Bye Bye Befana
Just before lunchtime on this chilly Monday in January, our town’s streets are filled with family groups bundled in fleece from head to toe, men in winter wool caps and scarves huddled together on benches or in conversational packs and teenagers roaming the old town streets clutching cell phones and giggling. On a typical Monday, children are at school, most adults are at work and only a few elderly men gather in the piazza. But this is not a typical Monday. Today all of Italy celebrates the Epiphany, marking the last day of the month-long Christmas season here. January 6th is a national holiday that sends everyone into the streets to revel and rejoice before it all comes to end. So we joined the festivities to bid farewell to all the fun before we settle in for the quieter winter days to come.
Christmas holidays in Italy begin with the Immacolata which honors the Virgin Mary’s own immaculate conception on December 8th and conclude with the Epiphany on January 6th. The Epiphany or l’Epifania is the day when the three wise men or magi were said to arrive in Bethlehem to acknowledge the existence of the baby Jesus by offering him treasured gifts. In Italy today, though, a secular event steals the day in the form of la Befana, a wrinkled, black-clad crone of an old woman. La Befana is thoroughly Italian, so she is a much-loved representative of all that is joyous about this time of year.
On the morning of January 6th, Italian children awake to find that la Befana has visited their homes during the night, leaving them treats if they’ve been good and a lump of black coal if they haven’t. Folklore has it that la Befana, a harried grandmother, was visited by the wise men making their way to Bethlehem to greet the infant Jesus. They invited her to join them, but in classic Italian housewife fashion, she was far too busy with her daily cleaning chores, especially sweeping with a witch-like broom of twigs, to join them. Later, she realized that she missed the opportunity of a lifetime and set off to find them. She is said to still wander the earth, broom in tow, delivering the sweets she would have presented to the Christ child had she found him to children in Italy on the morning of January 6th.
Sweets are not exactly required at this point in the month-long revelry that is Christmas here. From cartellate to pettole to purcidd, an explosion of deep-fried, honey-drenched traditional pastries appears at every opportunity. Born of a cuisine of poverty, they represent richness and novelty to generations of Pugliese families, adored and consumed in industrial quantities during these cold winter days and nights.
Cartellate, strips of simple dough formed into roses and purcidd, tiny balls of the same dough mixed with whole toasted almonds are typically deep fried in olive oil. They’re coated in warm, orange peel-scented honey or vin cotto, a dark, sweet and dense condiment made from reducing Puglia’s primitivo wine into a fraction of its former volume. These sweets are fun to make and even more fun to eat because they’re sticky, crunchy, sweet and earthy at the same time. We spent an afternoon learning the finer points with friends and their mothers, who produced huge amounts of these treats with well-practiced technique and plenty of advice for the novices.
Pettole are heavenly puffs of yeasted dough, olive oil fried and served with a sprinkling of sugar. Thoroughly addictive, they are often served with vin brulée, a northern Italian version of hot mulled wine that has made significant inroads in the south. Their wet dough is risen slowly, then formed quickly into doughnut hole-sized lumps that are dropped into hot olive oil until they are golden brown and crunchy on the outside while remaining soft and pillowy in the center.
A thoroughly Martinese Christmas treat, budella di anziani, offers a texture, if not a taste, that isn’t for everyone. Their name says it all. Literally called elderly people’s intestines in English, ‘ndrem d‘i vikkhie (Martinese dialect) is a toothsome pasta that is sauced with vin cotto and flavored with orange peel. If you don’t know its name or can’t translate the meaning, you might actually enjoy it. If you do, it’s tough going to elevate your mind over the matter of the chewy, tube-like strands.
We’re not especially sorry to see the sweet part of the season retire tonight. The month’s excess is almost ruinous and we have revealed ourselves to be helpless to resist anything that’s offered to us. Come tomorrow, we’re reverting to a comparatively Spartan diet of, well, pasta. Meanwhile, tonight in Martina Franca, la Befana is going to fly from the top of the towering Basilica di San Martino to a nearby rooftop, not unlike Peter Pan. We will join our neighbors to witness the spectacle—the last gasp of seasonal merriment before carnevale.
Try your hand at purcidd, one of the easiest and best loved of Pugliese seasonal sweets. Not unlike gnocchi or orecchiette, the process of forming the purcidd is deeply satisfying once you get the hang of it. The dough recipe is the same one used for another Pugliese specialty: taralli. Like so many of these local favorites, measurements are imprecise and the feel of the dough is everything. I’ve given you my best tips, but you’ll recognize the satiny smoothness of perfect dough when you feel it. The rest is a breeze and you’ll love the results.
Purcidduzzi (or Purcidd) Pugliesi—Fritters and Almonds in Honey Syrup
2 cups (500 grams) of flour
½ cup (100 ml) extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup (175 ml) white wine, warmed
1 tsp. salt
1 cup (200 ml) honey, preferably organic
2 cups (500 grams) whole almonds, shelled but not skinned
Olive oil for frying
Pour the flour onto a work surface; a large wooden board is ideal, but a granite or marble counter top works well, too. Mix the salt and flour together, then make a volcano shape with the flour mixture, creating a small crater in the top. Pour the olive oil into the crater at the top and with your fingers, start mixing the flour into the olive oil without breaching the volcano wall. Here is a great visual to help guide you.
Meanwhile, gently heat the white wine. When it is warm, add it to the flour and olive oil mixture, amalgamating the mixture with your hands until you have a smooth, homogenous dough. Cover the dough with a slightly damp cotton towel and let it rest for a few minutes.
While the dough rests, toast the whole almonds on a baking sheet in a 350 degree F (165 degree C) oven until they emit a lovely, toasty, almondy aroma, about 10-15 minutes. Watch them carefully, then remove the almonds and let cool.
Divide the dough into small pieces roughly the size of a tennis ball. Further divide the first piece into a smaller piece about the size of a golf ball. Using your hands, roll this ball into a long rope with a half inch diameter. Using a table knife, cut small pieces of dough about ¾ of an inch long and move them to the side of your work space so that they’re not touching one another. Continue to roll out each golf ball-sized piece of dough, cutting each rope into a series of small pieces that look like gnocchi. In Martina Franca, these little balls are further embellished by using the tines of a fork to make a series of ridges that capture the warm honey in their folds.
Heat olive oil in a narrow pot to a depth of about four inches. Drop a test purcidd (piece of dough) into the oil to test its temperature. If the purcidd begins to turn lightly brown and rise to the surface, the oil is the right temperature. Carefully add 10-15 dough pieces to the hot oil and cook until golden brown, gently stirring them to ensure even cooking. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on paper towels to absorb excess oil. Repeat until all the purcidd are fried.
Heat the honey and 5-10 pieces each of orange and lemon peel. When the mixture is warm and liquid enough to pour easily, arrange the fried purcidd on a serving platter and pour the honey over the top, covering each purcidd with honey. Sprinkle the purcidd with colored sprinkles and additional lemon and orange peel strips. Cool slightly and serve, encouraging everyone to use their fingers to extract bite-sized lumps of goodness from the central platter. That’s how the Pugliese used to do it and you should, too.