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Epiphany, the Befana & Pavlova

Mandarin Curd Pavlova with Frosted Bay and Yoghurt Cream

Epiphany, or Befana as it is colloquially known, is a day that in Sardinia almost eclipses the 25th of December, at least as far as children are concerned. Although Santa Claus (or the Father Christmas of my English childhood) is now widely accepted and well known across Europe, the traditional Yuletide gift-giver for Italian children was the Befana, an old, be-stockinged lady with hooked nose, crooked, toothless grin, a headscarf and a broom. In Italian folklore tradition the Befana - a sort of benign witch - though undeniably less cuddly than our jolly, pink-cheeked and plump Father Christmas, appeared during the night of the 5th of December, the eve of Epiphany, and filled stockings hung above the fireplace with lumps of coal for naughty children or caramels and clementines for those who had behaved well during the year.

These days black sugar coal can be bought especially, and the tradition is mostly kept for children, whilst adults discreetly exchange gifts under the tree on Christmas day. However Epiphany is still celebrated, the day of the physical manifestation of Jesus – revealing himself to the gentiles as the son of God, which is where the etymology for the word Epiphany comes from – in Greek ‘theophania’, or ‘God made real’. ‘Befana’ is thought to be a corruption of this.

Epiphany, or the 6th of January, also marks the last day of Christmas and is a national holiday in Italy, a day for staying at home, watching old films and eating a second festive feast, perhaps more fish-themed than the first, or at least so in our family (this year fish soup, fish lasagne, and then whole roast fish). It is officially the last day of the holidays, when the decorations come down and get stowed away, the last of the panettone is eaten and children (and teachers) get ready to go back to school. I like this second final farewell to Christmas, totally unfamiliar to me, and the idea that Befana ‘dressed alla Romana’ as the rhyme goes, will pass, with her stockings gathered about her ankles and her nose red with cold, as pock-marked as a Christmas Pudding.

This year in addition to the traditional leftover panettone I made this pavlova. Pavlova is often viewed as a summer dish, but can be equally delightful in winter. It is quick, instantly impressive and extremely versatile, and provides a becomingly fresh festive sweet treat to counteract all those darkly indulgent, sultrily boozy puddings.

There are several twists I use to make this version a little lighter than the standard pav: less sugar than traditional recipes, lemon in the meringue, a little tangy yoghurt in the cream and then the sharp curd on top. Whenever I make this I lose count of how many times people go away muttering ‘I usually find meringue too sweet but this was…’. Nothing like blasting away lifelong assumptions for easing into the New Year with style.

Serves 8-10

For the Pavlova

3 egg whites

175g granulated sugar

A scrape of vanilla seeds/some vanilla paste/essence

½ tsp lemon juice

1 tsp cornflour

A pinch of salt

For the Cream

250ml whipping cream

100ml thick Greek yoghurt

120g icing sugar

Finely grated zest of 1 mandarin/clementine

For the Curd:

See recipe on previous blog

To Decorate:

A handful of fresh bay leaves, washed and patted dry

1 orange, peeled and sliced

Fresh mandarins/clementines (peeled)

In an ideal world you would make this pudding in January having already made your citrus curd to give as gifts over Christmas and this would use up that small jar of the leftovers, just in time for Epiphany. This makes the process extra quick; a pudding you can pull off in a late morning in time for lunch. However, there is of course nothing to stop you starting from scratch if you have not already made your curd. (See p.. for the curd recipe)

Preheat the oven to 150.

Place the lemon juice in the mixing bowl with a pinch of salt and the egg whites and begin to whip. Beat the whites until stiff and shiny peaks, then beat in the sugar gradually, a little at a time, beating all the time, until you have soft peaks. Beat in the cornflour and the vanilla. Spread evenly into a circle about 18-20 cm across, flattening out the middle and raising the sides a little to allow space for the fruit/cream and cook for around an hour, until firm. Check underneath to see if it has set properly, and the top should be crisp too. Turn the oven off and leave the pavlova to cool inside.

Remove from the oven and lift carefully off the baking sheet and onto a serving plate.

Whip the cream to stiff peaks then fold through the yoghurt and the icing sugar (sieve it first if lumpy). Add the zest.

Spread the cream out over the base of the meringue, then swirl your curd over that, and finally decorate with slices/segments of orange and the bay leaves. Dust with icing sugar and serve.


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