Growing up with an Italian grandmother, Christmas meant befana cookies. My Nonna would make these anise treats every December. Italian legend has La Befana as a good witch in the style of Santa Claus, but for some reason in my family, befana became the name for Christmas cookies.
Nonna would make enough befana cookies to fill a glass jar that was about two feet tall. She would store them on the stairs leading to the attic with a piece of bread on top to keep out any moisture. I grew up in Vermont and I remember the cold as you would try to sneak a cookie. Of course, Nonna would catch me - the powdered sugar on top of the cookie made it very obvious.
My Nonna passed away in November of 2001 and unfortunately, no one in the family had learned how to make the befana cookies. Thus, my younger brother has spent the last eight years trying to perfect the recipe and seems to have come as close to Nonna's as possible.
My brother Ralph tried everything to recreate the cookies. He imported straight anise liquor in his suitcases from Italy to try out; that didn't work. There was one year where he added every extract in the cabinet to try to capture the flavor; that didn't work. He added orange juice because my Dad thought he had seen her use some; that didn't cut it either.
Finally, he got it last year. The whole family agreed that this was THE cookie. We closed our eyes and it was like my grandmother was with us again.
The thing that always amazes me about making befana is that it takes four of us to do what my Nonna accomplished by herself - but, that is the fun.
Sadly, I can't share my brother's recipe with you as I want to be able to attend Christmas dinner with my family and this would cause a feud. Plus, Ralph would deny me cookies forever if I let the secret out - and that's a consequence I'm not willing to face.
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