch, arrives on her broomstick and fills children’s stockings with toys and sweets or lumps of candy coal. All kinds of Befana cakes (some similar to panettone) and cookies (called Befani) are made across Italy. An Italian Epiphany cake, a fruity golden cake called the Twelfth Night or Witches Cake is made with polenta, raisins, fruits, figs, fennel seeds and a touch of grappa. Traditionally made in the Veneto and Friuli regions of Italy where it is called pinza, this dense cake is well served around the fireplace with a glass of dessert wine or an Italian vin brûlé (mulled wine).
Past celebrations on this day have included a carnival in Rome, La Befana Races (Regatta della Befana) on Venice’s Grand Canal, the parade of The Three Kings in Milan and regional festivals throughout Italy. And although Christmas 2020 will look very different in Italy (and elsewhere) due to the COVID pandemic, the spirit of Christmas joy brings a renewed hope for a bright New Year.
Befana Cake (Polenta Fruit and Nut Cake)
1/2 Cup sultanas
2 Tablespoons brandy or Italian grappa
2 Cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Cups polenta/ cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
5 Cup water
1 Cup sugar
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter; softened
1/2 Cup diced candied lemon or orange peel
2 T fennel seeds
10 whole dried figs; stemmed and diced
1/2 Cup roughly chopped almonds
Butter an 11 inch round tart-like baking pan and dust it with flour, shaking out the excess.
Soak the sultanas in the brandy or grappa in a small bowl for 20minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sift flour with baking powder. Combine flour and baking powder with the polenta/cornmeal and salt in heavy-duty 4-quart non-stick saucepan. Slowly stir in the water. Cook the mixture, stirring frequently, over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. The mixture will be very thick. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the sugar and butter, making sure that the butter melts completely.
Stir in the soaked raisins with the brandy/grappa. Add the lemon or orange peel, figs, and almonds.
Batter will be thick. Pour the batter into the pan, using your hands to spread the batter in the pan and smoothing out the top. Sprinkle with fennel seeds.
Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean and the edges pull away from the sides of the pan. The top of the cake should be golden brown. Cake will be very dense. Cool completely before serving.