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!