Greek Good Luck Cake for the New Year (Vassilopita)

Greek Good Luck Cake

 

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.)

Optional Ingredients: 

*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.

Instructions:

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!

Athena 2
Athena Calli, my lucky charm!

 

Greek (ish) Pomegranate Vegan Cookies aka Opa Cookies (Moustokouloura)

IMG_2114

This is a Sia recipe, and she insists that it is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT traditional. Well, that’s true, if you accept her argument that anything she makes is traditional because she makes it. I, for one, am not going to argue with the tiny titan!

And this is a recipe that is true to its Greek cultural roots in two ways.

When Sia and her late husband, Nector, immigrated to Massachusetts from Greece in the late 1960s, the pickings in Safe Haven’s grocery store were pretty sparse. (FYI, this is pre-foodie culture for the millennials out there.) She just couldn’t find the ingredients needed to make some Greek dishes.

One day, a homesick Nector says to Sia, “I really miss moustokouloura. Do you think you can make some?”

Now, Nector was the love of Sia’s life. A hard-working man, he asked for nothing and gave much. So she set her formidable mind to this task.

Brief informative digression: What are moustokouloura? They’re cookies made with grape must syrup, flour, olive oil and the holy trinity of Greek baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). Back in Greece, these ingredients would have been available to every cook at a minimal cost.

These sweets embody the genius and heart of Greek rustic cuisine. It developed 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. Opa food!

Back to our heroine’s story: It was impossible for Sia to make these cookies the usual way. The main ingredient is grape must syrup (petimezi), a concentrated juice made from grape must, which in turn is created as the first step in making wine. Needless to say, vineyards did not and do not exist in the Berkshires.* So what’s an old-fashioned gal to do?

You can make grape must from fresh grapes, but these weren’t often found in the village grocery store in the old days. Plus, grapes were expensive. Sia and Nector were working around the clock, and saving every penny to open a diner. (That’s their restaurant in the web banner, by the way.)

Sia had heard about Greek-American women making these cookies with molasses rather than grape must syrup. Substitution is a technique that’s also true to Greek cultural roots. Greeks have been migrating from the motherland for centuries (even in the Bronze Age!), and they would adapt traditional recipes with available local ingredients. This similar to the original ingredient sort of change didn’t offend Sia’s traditionally oriented sensibilities, and she gave molasses a shot. Alas, they didn’t hit her sweet spot. (FYI, these cookies are good. Give them a try.)

Then, Sia had a baking eureka moment: why not use a different tangy fruit juice in place of grape must? And so, pomegranate moustokouloura came into being, and her Nector rejoiced.

These “Greek immigrant” 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. Opa!

Ingredients (Will make around 15 cookies)

Pomegranate “must””: 1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice

Wet ingredients: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tbsp. lemon juice, 1/4 cup water

Dry ingredients: 1/4 cup sugar, 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tbs grated lemon zest, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1/2 tsp salt

Alternative Almond Version Ingredients: Want to dial back the tanginess a bit? Like a more buttery taste in your sweets? You’ll get both, if you make this cookie with almond flour.

In lieu of the 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 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.

Instructions

1. Make the pomegranate juice concentrate. This can be done in advance and the product 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 Sia finds the stuff is so thick, she has to heat it to a thinner consistency, and that makes more work.

2. Prehead the oven to 350 degrees Celsius. Grease a cookie sheet.

3. Combine the flour, spices, salt, and lemon zest.

4. Beat the olive oil and sugar together.

5. Beat in the 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 bring 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!

Hint: This dough is sticky. Scatter a bit of flour on the rolling surface to make it easier to roll.

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 about 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! Sia’s recipe is a nice variation on the original. If you want to go back to the Greek roots, order a bottle of petimezi, 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. Sia suggests cutting the amount of spices in half in order not to overwhelm the more delicate grape must syrup, but fans of spicy should ignore her advice.

You can also use petimezi as a natural sugar substitute, drizzle it on desserts and fruit, and use it 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!

Introduction

Cooking is serious business for those of Greek heritage. Food, 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. 

The casts in my mysteries include Greek characters, so naturally Greek food is an integral part of their settings. In the Silver Linings series, Sia Papas battles her daughter-in-law Helen for the cook’s throne. Sia immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and is a stickler for tradition. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, deviate from the ancestral fare. Helen is a fourth-generation Greek-American who enjoys incorporating other culinary traditions and local ingredients into her Greek recipes, giving them a distinctly American flavour. 

I pay tribute here to older and newer generations of Greek immigrants everywhere by providing both types of recipes. 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!

Greek(ish) Pumpkin Walnut Cake aka Not Your Grandma’s Karithopita!

Cake

Recipes for the traditional version of Greek walnut cake (karithopita) abound. Greeks serve it on special occasions year round, most commonly at Christmas. This version is definitely a “Helen” recipe! She loves to incorporate locally-grown food in her dishes. The Papas family live in the Berkshires region in Massachusetts. Farmers’ stalls overflow with pie pumpkins in October. This fall bounty inspired Helen to create a pumpkin-infused adaptation. The result is a moist, crumbly, not-too sweet, honey-kissed cake that will delight everyone. (Excluding Sia, of course!) This recipe makes nine servings.

Ingredients*

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

Directions 

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Celsius. 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 you 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).

Serving Suggestions: Like many Greek sweets, this cake is a mite heavy to serve immediately following a meal. Instead, live like a Greek (!), and serve it an hour or so later or as a mid-day or evening treat.

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 speciality coffee accompanying the sweet.

Cake with Sauce