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.

Eating Tiramisu with a Long Spoon- and No Cricket

Some people look horrified when I tell them how much I hate cricket.  It is as boring as watching paint peeling off the wall. The cricket invades many Australian households in the days following Boxing Day. It is the sound of summer, of endless holidays and heat. For me, it is the excuse to dig out my boxed set of Blackbooks, the English TV series starring those three outlandish characters, Bernard, Manny and Fran. I identify closely with them all, and often greet people with quotes from one episode or another. Only my friend Ally P totally understands this obsession.

In one episode, Manny, referring to himself, says “He’ll be watching the test match in bed eating tiramisu with a long spoon.” I’ll just have the Tiramisu thankyou,and the rest of you can keep the test match, the Ashes and all of those other bits of crickety tedium.


This is a recipe adapted from the SBS recipe site. I have added more soaking liquid as the original used insufficient for the volume of bsicuits and marscapone. The recipe can be halved.  I usually make it for Christmas Eve,then get to eat leftovers, with a very long spoon, on Boxing Day. As the dish is a “pick me up”, it relies on the strength of the coffee and the alcohol.


  • 6  eggs, separated
  • 220g (1 cup) caster sugar
  • 500g mascarpone
  • 2 cups freshly made hot, strong, espresso coffee
  • 100 mls of Tia Maria or Brandy/Frangelico/Marsala
  • 400 g packet pavesini biscuits or savoiardi biscuits (The skinny ones are better)
  • good quality dark chocolate, grated, or sifted Dutch Cocoa.


  • Beat the egg yolks and the sugar for at least 15 minutes, or until thick and white. Add the mascarpone and beat until just combined but smooth.
  • Beat the eggwhites until thick and stiff, then gently fold into the mascarpone mixture.
  • Combine the coffee and liqueur in a bowl. Quickly dip the biscuits into hot liquid, and lay them in the chosen serving dish or dishes.
  • Add a layer of the mascarpone mixture, then more soaked biscuits, and so on until all is used.  Refrigerate for at least 2–3 hours, or overnight.  Before serving, top with a generous dusting or Dutch cocoa and/or grated dark chocolate.ImageImage
  • The success of a good Tiramisu depends on the strength of the coffee and alcohol and the generous soaking of the biscuits.


  • The dessert keeps well, covered for a few days.
  • A multi layered version is tastier than a low layered one

 And save some to eat with a long spoon while hiding from the cricket.