December 9th, 2011
10:00 AM ET
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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.

The cookies are perfect in their simplicity. They are like shortbread without the butter flavoring. You make a mass of dough, roll it out and then use seasonal cutters. It is a dense cookie, but the anise has quite a kick.

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.

Is there a food that makes the holidays bright in your home? We want to hear all about it. Immortalize your food tradition in words, recipes, pictures or video, submit it as an iReport and we'll show off some of our favorites on CNN's Eatocracy food blog through the end of the holiday season.

soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Liz

    My Grandmother and Great Grandmother made Anise Pizzelle. They had their own little Pizzelle maker that looked similar to a waffle maker. They were so good. This is the stuff that you can't buy in stores. Now both of them are gone and all of their recipes too. I really wish that they had thought about sharing the recipes with us when we were little.

    December 12, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  2. jacelyn

    Finally family has made these cookies for generations, but I have never found anyone with a similar cookie. I understand the secrecy and am lucky to have found our recipe only last year. I look forward to making them in the coming weeks and sharing them with friends (the cookies, not the recipe).

    December 11, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  3. Gingerbread rules

    WTF? A total waste of time. I'll bet they didn't find the secret recipe at all. That's why they can't "share" it.

    December 11, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Tammy

      YUP, so totally agree!

      December 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  4. JininTexas

    What a puss! That's like saying you won the lottery but when pressed you refuse to produce the ticket.

    December 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  5. jim

    Who cares how good the damned cookies are if the dork isn't going to give us the recipe?

    December 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  6. 6cats2many

    I agree with those that say the writing is weak and was disappointed too with no recipe nor even a hint of a special ingredient. It would have been better with some side stories of the process. Maybe some of the attempts could be described in more detail, such as what did the cookies taste like when her brother used every extract in the cupboard? More description, Laura. As food lovers, we need detail!

    December 11, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  7. geesthey'reonlycookies

    For the cookies:
    3 ½ cups unbleached flour
    ½ teaspoon baking powder
    ½ teaspoon kosher salt
    1 ½ cups (3 sticks/12 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
    1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
    1 large egg
    2 large egg yolks
    1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    2 teaspoons anisette
    Freshly grated zest of 1 orange
    Powdered sugar

    December 11, 2011 at 3:46 am |
  8. Trident

    They ran this article last year too.

    December 11, 2011 at 12:29 am |
  9. Houstonian

    I disagree. Sometimes, the story of how much love went into making the cookie is better/more importent than a recipe. My mother has my grandmother's recipe for spritz cookies. She even comes close to the taste, but it's just not the same as grandma's. Even though my grandma is still with us, she won't ever make cookies for her grandkids/great-grandkids. Alzhiemers is a wicked disease.

    December 11, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  10. Josie

    I still need to work on a recipe my grandma use to make, might attempt that this year for Christmas. Like many others it's not the ingrediants, its the way it's written. But if I can make these right it will be since at least 96 since we had them last. Grandma passed away in 97. My mom has amazing cinammon rolls, and everytime someone new tries them, they ask for the recipe. My mom's answer, set a day aside and come over...I'll show you. Again, a very simple recipe, but you really do have to do ever step just right or they won't turn out! So I am thinking of going to mom's now, on a day off and making some of the recipes and giving them out to friends....many which will enjoy them.

    December 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm |


    December 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm |

    Very dissappointed not to find the recipe posted. I think I knew your dad, Laura, and once shared one of my Italian family's cookie recipe with him.

    December 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • jute

      I googled the recipe for befana cookies as suggested but the only thing I found was the befana star cookies and the ingredients were different than those on the table. I agree that it should have been posted since that is what the article is about.

      December 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  13. What's the Big Deal?


    December 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  14. Cindy

    Italian stuff is overrated.

    December 10, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Dawn


      That is probably because you think that Olive Garden is "real italian" – go to Italy or the northeast (NY,RI, Mass) then you will know why Italian food is the best!

      December 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
      • AJ

        Amen to that! ^_^

        December 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • Joan

      You haven't traveled Italy , New York , San Francisco. You are missing the entire ship ...............
      The best food in the world is Italian food if your in the right place.

      December 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  15. johanna

    you guys are a bunch of whiners. they're just sugar cookies with powdered sugar on top. you can google the recipe, for gossssakes! it's not like it's been a tradition in your family – find your own!

    December 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  16. HeatherKCS

    This article is not about the cookies – its about a personal quest to recapture a feeling, a memory. We all have scent and flavor memories from family traditions. This recipe project her brother began seems to, at it's root, attempt to hold on to the people involved in those memories. When you carry on a tradition, it's acknowledging the people and the moments you shared. This is not a recipe exchange, this is a family story. Well told!

    December 10, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • SixDegrees

      I get that. But the author makes the recipe the center of the writing, instead of the experience you're talking about. So there's a feeling of being let down or gypped when the recipe never actually appears.

      December 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
      • Fianna

        You probably don't realize this, but "gypped" is an offensive ethnic slur.

        December 11, 2011 at 4:14 am |
      • SixDegrees

        It also entered the American vernacular so long ago that its origins are no longer pertinent in this context. Lighten up.

        December 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  17. Kasey

    Love the fact that my recipe for pignoli has been "awaiting moderation" for two days. Cencorship at its worst. It's a RECIPE for crying out loud. C'mon, CNN.

    December 10, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  18. Hello

    I just yahooed for the recipe. Nothing great about it.

    December 10, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  19. Howie76

    What he wants us to beg for the recipe? No Thanks. Why write about it if your not going to share it?

    December 10, 2011 at 5:42 am |
  20. SixDegrees

    I agree with several other posters here – love the story and resonate with it, but the omission of the recipe is jarring and disappointing, especially when it is the focus of the article.

    December 10, 2011 at 5:31 am |
  21. jinsaeyoo

    Well, there are no special Christmas dishes in South Korea, but on New Year's Day (LUNAR New Year's Day), our family used to gather around for a traditional meat dumpling and rice cake soup... made by my grandmother of North Korean origin who fled to the South during the Korean War. Many foreigners think Korean food as using tons of red pepper pastes and other strong sprices, but traditional North Korean food is much blander (which is NOT equivalent to tastelessness) and simpler. The simple yet delicious soup and dumpling was pretty much the hallmark of New Year celebration... and ever since granny passed away, the soup was never the same....

    December 10, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  22. Maria

    I agree how to stupid not to share the recipe. Unless of course the story is bogus. I can't see my brother putting so muhc effort in making a cookie??!! Made a nice story but folks there is no 'recipe'.

    December 9, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • Alf

      There is always a recipe. I have my Great grandma's Dordite recipe from my dad. we never share it until the next generation is ready to learn to make it, and only 2 relatives have the recipe at any time. Italians protect their goodies:) besides, the recipe makes 12-14dozen at a time so there's plenty to share.

      December 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Really? I spent about four years trying to duplicate one of my grandmother's holiday cookie recipes after she had passed away, and finally succeeded. I would do it again, too. Unlike Bernardini, however, I had a recipe to work from; the problem was in the process rather than the ingredient list. And like Bernardini – and Proust, for that matter – the taste of these cookies transports me to an earlier time and place. I'm a bit miffed that no recipe is included with the article, but I can completely understand the effort that went into duplicating it.

      December 10, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  23. R. Brown

    Isn't the idea of a cooking feature like this to share ideas, and to help people to expand their knowledge and experience? I don't see how Laura Bernardini's posting is really helping anybody at all, or is even interesting. Really, she should have given some warning in the beginning: "You will never eat these cookies!"

    December 9, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • oldguy

      I think she HAS given the recipe. The only problem is you have to figure it out the same way her brother did...

      December 10, 2011 at 1:11 am |
  24. Nathan

    I don't get keeping the recipe a secret either. It's great that your family was able to replicate the recipe, but to brag about it and keep it a secret...?

    December 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • mixbee

      I agree with you Nathan. Why bother to give all the details of the trials and errors and then not give the recipe. Cooking is my hobby and I love to give recipes. I have never understood why someone wouldn't give their own to others. Unless you earn your living from the product, it's childish to keep secrets like this.

      December 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Kasey

      I can totally understand keeping it secret. What I can't understand is writing and publishing an article, with a slide show no less, about making the cookies and not includin the recipe. I appreciate traditions as much as the next one, but this wasted my time. SO, that said, I'm going to give everyone a recipe for Pignoli right now, so that reading the comments at least won't be a waste of time... These cookies are tiny mounds of crunchy-chewy heaven.

      8 oz can (not tube, if possible) almond paste
      2 egg whites
      2/3 C sugar
      1/2 C pine nuts (pignoli)

      Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

      Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Break up the almond paste in a food processor or electric mixer until finely crumbled. Add sugar and mix together until well blended. Fold egg whites into almond paste mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto parchment paper that has been sprayed with cooking spray, press pine nuts onto the top. Bake at 325 for 10-12 minutes, or until lightly browned around the edges. Do not overbake. Cool on the cookie sheet for 10-15 minutes before removing to a plate or cooking rack. Store in an airtight container. You may want to double the recipe. They go fast.

      December 9, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
      • Tammy

        Thank you Kasey!

        December 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • From a Family of Control Freaks

      It's a control thing. If you knew what the recipe was, they would lose their mystique and their credibility. So they keep people guessing, keep 'em coming back for more and it makes them feel important and superior. If everyone ignores them about the recipe or the "secret ingredient" or whatever it is, over time, they'll beg you to take the recipe from them.

      December 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  25. Petey

    Befana are made with anise, and taste like something else that sounds similar to "anise" if you know what I mean. Pinoli are much better.

    December 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  26. Bonnie

    I'm planning on having a massive Christmas cookie making session on Sunday and can't wait! We aren't doing anything exotic, just sugar cookies, Hershey's peanut butter blossoms, and buckeyes (our homemade version of Reese's PB cups). I have my Nana's recipe for her signature cookie, but it just doesn't taste the same, so I never make it anymore. I guess the cookie died with her. Sigh. Miss them both.

    December 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  27. Crystal

    Thanks for sharing this awesome family tradition with us! My grandmother wasn't much of a cook nor baker, but she did show me a fun baked apple recipe using a "secret" ingredient as well. I think of her every time I smell baked apples. Merry Christmas!

    December 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  28. dave

    I don't get the secrecy thing. Why is it better that someone else can't have it? I was thinking as I read the article that I would make them this weekend for my good friends at a Christmas party –started to like your family, also. Wanted to tell the story. But then...nada. Enjoy your cookies and nice family. Merry Christmas

    December 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  29. Nancy

    I totally get the secrecy thing. My Italian mother in law (God rest her soul) gave me her ginetti recipe by letting me watch her make them and then made me swear that the only person I could ever pass the recipe on to was my daughter. We have befana visit us on Three Kings Day here. My daughter is 13 but still expects a little something in her shoes. Buon Natale!

    December 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  30. PedsRNMomma@alicia

    my mother makes those ! she even has a special rolling pin. its one of our family christmas cookie traditions. because I don't love the taste of licorice I only eat one or two but I have much respect for all the work that goes into them :) that side of my family has a german/polish background.

    December 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  31. Mike B

    Christmas without sfinciuni isn't Christmas. Nana never taught any of us to make it. My aunt might know how but she isn't close enough to spend a day with learning it. So I've worked on it and come pretty close...just a few more iterations and it will be as close as anyone from my generation will come.

    December 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  32. Nicholas

    Pizzelle and pignioli are the cookies I remember.

    December 9, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Kasey

      Mmmm. Me, too. And Pignoli are so simple, I love to make them at Christmas.

      December 9, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  33. alicia

    Every year about december first I make a cookie called springerlies. They are my dads favorite and something his grandmother made for him growing up. I never had a chance to meet her but did learn to make her signature cookies to bring a little bit of her to us at the holidays. The story behind the cookies was that great grandma used to make them during the war to send to soldiers because the packaged well and were made with anise so still had lots of flavor upon arrival. It was also a family favorite and she would also send them to family members. Great grandma grew up and migrated from germany, it was a recipie she brought with her and it is the only recipie from her that I know so I feel being the only female it is an important tradition to carry on. In germany if you receive there cookies it was a sign of respect and appreciation, probably because they take two weeks to make and be ready to eat. But they and really Yummy with some hot tea. By the way in bakeries in germany and surrounding areas they can retail for about a dollar a cookie, and can be difficult to find.

    December 27, 2010 at 2:56 am |
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