Cooking is serious business for those of Greek heritage. Great food is a time-honoured way of showing love to oneself, family, and friends. Comforting them too, if that’s needed. Like many immigrant groups, after generations of living away from the homeland, much of the original culture is embodied in the cuisine. It’s no wonder, then, that the worst arguments EVER between Greeks can be over the “right” way to make a dish.
My mysteries feature Greek characters, so naturally Greek food is an integral part of their settings. I make art imitate life: first-generation immigrants, like my mother, are usually sticklers for tradition. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, deviate from the ancestral fare. And since these dishes are absolutely delicious, there’s nothing wrong with keeping to the tested and proven approach. Second-generation and beyond Greeks may enjoy incorporating other culinary traditions and local ingredients into their recipes, giving them a distinctly regional flavour (that’s more my schtick).
I pay tribute here to older and newer generations of Greek immigrants everywhere by offering both kinds of delights. Have a recipe “tweaking” insight? Share your suggestion by posting a comment, and thanks very much. Now, stay tuned to enjoy a little taste of the Greek life!
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 fortune sets the trend for the year. To encourage good things to come their way, Greeks eat delicious food, enjoy leisure pastimes with friends and family, and hope to win the symbolic good luck lottery: a coin hidden in the New Year’s pastry.
Either at midnight on January 1st or sometime that day, the vasilopita (which translates literally as the bread of St. Basil, whose feast day falls on the first) is divided among members of a household. It’s an honorable task that falls to one person, usually the oldest family member. Each person’s name is called out before their piece is cut. If the knife happens to hit the coin, that individual wins the good luck jackpot!
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. Children usually receive their pieces in order of age, and guests get their chance before or after the family’s served–a good way to gauge your host’s generosity!
Vasilopita can be made as a yeast-based sweet bread. Like most descendants of Greek immigrants, I make the cake version. I don’t deviate much from tradition, excepting the decorative chocolate swirls. It’s an easy way to dress up this non-iced cake (and very popular with the kiddos!).
This recipe produces 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.
I’m going to share a secret, dear friend. 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 the year to come.
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 softened unsalted butter (if using less butter, add 1/4 cup plain unsweetened yogurt)*; 1/2 cup sugar; 4 large eggs (yolks and whites separated); 1 cup orange juice (fresh squeezed is best); 1 tbs orange zest; one washed coin, wrapped in foil**; 1 1/2 ounces melted chocolate of your choice (I like to offset the orange with the slight bitterness of semi-sweet chocolate. When making this cake with kids in mind, I’ll use their preferred milk chocolate. Any kind you enjoy 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. I’ve slashed the fat in this version, but use whatever your diet, health, and budget allows.
Traditionally, Greek form the new year’s numbers 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.
Bakers often add one or two tablespoons of Metaxa to the batter. As discussed in another post, this brandy’s flavors meld beautifully with citrus notes.
You might choose to spice up your vasilopita with the holy trinity of Greek baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). I don’t want to overwhelm the cake’s subtle orange taste, so I bypass this option. If you do want to include spices, I suggest doing so sparingly.
**Rather than a coin, you can hide a jewelry charm (I recently used a silver angel) or a small keepsake that can be placed on a key chain or in a wallet. A sweet visual reminder! I picked up this idea from Alexandra Stratou’s Cooking with Loula. Craft stores are great places to find these items at inexpensive prices.
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. I stir in the flour to prevent this problem. And yes, regardless of whether you use a blender or old-school spoon, the batter will be 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 or charm.
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. I’d love to hear from you!
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 the new year, don’t hesitate to send them in. Opa!
Traditional moustokouloura are cookies made with grape must syrup (petimezi), flour, olive oil and the holy trinity of Greek baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). In Greece, these ingredients would have been widely available at a minimal cost.
These treats embody the genius and heart of Greek rustic cuisine. It evolved over centuries of poverty during which Greeks refused to lose their humanity and love of life. Its guiding principle: use the ingredients around you that don’t cost much and whip them into something that lifts your heart. Glendi food!
The main ingredient is naturally sweet petimezi, created as the first step in making wine. Although vineyards abound in Greece, that isn’t the case in many parts of the world. Greeks have been migrating from the homeland for centuries, even during the Bronze Age. They learned to adapt traditional recipes with local produce. In other words, substitution is a technique that is true to Greek cultural roots.
Greek-American/Canadian women will generally use molasses in lieu of petimezi. I had one of my baking eureka moments, promoted by a sale on pomegranate juice, and decided to try a different tangy fruit juice in place of grape must.
These “Greek immigrant” pomegranate cookies are moist, spicy, tangy, and perfect for dipping into strong coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. They’re designed for Greek Orthodox fasting days, so these cookies don’t contain eggs and dairy, making them suitable for vegans too.
Ingredients (Will make around 15 cookies)
Pomegranate “must”: 1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice
Wet ingredients: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tbs lemon juice, 1/4 cup water
Alternative Almond Version Ingredients: Want to dial back the tanginess a bit? Like a buttery taste in your sweets? You’ll get both if you make this cookie with almond flour.
In lieu of 1 1/2 cups of flour, use 1 cup almond flour and 1 cup all-purpose flour. The greater weight of the nut flour necessitates adding 1/2 tsp baking powder more to the recipe above (mix with the dry ingredients). Given the moisture-retaining properties of almond flour, you probably won’t need the 1/4 cup of water. Only sprinkle the water on the batter, if you think the dough seems on the dry side.
1. Make the pomegranate juice concentrate. This can be done in advance and refrigerated or frozen.
Bring one cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice to a boil and then reduce heat. Simmer for one hour or so, until the juice is reduced to a 1/4 cup. Allow the concentrate to cool to room temperature before using.
Warning: You might be tempted to add the sugar to the juice as it cooks. After all, you’ll be adding it eventually, right? If you do so, you’re making pomegranate molasses. You can make these cookies with pomegranate molasses, but that stuff is so thick, you’ll have to heat it to a thinner consistency.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a cookie sheet.
3. Combine the flour, spices, salt, and lemon zest.
4. Cream the olive oil and sugar.
5. Beat in the cooled, concentrated pomegranate juice.
6. In a cup, add the baking soda to the lemon juice (the acid activates the leavening powers of the baking soda). Get ready for some fizz! Mix this with the liquid ingredients.
7. Beat in the flour mix and 1/4 cup of water. As the batter thickens, you’ll need to use your hands or a spoon to mix it to a cookie dough consistency.
8. Get ready to roll! Pinch off walnut sized pieces of cookie dough and roll into a log about 1/3 of an inch thick. Greek women have preferences in their log “thickness,” and you also might want a thicker cookie. Just be sure to be consistent in the log thickness, since you want the cookies to cook evenly. Twist these logs into any shape your heart desires: braids, spirals, rounds, hearts. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination!
Tip: This dough is super sticky. Scattering a bit of flour on the rolling surface will make it easier to manipulate.
9. These cookies take about twelve minutes to bake when they are about 1/3 inch in thickness. If you’re making the almond version, they’ll be ready in roughly ten minutes.
Store in an airtight container and enjoy! They taste even better the day after they are made.
*You might not have access to a vineyard, but you can now buy authentic Greek petimezi! If you want to go back to the Hellenic cookie roots, order a bottle, also sold as Greek grape molasses, and give it a go. Just use a search engine to find it online or in a Greek grocery store near you.
The petimezi–based recipe is essentially the same as the pomegranate version, but you won’t need much additional sugar as grapes are naturally sweet. Plus, no need for that first step of concentrating the juice: pour from the bottle right into the mixing bowl. I suggest cutting back on the spices in order not to overwhelm the more delicate taste of grape must syrup, but fans of spicy should feel free to ignore my advice.
You can also use petimezi as a natural sugar substitute, drizzling it on desserts and fruit, and as the key note in delicious Greek puddings and cakes. Support Greek farmers and entrepreneurs struggling to make a living, and reward yourself with this Greek delicacy!
Recipes for the traditional version of Greek walnut cake (karithopita) abound. Greeks serve it on special occasions year round, most commonly at Christmas. I absolutely love the flavor of pumpkin, and local Canadian farmers’ stalls overflow with pie pumpkins in October. This fall bounty inspired me to create a pumpkin-infused adaptation of my favorite Greek cake.
The result is a moist, crumbly, not-too sweet, honey-kissed karithopita that will delight everyone. Even diehard traditionalist Greek bakers ask me for this recipe! It makes six or nine servings.
Syrup: 3/4 cup water; 1/2 cup honey; 1 cinnamon stick
Cake: 1 1/2 cups ground walnuts (pulverized to a bread-crumb size); 1 cup finely ground wheat biscuits or rusks (they’re a bit grainier than flour, which helps this cake achieve a crumbly texture); 1/2 cup all-purpose flour; 1 1/2 tsps baking powder; 1 1/2 tsps baking soda; 1/2 tsp salt; 1 tsp ground cinnamon; 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg; 1/4 tsp ground cloves; 1/2 cup unsalted butter; 4 eggs; 1/4 cup sugar; 3/4 cup canned pumpkin; 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt or yogurt; 1/4 cup milk
1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a nine by nine inch square or round pan and put aside.
2. Bring water and cinnamon stick to a boil, and then lower the temperature, simmering for five minutes. Add the honey and simmer for another five minutes. Remove from the heat to cool.
3. Combine the walnuts, ground biscuits/rusks, flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.
4. Separate the egg yolks and egg whites. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Set aside.
5. Cream the butter with the egg yolks and sugar. Beat in the pumpkin, yogurt and milk.
6. Blend the dry ingredients with the wet ones, adding one-third of the dry mix at a time. The cake batter will look too thick to you. Stay calm!
7. Fold in the egg whites. You’ll see that the batter becomes looser, although it’s still thicker than that of most cakes. The stiffened egg whites added in this separate stage help this heavy batter become a bit fluffier. It’s also the reason for what might seem to be a relatively high amount of baking powder and baking soda.
8. Scrape the batter into the buttered pan. The batter will still be thick, so you’ll need to spread it out with the flatter side of the spoon.
9. Bake for around forty-five minutes. When a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, it’s done.
10. Remove the cake from the oven. Take the cinnamon stick out of the cooled syrup and immediately pour it evenly over the entire cake. Allow the cake to absorb the syrup (minimum two hours) before serving. Note: This cake freezes quite well.
*Alternative Ingredients: Try it with maple syrup instead of honey. Switch out the white sugar with brown (it pairs better with the syrup). If you like citrus notes, add a three-inch orange peel (pith removed) to the syrup at the water and cinnamon stage, as well as some grated orange zest to the cake batter (mix it with the dry ingredients).
This cake is delicious as is or add some more culinary oomph by drizzling it with a dark chocolate sauce. If you’re serving it exclusively to grown-ups, a bit of Metaxa brandy in that sauce provides a zesty kick! Garnish with whipped cream.
For those unfamiliar with Greek Metaxa brandy, it’s a heady mixture of brandy and wine. The rich flavors include citrus notes and anise. It pairs beautifully with Greek desserts. Many Greek cooks will add a tablespoon or so to their syrups and/or cake batters. It can also be served as part of a specialty coffee accompanying the sweet.