I seem to be raising a little cook — not a surprise really, as we probably spend three-quarters of our day in the kitchen. She has taken to liberally adding her touch to dishes that she can reach on the table (apple juice tipped into the marinade and half a jar of dried chilli flakes shaken over the salad were some highlights this week) or completely taking over whenever she sees any type of dough being made, rolled or cut out. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to make any type of cookie, pizza or bread without her getting involved.
I think she sees cooking as a craft project, as play. And I mean why not? Cooking should be something enjoyable and positive and I love that we can spend so much time in the kitchen together as a family, watching her learn how to mix, knead, roll, pinch, brush and sprinkle. So when I decided to make a batch of befanini — lovely, soft, sprinkle-covered, cake-like cookies — for a recent Corriere della Sera post, and I saw her eyes widen in delight when she saw the dough and the coloured sprinkles (this three year old’s favourite addition to pretty much any food that she can get away with), I let her take over.
These lemon-scented cookies are loved by Tuscan adults and children alike. Typical of the area of Versilia on the Tuscan coast, they are traditionally made for January 5, the eve of the Epiphany, when the Befana, an old witch-like lady on a broomstick, comes to visit Italian children to place delicious and lovely things (like befanini) in the stockings of the children who have been good, and coal for those who have been bad. She basically does Santa’s job in Italy.
The recipe makes plenty of cookies so not only will you have enough for putting into stockings but also for wrapping up in colourful packages to give to friends and family. Some like to use aniseed liqueur instead of the rum or you can leave it out entirely and use a splash of milk instead.
Recipe adapted from Paolo Petroni’s Il Grande Libro della Vera Cucina Toscana. Note: we also made a second batch of these which were baked plain (no glaze or sprinkles) and then after baking we glazed them with icing sugar mixed with some water and decorated them like crazy — with different shaped sprinkles, coconut flakes and miniature chocolate chips. Although less traditional, this way you can add decorations that might otherwise get ruined in the oven during baking. See the last photos below.
Makes about 50 cookies
- 500 grams flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 250 grams sugar
- 4 eggs
- a splash of rum (or aniseed liqueur), optional
- a splash of milk, if needed
- zest of 1 organic lemon
- coloured sprinkles
Combine flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a wide bowl and make a ‘well’ in the centre. Crack 3 of the eggs (save one for glazing) into the middle, along with the liqueur and zest. With a fork, begin beating from the centre outwards, incorporating the dry ingredients slowly into the eggs until you have a thick dough. If it is a bit dry or crumbly, add a splash of milk to loosen so that you have a soft but not sticky, compact dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest in the fridge for about 30 minutes. It is easiest to work in batches, so cut the dough in half and keep one half wrapped and chilled until you finish the first half.
Roll the dough out on a well-floured surface to a thickness of about 5mm. Use a cookie cutter to cut out your favourite shapes. When ready to bake, crack the reserved egg and beat in a bowl. With a pastry brush, glaze the tops of the cookies with the egg and decorate with coloured sprinkles.
Bake at 170ºC for about 15-20 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and lightly golden on top. Let cool and serve or store in an airtight container.