Greek New Year's lucky cake (Vasilopita)
It’s been very chilly in Athens this December. Usually, the first month of the winter is mild here in southern Greece, with lots of sunshine and nice temperatures, up to 19C/66F. This year though things are different; freezing temperatures and cold winds are the key characteristics of the weather. Most mornings and nights, everything is covered in frost.
This wouldn’t stop us of course from enjoying a walk in nature and the warmth the sun has to offer. Even in winter however, there’s a lot of produce to look forward to. We harvested the last of the olives in the last month and the last of the pomegranates. Now it’s the lemon and orange trees’ turn to offer their gifts. In fact they are so many that we have to pick them almost every day or so. Of course since there are a lot of them, we share them with friends and family and use them in countless recipes.
The recipe we’re posting here is one of them. Scented with orange zest, it’s the cake we bake every holiday season for the New Year’s eve: Vasilopita (Saint Basil’s pie). Every family in Greece celebrates the arrival of the New Year by serving this right after midnight. A few seconds before the clock strikes twelve, it is also the custom to turn the lights off in the house to let go of the old year in darkness, and celebrate the arrival of the new one at twelve by turning the lights back on! At this point everyone wishes “Happy New Year, with lots of Health” to everyone (yes; everyone has to wish “happy new year” to everyone who’s present in the household at the moment). It’s a wonderful tradition and perhaps the most popular one here.
The tradition of cutting the Vasilopita cake is not the only popular one though; there’s a lot more customs, some of which are centuries old: the smashing of the pomegranate, the hanging of the squill bulb (a large onion) on the door and the podariko (the lucky first entrance into the household). Since all of these are quite interesting, and very popular, we’d love to share a few details about them.
First, the smashing of the pomegranate: since ancient times, pomegranates are symbolizing prosperity and fertility, because each fruit contains a lot of seeds. So after midnight, when the New Year has arrived, each household has to “sacrifice” a pomegranate by smashing it right in front of the main entrance of the house. After the “Happy New Year” wishes, all the guests and the family members are stepping out of the house for this custom. It’s a great honor for a family member or a guest to smash the pomegranate, as the one who smashes it, has the “responsibility” to scatter as many seeds as possible in order to bring good fortune for the household.
Hanging a large wild onion (squill bulb) on the front door: this custom is truly thousands of years old. Since Pythagoras, back in the 6th century BC, onions have been hanging on Greek front doors, for good luck, health and prosperity. Why is that? Well, onions have the ability to sprout and rebirth, even though they are uprooted. It’s a symbol of strength and resilience and therefore this custom survived to this day. Of course after the New Year, the onion is removed from the door and it’s placed somewhere inside (usually a warehouse) to keep for good luck.
The podariko: the custom of the First Footer. Right after midnight, the first person to enter the house is supposed to bring good or bad fortune. So usually if a year turns out to be bad, this person will not be selected for the custom again:) If the year turns out to be a good one, this person will become the most popular in for this tradition, and will be selected again and again to perform the First Footer custom. It’s supposed to be all about the positive energy and the generous feelings this person brings into the household. That’s why it’s quite often to select a child to enter the house first, as children are pure, innocent and good hearted. It’s very important to enter the house with the right foot first. The right side is supposed to be the blessed side. So everyone shouts “me to deksi!” (Meaning with the right one) to remind the person performing the custom that he must not forget to enter with the right foot.
However, the custom that everyone is waiting for with excitement, is the cutting of the Vasilopita cake, which is a Lucky New Year’s cake. Why is it called lucky? Because there’s a coin hidden inside it. Whoever gets the coin in their slice, is the person receiving the best luck for the New Year. There’s a ritual in cutting the cake:) The eldest member of the family or the host of the New Year’s Eve party is cutting the cake and serving the slices. First, he makes the sign of the cross on top of the cake. Then, there are a number of slices that are reserved. These may vary, according to local customs or family tradition.
Usually, the first slice is cut for Jesus, the next one for the household and the next one for Saint Basil. Some people also cut a slice for Virgin Mary or the Poor. These slices are reserved but not thrown away. They are simply eaten last, by family members the next days. The next slices are all cut and distributed among the family members first and then the rest of the guests. Whoever gets the coin in his or her slice, is the person who receives the best of luck for the New Year. It’s not uncommon to give money are a gift to this person as well. If the coin is inside one of the first, reserved slices though, the luck is supposed to be equally divided among the people present. Isn’t that a lot of fun?
The pie is named “Vasilopita” after Saint Basil of Caesarea. The Greek “Santa Claus” is Saint Basil, called Agios Vasilis. Saint Basil was a very generous bishop and a great philanthropist who lived in Minor Asia (modern day Turkey). He was a thin, kind hearted man, who helped everyone in need, especially the poor. St. Basil was very compassionate and also established the first orphanage ever recorded in history. Since he was so generous, he is associated with joy and happiness, that’s why a blessed New Year is related to his story and the New Year’s lucky cake is named after him.
The Vasilopita lucky cake has many different versions. The oldest one is a sweet bread, scented with various spices, like anise. The most common one nowadays, is a spongy, fluffy cake, usually scented with orange or lemon zest. Some people also like to add liquor, like brandy or bitter almond liqueur (amaretto). Others add mahleb or Chios mastic for extra flavor. There are versions with ground almonds or ground walnuts as well. The topping may be flaked almonds, powdered sugar or a classic glaze.
The recipe we are sharing here is Panos’ mom Eleni (Helen), which is very old and is basically a wonderful orange flavored fluffy cake, topped with lots and lots of powdered sugar. The photo with the old notepad has the actual hand writing of his mom back from when she was in her teens. It’s a fool proof recipe which we’re using ourselves to this day and has never failed us. It makes for an aromatic large cake, to serve up to 20 people.
The best part of this cake is that’s also great as a snack in the next days. We love to serve this with coffee or tea. Also try to spread some Nutella on a slice; it’s a combination made in heaven!
So let’s see how to make this Greek New Year’s Lucky Cake: Vasilopita! Wishing you all a happy, prosperous, healthy and inspiring New Year!
- 500g / 17.6oz / 1.1lb (4 cups) all purpose flour, sifted
- 250g / 9oz (2 sticks and 1/4) butter, cut in cubes and softened (room temperature)
- 450g / 15.8oz / 1lb (2 1/4 cups) granulated sugar
- 6 medium sized eggs, yolks separated from whites, in room temperature
- 9g / 0.3oz (3 teaspoons) baking powder
- 5g / 0.17oz (2 teaspoons) orange zest
- 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
- 250ml (1 cup) milk
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- powdered sugar, for dusting the cake
Butter and flour the bottom and sides of a 25x6cm/10x2.5in spring form pan.
Divide the eggs into yolks and whites (pic. 1). In a large bowl, beat the butter and the sugar (pic.2) for 8-10 minutes, using a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer, on medium-high speed.
You may need to stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl at least once, to make sure everything is being well mixed (pic.3). Once creamy and fluffy (pic. 4), the butter mix is ready.
Add the zest and the orange juice (pic. 5). Continue mixing for a few seconds to incorporate. While the mixer is on, slowly add the yolks. Allow each yolk to be incorporated before adding the next one (pic. 6).
Once everything is nicely combined (pic. 7) stop and empty the mixture into another large bowl. Clean the original mixer bowl and beaters thoroughly. They are needed again later on. Pat everything dry. In another bowl, mix the flour with the salt and the baking powder (pic. 8).
Add half of the flour mixture into the butter-sugar-eggs mixture (pic. 9). Mix well with a rubber spatula until everything is combined. Add the milk (pic. 10), and again, mix well with the rubber spatula until everything it's incorporated.
Add the rest of the flour (pic. 11) and mix well to combine (pic. 12). Preheat the oven at 170C / 340F (convection oven - fan assisted baking).
Whisk the egg whites at high speed until stiff peaks are formed (pic. 13). Take half of this meringue and add it to the bowl with the cake mixture (pic. 14). Fold into the mixture, but don't overmix. Once incorporated, add the rest of the meringue and again, fold into the mixture.
Empty the bowl into the prepared pan (pic. 15). Take a washed, clean coin and wrap it in aluminum foil (pic. 16).
Place into the mixture (pic. 17).
Bake in the middle oven rack for 1 hour, or more; until baked through. Check if ready by inserting a knife into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, it's ready.
Top the cake by sprinkling lots of powdered sugar.
1. Use a small grater and take off only the rind of the orange's skin. Be careful not to take the white pith as well, as it is bitter.
2. Remove the butter from the fridge at least a couple of hours before using it. This will allow it to soften. Cutting it into cubes helps as well.
3. One of the most important tips for meringue: The bowl you will use to beat the egg whites must be very clean. To achieve this, wipe it with a paper towel dipped in vinegar, to eliminate any fat residue.