Ever wonder why, in most Greek families, names seem to be on repeat? At any given family function you are likely to find 4 Marias, 3 Costas and about 7 Georges. That’s because Greek parents have traditionally always named their children after their own parents. So, two siblings who each have daughters, may very well name their girls after their common mother, for example. Many Greek names are also names of Saints, making the Nameday (the day during which we commemorate the life of a given Saint) a much bigger deal amongst many Greeks than birthdays could ever be. Each of us is named after one of our grandmothers, and one of our Greek names (Vasiliki) is also associated with Saint Basil the Great, who is commemorated on January 1st, the day of his death.
St. Basil the Great was the Greek bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Coppadocia, in Asia Minor (what is today, Turkey). In addition to his theological works, he was also a great support for the underprivileged and poor. In his memory, on St. Basil’s Day, homes of Orthodox Christians serve vasilopita (translated to mean St. Basil’s bread) to honour him. Although there are many versions and types of vasilopita, they all have one thing in common; there is a single coin baked into each one. This coin is a symbol and reminder of St. Basil’s intervention against the emperor of Caesarea, and God’s miracle. One year, the emperor of Caesarea had levied a heavy tax on the people, during a year of great famine and hardship. Upon hearing the news, St. Basil asked the emperor to repent, and he did. The emperor ordered that all gold coins, money and jewels that the people had used to pay this tax, be returned to them. Bishop Basil was assigned the daunting and overwhelming task of doing so. Unsure of how to return the goods to their rightful owners, prayer led St. Basil to bake a large pita, into which he has inserted all the valuables. He then called the townspeople to each take a piece, and miraculously, each piece contained the exact items which were to be returned to the right owner.
In our family, vasilopita is always served after lunch on the Feast Day of St. Basil, which is coincidentally also New Year’s Day (January 1st) for many. Our father is typically the person who cuts and serves the pieces, and this is done in a particular order. The first piece is cut and saved for Christ, the second for St. Basil, and the third for the less fortunate. Then, a piece of vasilopita is cut for all members of the family, and any friends who may be present. The vasilopita is always offered to the oldest person present, up until the youngest. The person whose piece contains the coin is expected to have good luck and blessings for the upcoming year.
There are many ways to bake a vasilopita. Some versions are very bread-like, and similar to the Easter tsoureki. Other versions, like our parents’ recipe which follows, are more cake-like. Both are delicious, but different. Besides the obvious flavour and texture differences, another difference between the two is that with the bread type of vasilopita you can usually use a bit of the dough to roll out the numbers of the year, which is then laid on top of the bread before baking. You can’t really do that with this recipe. If you would like to have the year showcased on your vasilopita however, you can either decorate it with sliced almonds, or use a stencil with the year cut out of it, on top of the cake before you sprinkle it with icing sugar. Our parents would sometimes do this, but not usually. They always reminded us that this was not a New Year’s cake, but a cake to commemorate the Feast Day of St. Basil.
Although you will grease your cake pan with some vegetable oil, is it still a very good idea to line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. The easiest way to get just the right size of parchment paper for the bottom of your round pan is to place your baking pan on a sheet of parchment paper and to trace its outline with a pencil. Then, use a scissor to cut out the perfect circle. Ta da!
Before inserting the coin into your cake batter, it is a very good idea to wash it and to then wrap it with either food grade plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Traditionally, before inserting the coin into the cake you would use it to make the sign of the cross over the pan. The easiest way to get your coin into the batter is to use a knife to make a small cut into the batter and slip the coin right in. Spread the batter evenly so that it is not obvious where the coin is.
Eating cake or bread with a coin hidden in it could definitely be a choking hazard, so please…if you are serving vasilopita to the very young or the very elderly, be careful. We remember that when we were little, our parents would often tear our pieces apart before allowing us to eat them, being sure that if there were a coin in there, it would be found before it ended up in our mouths. Now that we think of it…we can’t remember a year when one of the children didn’t actually get the coin. Coincidence? Maybe…or perhaps clever serving by our dad. It was always such a thrill to find the coin!
This cake keeps really well and is even more delicious if made the day before. This is also a great option because it means that your cake will have ample time to cool fully before you sprinkle it with icing sugar.
Mia Kouppa: Vasilopita
- 3 1/2 cups (875 ml) sifted all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons (8 ml) baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 1 cup (250 ml) unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups (500 ml) white granulated sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) orange rind, tightly packed
- 1 teaspoon (4 ml) vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) cognac or brandy
- 1 cup (250 ml) milk
- Approximately 1/3 cup (80 ml) icing sugar, for dusting on top of the vasilopita
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- In a large bowl, combine the sifted flour, baking powder and salt. Mix together with a whisk or a fork. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, at medium speed, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat until well combined and smooth, approximately 3 – 4 minutes.
- To the sugar and butter add the eggs, one at a time. Beat well after each egg is added. Then, add the orange rind, vanilla extract and cognac. Mix well.
- Slowly add one cup of the flour to the bowl of the electric mixer. Mix well. Then, add the milk and the remaining flour. Mix well, over low speed to prevent too much splattering. When the ingredients have been combined, turn the speed to medium and continue beating for a another minute or two. Your batter should be smooth and without any lumps.
- Take a 10 inch round baking pan and grease the bottom and sides with a thin layer of vegetable oil. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.
- Take a silver coin (usually a quarter) and wash it well. Dry the coin and then wrap it in securely in plastic wrap. Set aside.
- Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Smooth out the batter so it is spread evenly in the pan. Using a knife, make an indentation in the batter in order to make it easy for you to slip the coin in. Be sure that the coin does not poke out the top of the vasilopita batter. Smooth the top once again.
- Bake your vasilopita in the middle rack of your oven for approximately 50-65 minutes. You can check that it is done by inserting a clean toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, with only crumbs attached to it (no wet batter), then your vasilopita is ready. Remember each oven is different, therefore, start checking your cake after 50 minutes to check for doneness.
- Allow to cool in the cake pan for about 5 minutes and then remove it from the pan and allow it to cool fully on a cake rack. Once it is fully cooled, sprinkle the top with some icing sugar, and serve.
- Be mindful when serving the vasilopita to small children and the very elderly; the coin could be a choking hazard. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.