Today is la Befana in Italy, otherwise known as the Epiphany. It marks the last of the 12 days of Christmas which begin on December 25th (Christmas Day). It is also a feast day to commemorate the visit of the Three Wise Men (Magi) to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the birth of Jesus Christ and the revelation that he was the son of God. Sounds quite biblical, right? Well here comes the Italian twist.
According to Italians, on their way to find Jesus the Three Wise Men met an old lady (la Befana– her name a Greek corruption of “epifania“, meaning Epiphany) and asked her to join them. She refused but then regretting her decision, has brought gifts, candy and biscuits to good boys and girls on the night before the Epiphany ever since. Naughty children receive coal (actually candy which resembles coal called “carbone“). La Befana is represented as a toothless old lady or a witch with a broom, which she is said to sweep the house with before she leaves (potentially symbolic of clearing out old problems to make way for the new year), and is covered in soot as she enters the houses through the chimney.
As always, Italian festivals are marked by the preparation of different foods. Befanini are typical citrus and liqueur flavoured alphabet-shaped biscuits (sometimes with marzipan) from Toscana and le Marche to mark the Epiphany. Fires reportedly lit the Three Wise Men’s way to Bethlehem and in some parts of Italy they light fires during this season and chestnuts (a sign of fertility) are roasted on embers. Good-luck beans or tiny porcelain figurines are baked into cakes or focaccia which confers good luck on the finder.
The classic menu for la Befana is lasagne (the pasta sheets representative of baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes) in many different forms but the classic is with meat sauce and béchamel sauce followed by a main based on pork. Here is the recipe for the classic lasagne. Lasagne alla bolognese is traditionally made with fresh spinach pasta. I often substitute dry store-bought lasagne in order to make the dish quickly.
Lasagne alla bolognese (lasagne with meat sauce and béchamel)
1 1/2 recipes for béchamel sauce (reduce flour and butter to 60 gms each)
2/3 recipe for fresh egg pasta (change the quantities to 265 gms flour, 2 eggs and add 100 gms pureed steamed spinach after the eggs are added) or 220 grams dry store-bought lasagne sheets
100 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
40 grams butter, cut up
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Stir in 250 mls of hot water into the meat sauce.
If using fresh pasta then roll to the second to the last setting using the technique shown here. If using dry lasagne sheets, no special preparation is necessary.
In a rectangular baking pan 25 cm by 30 cm, drizzle a bit of the béchamel sauce over the bottom. Reserve 250 mls of béchamel sauce.
Place a layer of pasta on top. Top the pasta layer with 1/3 of the meat sauce.
Top the meat sauce with 1/3 of the béchamel sauce and sprinkle 20 grams of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top.
Repeat twice more and top with a layer of pasta, the reserved 250 mls of béchamel sauce spread evenly and 40 grams of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. There is no meat on the top layer.
Dot the top with the butter. Cover the top with aluminium foil so that the pasta does not dry out. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes and remove the foil to continue cooking until golden, 10 minutes. Remove and let sit 10 minutes before cutting and serving.