Far from what the case is in the rest of the western world, the Greek version of Santa Claus, St Basil (St Basil the Great, St Vassileios, Agios Vassilis), brings presents to the children on January 1st. On New Year’s Eve, every Greek family comes together to cut the Vassilopita (St Basil’s cake) which traditionally contains a hidden coin. Whoever gets the coin is said to have good luck all year.
St Basil was the bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor. When a ruthless tyrant and his army threatened all people of Caesaria to hand over their gold or perish, St Basil was forced to ask the poor city folk to bring to him their meager gold possessions. According to legend, a miracle rid the city of the tyrant in the end so the gold was never handed over to him. When St Basil was presented with the task to return all the gold to the people, he decided to send to every household a little bread, each of which contained one golden coin or item of jewellery picked randomly. This is how the custom started.
The cutting of the vassilopita is a custom that takes place all over Greece. Traditionally, the man or woman of the house crosses the air over the cake first, then cuts the pieces while naming them. The first ones are for Christ, The House, then members of the family are named one by one and handed their pieces, starting from the oldest. People who are not present can also be named. The last pieces are cut for The Poor Man or The House again. If the coin is found in the piece for Christ or the House, it is placed on the iconostasis, i.e. the corner of the house where icons are kept, often with an oil lamp (many Greek houses still have such a little corner in them).
Today, I share with you a delicious Vassilopita recipe that has a luxurious creamy taste because of its high content in butter. Go on, you deserve it, and it’s only once a year – at least it’s wholesome food – no nasty preservatives to worry about! I hope you will enjoy it and that you’ll try it out. Don’t worry if New Year’s Day has come and gone. Private clubs and companies in Greece keep cutting cakes throughout January, plus you can bake the cake to enjoy with your coffee anytime – it just means you don’t have to use almonds or add a coin – a Flouri – in this case.
- 250 gr of unsalted butter (leave it out of the fridge to soften, or microwave very low for 1-2 minutes)
- 250 gr icing sugar (confectioners)
- 1 tablespoon of caster sugar
- 4 eggs
- 75 ml of milk
- 400 gr of all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon of baking powder
- Zest of 2 oranges
- A pinch of salt
- Raw almonds (see below for amount)
- Vanilla essence (in Greece we can buy it in powder form in tiny plastic containers and for this recipe we’d use two. If you use it in different forms, put in whatever amount of vanilla essence you use for a cake).
THE SPECIAL INGREDIENT!
- A ‘Flouri’
Relax – no piece of gold needed here! Just use a small coin. A 20-eurocent coin is ideal in Greece!
Too small and it might wind up in someone’s stomach with the cake piece if they devour it fast enough – too large and it will spoil the surprise. Nothing causes more dismay on New Year’s Eve in Greece than finding the Flouri between two cut pieces!
To prepare the coin for the cake, first, wash it with hot water and soap well – better scrub it actually! Dry it and place it in a tight package using aluminum foil. It should look like this:
Take a few almonds and place them in a round, 25cm-diameter roasting pan or Pyrex in a way that forms the new year. See what I’ve done here?
Take all these almonds plus another few to be safe and boil them in a bit of water for about a minute.
Drain and let them cool, then remove the skin, leaving them whole. Set aside.
Break the eggs in a bowl. Add the salt and beat slightly.
Separately, add the vanilla essence in the milk, which can be cold from the fridge.
Mix the flour with the baking powder in another bowl.
Now, we’re ready to combine all that!
In your main mixing bowl, add the icing sugar and the caster sugar and mix them well with the butter till it gets creamy.
Important note: If your electric mixer has a flat beater part (also known as ‘the feather’) use this to make the cake. Otherwise, make sure your butter is as soft as possible – use your microwave to bring it to semi-liquid form – and use the normal stir paddles on your mixer. In this case, later, before you add the flour, you will need to switch to the dough hooks because the mixture will be quite stiff.
Once you’ve beaten the butter with the sugar, start adding the milk slowly, then the zest and the eggs. All this time, keep mixing.
If you don’t have a flat mixing tool, once you’ve added the eggs and mixed well, remove the stir paddles and put on the dough hooks.
Add the flour while mixing. The dough is stiff and sticky. That’s okay.
Place the dough in your round, 25cm-diameter roasting pan or Pyrex. No need to butter and flour it.
Take your Flouri and admire it for a moment. Hey, doesn’t it look like a precious piece of silver?
Dip the Flouri in the pie. Place it somewhere towards the side of the tin to minimize the chance of the cutting knife landing on it (this is the case if you cut the traditional triangular pieces starting from the center!) Personally, I don’t want to know where in the pie I put the Flouri so I can’t cheat favoring anyone even if I’m tempted… so I spin the tin round at this point for a bit while looking away – don’t laugh. It works!
Once you’ve done a bit of spinning – LOL – start placing your almonds on the top to form the new year.
This is how I made mine this year:
Preheat the oven using the upper and lower heating elements at 180 degrees C.
Place it in the oven on a low shelf – but not the bottom one. Bake for 48-50 minutes. Use a knife to check. If it comes out clean, your St Basil cake is done!
Let cool and enjoy it on New Year’s Eve or anytime with your coffee or tea.
You can either leave it as it is or, when cool, sprinkle icing sugar on top using a small metal sifter.
Happy New Year!
Fancy some more festive baking for fun? Try those delicious cookies that are easy on the waistline as they’re made with cocoa powder and vegetable oil. Pssst… I should warn you… there’s magic in these cookies! What, you don’t believe me? Check out the recipe and see for yourself!
Do you have a sweet tooth? Oh I feel you! Try my chalva recipes or my homemade ice cream. You’ll find all my recipes here: http://bit.ly/1L9GuKu
Update: a lovely lady called Cathy, or @Bomdiggity22 on Twitter, sent this photo to me and said: “My family got together and the kids got so excited. I’ll make it again next year.” Doesn’t it look wonderful? It made my day and I thought I’d share it here. Thank you Cathy!