New Year’s Day is an important one for Greeks, so it’s no surprise a special dessert was created for this special day. Popular belief holds that this day’s luck sets the trend for the year. To encourage good things to come their way, the Papas family, like other Greeks, eat delicious food, enjoy leisure pastimes with friends and family, and hope to win the symbolic lottery: a coin hidden in the New Year’s sweet.
Either at midnight on January 1st or sometime that day, the vassilopita (which translates literally as the bread of St. Basil, whose feast day falls on the first) is divided among members of a household. One person carries out this task. It’s a honor to do so, and elderly Sia’s in charge of the distribution for the Papases.
Each person’s name is called out as their piece is cut. If the knife happens to hit the coin, that individual wins the good luck jackpot! If not found then, it will be as the sweet is quickly consumed.
The first slice is symbolically dedicated to whomever or whatever the family most values. Greeks often give it to Christ. If it contains the coin, it’s donated to the church. More wedges can be likewise allocated when the vassilopita is large. Children usually receive their pieces in order of age, and guests get a chance either before or after the family’s served–a good way to gauge your host’s generosity!
Vassilopita can be made as a sweet bread. Helen, like most descendants of Greek immigrants, makes the cake version. She doesn’t deviate much from tradition, to Sia’s relief, excepting the decorative chocolate swirls. Helen thinks it’s an easy addition to dress up this non-iced cake, and I agree.
The result is a simple, elegant cake almost as dense as bread, somewhat similar in texture to pound cake. Moist and redolent with orange notes, it’s perfect with coffee or Greek rosé wine.
Sia and Helen just left the room, so I can share a secret. You don’t really need to win that coin to change your luck, although this New Year’s cake is a fun tradition.
Every person faces different hurtles to achieving her or his dream. My New Year’s wish for you is to find the courage and means to live that aspiration in 2018.
That’s getting lucky!
Ingredients (makes six servings):
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour; 2 1/2 tsps. baking powder; 1/2 OR 3/4 cup unsalted butter (softened)*; 1/2 cup sugar; 4 large eggs (yolks and whites separated); 1 cup orange juice (fresh squeezed is best); 1 tbsp. orange zest; one washed coin, wrapped in foil; 1 1/2 ounces melted chocolate of your choice (Helen likes to offset the orange with the slight bitterness of semi-sweet chocolate. When making this cake with kids in mind, she uses their preferred milk chocolate. Any kind you like is just perfect, though.)
*Most vassilopita recipes use the ratio of almost 1 cup butter to every 2 cups flour. This is the classic butter-flour ratio for pound cakes. Helen slashes the fat by fifty percent with her use of a half-cup of butter. I prefer 3/4 cup butter–it’s a nice compromise. Use whatever your diet, health, and budget allows.
Helen forms the numbers of the new year on the cake with sliced almonds, attaching them with dollops of melted chocolate. Alternatively, you can use chocolate kisses, icing, or skip this step altogether.
Greek women often add up to a tablespoon of Metaxa to the batter. As discussed in my November 7th recipe posting, this brandy’s flavors meld beautifully with citrus notes.
You might choose to spice up your vassilopita with the holy trinity of Greek baking (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). Helen doesn’t want to overwhelm the cake’s subtle orange taste, so she bypasses this addition. If you do want to include spices, she suggests doing so sparingly.
1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember to lower the temperature by 25 degrees when using a dark-colored pan. Butter an eight-inch round or square pan.
2. Combine the flour and baking powder in a small bowl. This is also the place to add spices.
3. Melt the chocolate to a pouring consistency, and put aside to cool.
4. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
5. In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar.
6. Beat in the egg yolks. Add the orange juice and zest. If you’re including Metaxa, this is the time to do so.
7. Now you add the flour combo to the wet ingredients. Do so in three or four stages to keep the cake tender. Adding all the flour at once will make for a tough cake…and eating experience! For a similar reason, you want to avoid overbeating the batter. Helen stirs in the flour to prevent this problem. And yes, regardless of whether you use a blender or old-school spoon, the batter is cookie-dough thick. Stay calm!
8. Fold in the stiffened egg whites, and breathe a sigh of relief as the batter loosens. You’ll still need to spread the thick batter in the pan with a spoon. Before you do so, be sure to add the wrapped coin.
9. Drizzle the melted chocolate on top of the batter. Use a knife or skewer to swirl the chocolate through the top of the cake. Isn’t that easy and pretty?
10. Bake around 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in a non-chocolate area of the cake comes out clean.
11. Allow to cool before eating (room temperature highlights the cake’s delicate orange flavor). You can also make this dessert well in advance, freeze and then defrost.
Do you have a dish and associated tradition for the new year? Please share by posting a comment.
And while you’re waiting for your fortune to change, why not bring a bit of luck to others?
Not sure where to begin? Consider adopting a shelter cat or dog or helping an abandoned animal get off the streets. That’s where I found my Athena, a starving kitten living under a porch. Can’t afford to take in a pet permanently? Animal rescue groups are desperate for foster homes.
If you have other suggestions on how to help someone’s luck change in 2018, don’t hesitate to send them in. Opa!