Greek Recipes with May Lerios: Vassilopita
There are two competing explanations regarding the origin of the name
of this cake, tradionally served on New Year's Eve:
This recipe is the easy variety: it's a cake recipe, relying
on baking powder. A more complex and time-consuming recipe, but also a
more traditional one, relies on yeast and produces vassilopita
bread; this type of bread is also known as tsoureki.
- It is a composite of Vassilias [king] and pita
[pie], and it is so named to commemorate the visit of the three kings
to the infant Jesus (the day of Epiphany, celebrated on January
- It is a composite of Vassilis [the Greek form of the
name Basil] and pita [pie], and it is so named after the
Greek equivalent of Santa Claus, St. Vassilis; every saint in the
Greek Orthodox calendar is commemorated on a fixed calendar day, and
St. Vassilis's day is January 1st.
For 12 people
(Click on the thumbnail for a larger photo)
In a mixing bowl, place
- 2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter (you can soften, but not melt, refrigerated butter by placing it in the microwave for 10 seconds), and
- 1 tbsp shortening (an additional 1/2 tsp will be used for this recipe, later on).
You may substitute butter with
- 2 sticks (1/2 lb) margarine, which is soft enough for mixing right out of the fridge.
Mix the butter and shortening until you get a creamy consistency. It's
easiest if you use an electric mixer or blender. Add
- 1 cup sugar, and
- 4 eggs (a total of 5 eggs will be used for this recipe).
Continue mixing until the mixture is even again. It is best that you
split the sugar into four equal doses, add each dose along with one
egg, and then mix until smooth before proceeding with the next dose;
this makes it much easier to keep the mixture smooth.
In a separate bowl, mix lightly (by hand)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (unbleached is fine),
- 1 tsp mahlepi, and
- 2 tsp baking powder.
In a third bowl, mix lightly (by hand)
- 1 cup whole milk, and
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract.
Now mix the flour and milk bowls into the mixing bowl, in four equal
doses, as you did earlier with the eggs and sugar. That is, pour a
fourth of the liquid into the mix along with a fourth of the powders,
and mix until smooth before proceeding with the next dose. That's the
end of the batter.
Grease a cake pan with
The shape of the cake pan is up to you. Tradition recommends a round
pan, but a bundt cake pan ("Why does this cake have a hole in it?") or
a square pan work just as well (although cooking time increases for a
bundt cake pan). If you don't have a non-stick pan, also sprinkle
evenly along the pan's interior surface
This prevents the cake from sticking to the pan while baking.
Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) for 45 minutes. Remove from oven,
and insert into the cake a
- well-washed small coin, wrapped in aluminum foil (for sanitary reasons).
The coin is part of a tradition shared by Greeks, Albanians, and
others: whosever cake piece gets the coin has good luck in the new
year. Of course, if you are making this on a day other than New Year's
Eve (e.g. for Greek Easter), you may skip the coin.
A point of note here: where money and luck are involved, a fight may
break out if the ownership of the coin is disputed. So make sure not
to put the coin smack in the middle of the cake (since no piece can
claim sole ownership); halfway between the center and edge is just
fine. Also, do not place the coin flat on the cake; place it so that
it's flush with the surface of the knife that you'll use to cut the
cake when it's served. And, finally, put the coin deep enough that the
batter will close up behind it, making it invisible: little kids love
to turn pies upside-down, and examine the markings on the cake to
figure out where the coin had been inserted.
Bake the cake with the coin for an additional 45 minutes. Remove from
oven, and then remove the cake from the pan, placing the cake on a
cookie sheet right-side-up. Brush with
- 1 beaten egg (you'll probably use just a third of the egg).
Place back in the oven for 7 minutes, at 250 degrees. Remove from
oven, and set aside for 4 hours to let cool down.
For New Year's Eve, here are some serving tips:
Of course, feel free to adapt tradition to modern times, or to the
specific circumstances of your household; it's the family spirit that
matters, not the small details of tradition.
- Tradition suggests that the master of the house cuts the cake
(that's the man, again according to tradition).
- Before making any cut, make sure that you clearly state
for all to hear who will own the two pieces on either side of the
cut. This will prevent conflict if a coin lands between two pieces. If
a coin does land between two pieces, it belongs to the piece that has
51% of more of the coin.
- Tradition suggests that the first few pieces are allocated to the
Holy Trinity and the Virgin (one piece for both or one for each), the
household, the poor, and St. Vassilis (one piece each). In practice,
those pieces are omitted or combined if too many people are present
and the cake is too small.
- Tradition also suggests that the next pieces are allocated to the
master of the house, then his wife, and then the children from oldest
to youngest. Subsequent pieces are allocated to close relatives
(e.g. grandparents), then further ones (e.g. cousins), and last are
the pieces for present guests. Absent individuals or families are
typically not assigned any pieces. Finally, depending on the number of
those present and the size of the cake, a whole family may be
allocated a single piece.
More recipes from May
© 1995-2015 May Lerios