I’ve just finished writing a chapter set in the midst of sixteenth-century Florentine court revels for the Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night. In medieval and Renaissance times, gift-giving was associated with the Epiphany and not with Christmas day. And in Italy, children received gifts (if they were good—they got lumps of coal if they were bad) from la Befana, pictured at right.
La Befana, so the story goes, was an old woman whose greatest joy in life was keeping her cottage spic-and-span. She was in the midst of her sweeping when the Magi knocked on her door and invited her to join them as they searched for the Christ Child. She refused, being determined to finish her housework.
Later she regretted her decision, and with her broom she set out to catch up with the Magi and offer her own gifts to the Christ Child. To this day she is still looking for them, riding on her broom, and on the eve of Epiphany (in Italian “la Epifania” and “la Befana” are related words, and often used interchangeably) she gives her gifts to good children.
And of course since any hint of a cookie recipe always gets my attention, her traditional gifts are cookies called befanini. There are hundreds of different recipes out there, most of which seem to be pretty basic sugar-and-butter cookies spiced with anise and orange peel, occasionally spiked with rum or sambuca, and decorated with colored sprinkles. Here’s an easy one, and here’s a traditional one.
Well, in my opinion, at least. I cobbled together two or three other recipes to come up with this, and experimented on my own with chopping the coconut finer and finer. I’m very pleased with the result, which combines the crispness of a shortbread with the chewiness of coconut. The trick is whizzing the coconut in the food processor until it’s chopped very very fine. The original cup of shredded coconut should be reduced to a rounded half-cup when finely chopped.
The chopped coconut also makes slicing the cookies easier, and I love slice-and-bake refrigerator cookies—so easy.
It occurs to me that if you like Mounds candy bars (which I do), you might like these with a bittersweet chocolate frosting instead of the plain (but deliciously vanilla-y) powdered-sugar glaze.
Here’s the recipe:
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut, chopped very fine in food processor
Cream together the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Mix in the flour until just blended. Fold in the coconut. Roll dough into a log with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice dough into quarter-inch (or so) slices and bake just until golden around the edges, 12-15 minutes. Cool and ice thinly with powdered sugar glaze.
Naturally I had to look up some of the history of coconut as a foodstuff. Rather to my surprise, I found that the nux indica, the Indian nut, was at least known in Europe as a botanical curiosity as early as Marco Polo, and possibly earlier. The term “coconut” itself is later, and derives from the Portuguese and Spanish “coco,” “grinning face,” as a description of the face-like markings at the base of the shell. Vasco da Gama (who died in 1524) is supposed to have brought coconuts to Europe from India. So it’s entirely possible that the Este and the Medici, living in very wealthy Italian courts in the mid-sixteenth-century, could have been served coconut as an expensive and exotic delicacy. Rinette in faraway Scotland? Sadly I think it’s pretty certain she never tasted the sweet, chewy deliciousness that is the coconut.
When one is under stress, what are the two best remedies in the whole wide world?
Beagle ears and chocolate!
I have to give the Broadcasting Legend™ credit. He’s the one who, when asked to “pick up a box of brownie mix,” selected the industrial-size triple-chocolate Ghirardelli bake-for-the-whole-town carton pictured. (It actually contains six normal-sized brownie mixes.)
I hasten to assure everyone that no beagle was actually given anything chocolate to eat in the course of this picture-taking session. A few perfectly healthy Innova kibbles sufficed to get their attention. And the outtakes are hilarious. I do have to share one:
While I was taking pictures of Cressie, poor Boo was on the sidelines, begging his little heart out. Awwwww! (He got some kibbles too.)
For a writer, I don’t actually write much about writing here, do I?
For me, writing a book is like making piecrust. (Mmmm, pie.) One must pay attention to what one is doing and pull it together with a light hand. Work it too much, and it gets tough and gray. Give it to someone else to play with, and it may turn out to be mince instead of apple. Take it out of the oven every few minutes to see what it looks like, and it will never be more than half-baked.
So although I am in the very early stages of working on a new project, I won’t be writing about it in much detail. It’s also set in the sixteenth century. It also features some historical personages and some fictional characters. It also combines elements of mystery, adventure, romance, character study, fabulous food and magnificent costumery, palace intrigue and sudden death.
Or as I like to call it—historical fiction with sprinkles.
Today I’m baking kourambiethes, a Greek holiday cookie that’s traditional in my husband’s family. They are delicious—the texture is very creamy and pastry-like and the cookies melt in one’s mouth. Here goes:
1 pound sweet butter or clarified salt butter
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 ounce brandy, whiskey, or ouzo (the recipe says “optional” but don’t leave it out!)
3 3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
More confectioner’s sugar for coating
Allow sweet butter to soften to room temperature. Beat with electric mixer for 10 minutes until white and creamy. Add egg yolk, sugar, orange juice and liquor, beating all the while until thick as mayonnaise. Sift flour and cornstarch into the bowl and continue mixing. Finish by kneading for 5 minutes. Refrigerate for an hour or two until the dough is of a good consistency to work with.
Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll into balls about the size of walnuts. Place on ungreased cookie sheet about half an inch apart. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for twenty or twenty-five minutes—until they are just slightly golden.
Drop hot-from-the-oven cookies into a bowl of confectioner’s sugar and toss gently until each cookie is well-coated. Cool before serving or transferring to a serving dish.