Christmas is coming, and therefore so are all the classic food traditions of my region and my city: Emilia Romagna and Modena. Our Christmas cuisine is a veritable feast of unending richness: a central part of that tradition is the Modenese Bensone at the end of your meal.
We asked a Modenese friend of ours if she wanted to share with us and you, her childhood memories of Christmas. She came up with a brief story and a recipe, which we are happy to reproduce here. Thanks, therefore, to Raffaella Caselgrandi for her availability and permission to publish the following. .
The Modenese Bensone: its history and my memories
My memories related to this cake take me back to when I was a child, when my mother and grandmother prepared the Bensone for every important holiday, but sometimes my room would be filled with the smell of this cake even on Sundays, while I was still half-asleep, and I can assure you that waking up to this cocktail of vanilla, sugar and lemon was like a poem.
After Sunday lunch, the bensone would therefore arrive on the table, with the sugar scattered on top, and a drop (one!) of watered-down Lambrusco that my mother would let me have – I would “dunk” the Bensone into the wine, as the adults did (even if they were fortunate enough to have a full glass!) – it was an absolute delight.
HISTORY AND ETYMYLOGY OF THE BENSONE
The Bensone was offered to the patron saints of the blacksmiths and the goldsmiths in the 19th century. This sweet, originally, was prepared with wheat that had been only milled, and not worked any further. For this reason, it is seems that the name derives from the French ““pain de son” that is husk bread”. On the other hand, “bensone” could come from the fact that it was served during religious feasts; during the services, the cake would be blessed hence the “bread of blessing” from the French “pain de bendson”. Today there are still grandmothers who prepared small packaged “bensone” to give to guests invited to celebrate communions or their grandchildren’s confirmation.
The old original recipe called for flour, milk, eggs, butter and honey: later, this was replaced by caster sugar, or beetroot. This cake is oval, very easy to make, and is cut into thick pieces to dunk in your Lambrusco, forming a perfect combination of two typical Emilia gastronomic delicacies. You should try it!
It is also true however that the “bensone” goes perfectly with a nice glass of milk or tea, it is a very adaptable cake suited for either breakfast or a mid-morning snack.
There are two versions of the Modenese bensone: the basic form listed below, and the version filled with jam, even if the original version has no filling.
450 gr type-00 flour
140 gr cane sugar
100 gr butter
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk (for the surface)
3 tablespoons of milk, plus another in case
1 sachet of cake yeast
grated lemon rind
pinch of salt
brown sugar as needed.
In a deep pot, place the flour, yeast, sugar and lemon rind, mix together and add the room-temperature butter, the eggs and the salt. Work it all together, adding a tablespoon of milk at a time, working it continually until you have a firm dough like bread dough. Wrap in oven paper, forming the dough into a 4-5cm oval shape. Make some incisions into the surface, brush with the egg yolk and scatter the brown sugar over the top. Bake in a static pre-heated oven at 180°C for 40 minutes. Remove and allow to cool. Serve cut into thick slices, like bread.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and I hope that you are able to enjoy the sweetness of this holiday cake in the warmth of your own homes this year with your loved ones.