Chasing Stars with a Cake for La Befana

I’m not a religious person but am very partial to a good legend. The Epiphany, which falls on January 6th each year, is one of those. I usually celebrate the day with an exotic cake- something a little Middle Eastern, conjuring gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Epiphany marks the day when the Three Wise Men, Magi or Kings, found Jesus in Bethlehem after following a star for 12 days. All three scholars, from Babylonia, Persia and India, would have paid particular attention to the stars, each having an international reputation for astrology.  What did they talk about along the way and what did they eat?

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose photos can be found at
Orion. Photo courtesy of my brother Michael, who also likes to hunt stars. His photos can be found at

In Italy, the Epiphany is also marked by a visit from La Befana the night before. A benign old witch, she visits on a broomstick, bringing gifts to children in her sack- carbone or garlic to those who have been naughty, and caramelle or fruit to those who have been good, or a little of both. The family typically puts out a glass of wine and a small tasty treat for La Befana. This is an equally important part of the Christmas celebration, and in the past, before the commercialisation of Christmas, gifts were given on January 6th. Legend has it that La Befana was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey but was too busy with housework and so missed out. To this day, she rides about on the night of January 5th looking for the little baby.

Viva, Viva La Befana
Viva, Viva La Befana.

I have made a banana cake to mark the day, using Stephanie Alexander’s recipe which always works out nicely, adding extra spice and some chopped cedro or frutta glassata leftover from the Panforte that I didn’t have time to make for Christmas (La Befana and I have a lot in common). The exotic part comes in the icing, which is laced with ground cardamom and sprinkled with chopped pistachio and a little more chopped cedro. The recipe comes from Selma, another shining star: her original cake and icing recipe can be found here.

Note. I halved Selma’s original, as I only had one larger cake to cover. I kept the quantity of coconut powder and milk and also used the ground seeds from more cardamom pods than listed, because I love that spice. Her icing recipe can be adapted to use on any cake.

Selma’s Coconut Cream Cheese and Cardamom Icing

    • 3 Tbsp coconut powder
    • 1-2 Tbsp warm milk
    • 100 g cream cheese
    • 125g mascarpone cheese
    • 3-4 Tbsp icing sugar
    •  ground seeds from 4 or more cardamom pods
    • chopped pistachios (optional)
    • edible dried rose petals (optional)
    • finely chopped cedro or glacé orange rind (optional)

While your banana cake is baking, make the icing: stir the coconut powder into warm milk until smooth. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the cream cheese and the mascarpone with a rubber spatula then add the coconut mixture and stir in. Sift in the icing sugar, mixing well and taste after you have added half the sugar – it may be sweet enough. Stir in the cardamom powder and set aside in the fridge. When the loaves are cold, spread with the icing and top with the chopped pistachios and rose petals if using them.

Selma's exotic icing.
Selma’s exotic icing.

As you can see, I added chopped glacé orange rind and pistachios. The iced cake stores well in a covered container in the fridge.

Notes and links

  • My earlier epiphany post and recipe for Almond and Honey Spice Cake from 2014 can be found here and includes the words to the famous poem about La Befana, which all Italian children learn, as do most young students of Italian in Australia.
  • Stephanie Alexander, The Cook’s Companion, 1996, p77
  • Cedro and other glacé fruits are available at The Royal Nut Company, Brunswick 3056. They have a great range.
  •  Selma’s beautiful blog, go to

And now for the best bit

This lovely animation by Arseny Lapin and music by Aquarium also reminds me of the Epiphany. One of my young Viking visitors adores it and asks for it often. He sings along in his perfect pitch soprano voice, imagining all sorts of things that a fish might whisper in a lady’s ear. If you like it too, play it to a young visitor and see what happens.

© Almost Italian, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material, including photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to http// with appropriate direction to the original content.

32 thoughts on “Chasing Stars with a Cake for La Befana”

  1. Mmm – that bread looks great and the icing – with coconut powder and cardamom- how Interesting. Had to laugh at the story of missing out while doing chores – ah man- and how u had that in common – lol – and just a side note – out version of the story with the wise men – well if we are taking the historical account that was noted in the bible – please note I am not soliciting anything – would never do that – but the historical. Documents that verify this story suggest that there more than three wise men – like maybe 15 – but only three types of gifts were. Brought – for significant reasons – also – the wise men likely staggered in and did. It arrive to see a nursing newborn – instead they started when Christ was born and arrived months later – as they followed the star from diverse areas – and some never met at all –

    -anyhow – January 6th sounds like a fun day to be in Italy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the historical accounts vary and some claim 15 travellers, others more. We will never know really, which is why I prefaced my account as ‘legend’. Versions always differ from source to source- and that is the exciting part about history.
      Yes, I think the Italians have a lovely day on Jan 6th.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes and I did not how you presented it as legend – and your post was such a great read tonight – I was getting ready to log out and it arrived – so well done – with the story – recipe (and directions and tips) and a bit of the blogger – quite win-win and happy new year 💕😏

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I used a can coconut milk as I was out of powder, and then was forced to make a curry with the remaining milk. Also, if you don’t want to use both marscapone and cream cheese, one of those would suffice.


  2. Love Stephanie’s banana cake it translates really well with GF flour. Next time I’ll try Selma’s cream cheese topping, it sounds right up my alley. Love the animation, should I know the tune? Jan 6th is my other half’s birthday so we always have cake, this year Maggie Beer’s chocolate cake with whisky soaked raisins


    1. Hmmm, might take a peak at Maggie’s book again.
      The animation and tune seem to be Russian- now I have joined his FB page as his little characters and stories are delightful. Arseny is the name to look for.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, I wish I could sample your cake! I think I’ll leave some caramelle for the children in the next apartment tonight. It’ll be a little surprise for them in the morning.

    Tomorrow, La Befana regata on the Grand Canal, vin brulè, cioccolata calda …


  4. Such a lovely post, Francesca. I’m listening now to the music from the animation, having already watched it. Dad taught us of La Befana when we were very young and our home remained decorated until the day following the Epiphany every year. You’ve stirred some warm memories. Thank you for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I taught Italian, at the end of the year, the young year 7s would make little La Befana cards. Many of the students were 3rd generation Italian. They would take there little cards home to show Nonna or Nonno and the story would begin anew. The older Italo-Australiani celebrate Epifania still, but that generation is sadly fading out.
      I am pleased to have stirred those memories.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Francesca, we also take down our Christmas tree on the 6th – the 12th day of Christmas.
    Years ago in Seville we saw three kings arrive by boat on the Guadalquivir River. They were bearing gifts for the Children. It was a lovely scene.

    Liked by 1 person

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