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- by Nancy, January 08, 2010
How could I, an avid baker, artist, and lover of all things with a global connection and a long thread into the past, have gone my whole life without hearing about a Greek New Year’s holiday that is celebrated with a buttery cake, and not only that, but with a prize for good luck hidden inside? Here is a photo of my friend, colleague, fellow mom and musician Erasmia with her Vasilopita (which I am told can be a cake, bread or even pie) half-eaten by a crew of celebrants. It’s delicious and surprisingly light, and more than that, carries with it tales and traditions that reach back into ancient memory and history. The tradition of the vasilopita celebrates St. Basil, who made good on his promise to the impoverished of Caesarea that he would make their greedy emperor repent and give back all the coins, heirlooms and jewelry he had demanded from them to pay excessive taxes. Since the task was daunting to return everything to the rightful owners, the story goes that all the treasures were baked into a cake that was then sliced up and shared among the people. The miracle is that supposedly each family received a slice of cake that contained exactly the treasures they had contributed. In commemoration today, a foil-wrapped coin is baked into the cake and the person who receives it has good luck for the year to come. St. Basil is also credited with generosity in the community, having set up an orphanage and hospital during his lifetime.
I was intrigued also by old recipes for the cake, which contain Old World ingredients, mahlepi (crushed, powdered sour cherry pits with a fruity taste) and mastiha (a jewel-like aromatic resin) I had never heard of, but which Erasmia says are still available at cool specialty shops. She wrote to me, “I didn’t know that mastihashop opened in Soho last year!” You can also get this ingredient as a liqueur. About the taste she writes, ”This is the mastiha that I remember as a child – I see now that it is mastic with sugar and corn syrup. It’s easy to find, any Greek shop will have it (such as The Greek Store in Kenilworth, New Jersey.) As kids, we did not like the gum so much.” Erasmia also told me about how difficult it can be, as with most old recipes from other cultures, to get exact measurements. She writes, ”This blog shows pictures of the almonds decorating the top, and the recipe includes brandy, which was an important ingredient in my mom’s version. (I have to ask her to give it to me sometime – it’s in a very very old Greek cookbook (my grandmother’s) and the language is a little dated, so I don’t understand measurements, etc.” Erasmia’s version comes from a 1957 cookbook, which she shared with Jellypress.
Vasilopeta – Cretan New Year Cake
adapted from a cookbook called “Popular Greek Recipes”, which was first published in 1957 by The Ladies of Philoptochos Society at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Buy it here.)
1 cup butter
½ cup vegetable oil
2 ½ cups sugar
7 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon almond extract, optional
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ cup sugar
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup yogurt
1 cup crushed almonds, slightly toasted, optional
*(Erasmia’s additions: orange zest from one orange; ½ cup orange juice)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Toast almonds in oven in pan with 1 teaspoon melted butter for 5 minutes, or until slightly amber in color – stir often.
Cream butter and oil with sugar for 10 minutes. Add egg yolks and flavorings, beating until fluffy - *here, Erasmia also added orange zest and orange juice. Sift dry ingredients and add to batter alternately with yogurt. Fold in the crushed almonds. Beat the egg whites with salt until foamy. Gradually add ¼ cup sugar and continue beating until a stiff meringue forms. Carefully add to cake batter, blending lightly. Pour into greased and floured baking pan, about 16” by 11” or a round 14” pan. Drop a sterilized coin into the batter, and decorate the top with slivers of almonds. Bake in oven at 325 for 35 – 40 minutes.
*(I put it into a 9 by 13 glass pan, but it was a little deeper, and needed to bake longer. Probably the recipe demands a bigger but shallower pan.)