Simple Chocolate Brownies for La Befana

As we lazed around the pool yesterday, I asked the girls if they were expecting a visit from La Befana. They looked at me blankly. I began explaining the legend of La Befana when suddenly the penny dropped- yes Daisy had heard about her from her Italian teacher last year and Charlotte simply said, “You mean that witch lady who does a Santa thing?”

Italian grandmothers fondly relate stories of their childhood in Italy when they eagerly anticipated the evening of the Befana between the 5th and 6th of January, L’ Epifania, the epiphany, is the night when La Befana would deliver gifts. La Befana, personified as a benign old witch with broken shoes, riding on a broomstick, and dressed in gypsy clothes, brings gifts to all children. Legend has it that the three kings, the Magi, dropped by the home of La Befana on their way to see the new-born baby Jesus. They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The Magi invited her to join them on the journey but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. She searched but never found them. And so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broomstick, searching for the little baby Jesus, visiting all children with gifts. She also brings a lump of coal for those times when they have been naughty, and a sweet gift too. In the past, gifts were simple. I remember my dear friend Olga, who grew up in Marechiaro, near Naples in the 1920s, was delighted to receive an orange and a few caramelle from La Befana.

Carbone Dolce?

The epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the end of the seasonal festivities. I like to celebrate this day in a small way: it’s my perverse nature I suppose, but I relate to the simplicity of this legend and the grandmotherly figure of the kindly old witch. Fat Santa, shopping mall Santa, Americanised commercial Santa be gone, and down with that Christmas tree too. The new year has begun in earnest.

This year’s sweet offering will be a tin of old school brownies, the ones we used to make before expensive pure chocolate became the preferred ingredient. This recipe is gooey and rich and is made using cocoa powder, a pantry staple. You won’t believe it’s not chocolate. They last for three days or so and as they get older, I serve them with custard or icecream as a small pudding.

Old School Chocolate and Walnut Brownies 
140g unsalted butter
55 g natural cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp strong coffee, made from instant coffee or leftover espresso
2 large eggs at room temperature
250 g sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
105 g  plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¾ cup chopped walnuts, plus extra chopped for topping
  • Preheat oven to 180 C.  Line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin pan with baking paper. If you don’t have a square tin, an old slab tin 18 cm by 28 could be used, but the brownies might be slightly lower in height.
  • Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and salt until smooth. Stir in coffee.
  • In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the eggs and the sugar vigorously until thickened and lightened by a shade. A stand mixer makes the job easy.  Add the vanilla extract. Whisk the cocoa and butter mixture into the sugar mixture.
  • Sift the flour and baking powder over the mixture and fold it in until combined. Fold in walnuts.
  • Spread batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with extra walnuts.  Bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven, cool and cut into small squares.

Recipe from Christina at Scientifically Sweet.

Cute, very Italian and kitsch, this cartoon caught my attention. It’s good to know that La Befana is still alive and well in Italy as a quick search will show.


42 thoughts on “Simple Chocolate Brownies for La Befana”

  1. hehehe, I like your little ‘carbone dolce’ and also Charlotte’s ‘witch lady that does the santa thing’. Very cute. I’m sure after eating those brownies they won’t soon forget La Befana.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh what a delightful story totally new to me! The sixth of January up in the north of Europe is called ‘Three Kings Day’, is often celebrated with a special sinner . . . but the tree and decorations come down and should one wish a ‘Happy New Year’ to anyone from that moment on, it means bad luck! The new ‘working’ year has begun: put away all childish Christmas ‘toys’ till next year 🙂 ! Enjoy that glass later . . .


    1. I’ve always been meaning to make a Three Kings cake, with a little fava bean inside, but then it’s just too hot here. The Befana is Three Kings Day with added witch- and that’s me! Yes, drinks they will be coming my way later, especially as it’s 42c here today and I may be heading out of these fire prone hills before La Befana visits.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Perfect weather to take down Christmas decorations, but not for making Brownies, perhaps tomorrow. My Italian friend recalls getting lumps of coal as she had not been quite good enough!


    1. Ah, yes, I think they usually get both, so your friend missed out badly. I dug a few lumps of coal out of the BBQ to give to the girls yesterday, and we ended up doing some fine sketches with it. Yes, too hot for anything Rosalie- I’m planning to run away into the city before things get too nasty. Stay well and safe. Happy New Year xxx


  4. Ah Befana, I had forgotten all about her! I discovered her when we lived in Milano and of course saw all the chocolates and Befane for sale in the shop windows. My mother-in-law Anna tells me she used to receive oranges and nuts from Befana in Sicily when she was a child. I’m sweltering in Adelaide today at my childhood home with my Mum. We took the tree down together today, (always on January 6). Back to Melbourne next week and I need to remember to try your recipe then. Still haven’t found my cooking mojo. Maybe 2018… Francesca, Happy New Year. Louise


    1. Happy new year Louise. Oranges must have been a special treat back then in winter in both Sicilia and Napoli. Looks like that date for taking the tree down is more widespread than I thought and tradtion is alive and well. How long did you live in Milano?
      These chocolate brownies are so dead easy, perfect for the cooking mojoless _ I count myself as ine too.


    1. I’ve just received catch ups of La Befana celebrations from friends on FB. La Befana is going very well all over Italy. Haven’t been to Venice for 32 years now.


  5. As a child we received festive gifts from all the Grandparents – a mixture of Irish – English – French and Danish. What confused me were the sacks of briquettes with my name on them delivered post Santa- time. I used to deliver them to all the old folk around the neighbouring houses so they could light their water heaters. It wasn’t until I was a well-confused 21 yo. did I ask my Grandparents what it all meant – their answer being that I was such a precocious child with no clear direction in life that they drew on this ancient tradition in order to set me right. Is it no wonder I ended up being a Fairy Witch?


  6. Love the story of Befana and her wandering about on a broomstick looking for baby Jesus and the wise men. Before I became involved with Italy, I had never heard of her. However, I used to have a hanging kitchen witch over my sink….possibly a relative. They were all the rage here for a few years.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a kitchen witch named Sabrina. She stands about 24 inches high with a huge pointy hat and long grey hair. She is a friendly witch as kitchen witches are. I might give brownies a go as I’ve never made them beforer.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great experience – to be an au pair girl in Italy. You must have learnt Italian very well. Yes, the brownies work well, and if they have a chance to get stale,( unlikely) I crumble them over icecream.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes thanks, it was a great experience, though a long time ago now. My Italian is a little rusty now but I try to listen to Italian radio stations sometimes to keep it up.
        I’ll give the brownies ago and trust me, they won’t be given any opportunity to go stale 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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