Tuesday, 1 January 2013

VASILOPITA: For Saint Basil and for the New Year!

Wishing everyone a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year!  Sending  my love to you all!!!
If it’s January 1, and you are Greek, it’s time for vasilopita.  Grab your plate and your fork and get in line.  Perhaps this is the year you will be lucky.  Perhaps this year you’ll get the coin!  Because, as all Greeks know, inside every vasilopita there’s hidden a coin.  Come on, dad, you’re thinking, slice that vasilopita and pass around those pieces.  First you’ll pretend that you are interested in eating your piece.  Then you’ll do what everyone else does and dig around for the coin.  Crumbs on the tablecloth, on your lovely new outfit, on the floor.  Who cares?  Where is that coin?  “Ohhh, it’s me!  I have it!!!” Laughter and shouts from your least favorite cousin.  She is the lucky one this year.  So there is nothing left for you to do but to gather up your crumbs one by one, and if they are still eatable to eat them.  While that cousin of yours (who by the way has really hairy arms and a big nose, how come you didn’t notice that before?), smiles from ear to ear as she recounts the play by play of how she found the coin.  “I cut into my piece, and I felt something that I thought was the coin but it turned out to be a raisin.  I put a bite of vasilopita in my mouth and started to eat it, but I had the feeling that I should forge ahead in looking for the coin.  I knew in my heart this was going to be my year!  I cut another piece off my vasilopita and yes, I could see something shinning.”  “Another raisin?” you have the temerity to ask.  “Nooo!” my cousin impervious to my sarcasm, imperiously replies.  “It was the coin!” she gasps.  “It was mine!  Oh, this is going to be such a great year!”  So your little brother, whom you love dearly, eyes the coin sitting on the side of her plate and in one slick move removes it and deposits it into his pocket.  Then he leaves the table and heads for his room.  Now you’re washing dishes and you know why your cousin with the hairy arms and big crooked nose and huge nostrils who snores like a truck driver and really needs a CPAP has started to scream.  “Where is my coin???”  She wants to know where her coin is.  Oh, just another New Year’s Day at chez Grecque maison.  
Keep going, the recipe is at the end of the post.... I had a lot to say...
For Greeks, January 1, is a day when secular and religious traditions are combined to celebrate the coming of the New Year.  In addition to New Year’s Day, January 1, is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, one of the most important saints in the Greek ecclesiastical calendar.  Saint Basil was born into a wealthy family but gave away his money to the poor.  Because he was a pious individual and champion of the underprivileged, myths and traditions slowly developed to commemorate his memory.  It’s interesting to note that another saint of the same period, Saint Nicholas, was also known for his generosity.  Over the centuries the legends of Saint Nicholas and Saint Basil blended together to form one “big” legend associated with none other than Santa Claus.  However, Saint Nicholas is associated with the Santa of the Western churches, and the Eastern Santa is Saint Basil.

Yes, Saint Basil is the Greek Santa Claus.  On January 1, his feast day, children receive gifts brought by the saint, New Year’s carols are sung, and families gather around the vasilopita, which is a cake made in Saint Basil’s honor.  Recipes for vasilopita vary with regions and family traditions.  In some places it takes the form of a pie, in others it is a cake, and yet in others it is a yeasted sweetened bread.  That which makes vasilopita a vasilopita, is that it's round in shape and has a coin hidden inside.  The head of every Greek family makes the sign of the cross over the vasilopita and then slices it.  The slices are distributed to family members and guests, starting with the eldest and ending with the youngest.  Whoever gets the slice with the coin is blessed by Saint Basil, and has good fortune for the year to come.  The round shape of the vasilopita symbolizes the unity of the church and the concept that God is without beginning or end. Many cultures have the custom of hiding trinkets into celebratory cakes.  I believe the custom predates Christianity, and was probably associated with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the renewal of light and the coming of the New Year.  As the Roman empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs were incorporated into the seasonal celebrations of the church.  Thus, for Greeks, the celebratory cake became the vasilopita.  Inclusion of an actual coin is unique to Greece, and that's because Saint Basil is associated with the giving away of money for the protection of the poor.

Beyond the myth, who was Saint Basil?  He was born around 330 CE in Asia Minor, which at the time was under the control of the Roman Empire.  He studied philosophy and rhetoric in Constantinople and Athens and then settled in Caesarea of Cappadocia, Asia Minor.  He was baptized as a Christian in 358 and joined the priesthood, eventually being appointed bishop.  He wrote important ecclesiastical works, some of which regard monastic life.  These became pivotal in the development of the monastic tradition.  He gained prominence for successfully defending the Nicene Creed against the Arian theology supported by the Roman emperor Valens, who denied the relationship of the Holy Trinity.  St. Basil was also a humanitarian and a philanthropist.  He built a sprawling complex, unique for its time, which included a hospice, a poorhouse and a hospital, and which was open to all free of charge.  This became a model for other institutions of similar nature.  He was a famous preacher, noted for his sermons on ethics and morality.  He died on January 1, 379.  It is for that reason that January 1 is celebrated as his feast day.  All I can say is, we need a few individuals like him today. 
My wonderful nephew Alex was the lucky winner of the coin this year!!!
I love Saint Basil.  Not only because I admire him for his intellect, piety and goodness, but because I have loving associations with his name itself.  My most beloved uncle was named Basil, and I remember how we visited him on New Year’s Day, his name day.  We would arrive at his house which was filled with flowers, gifts, and boxes upon boxes of confections, all brought by well wishers.  I would sit and listen to the grownups talk: family stories, stories of surviving wars, political discussions, gossip, jokes, so many conversations I remember to this day, so many memories that envelop me in joy and warmth.

VASILOPITA  for NEW YEAR’S DAY (makes 16 servings)


2 cups powdered sugar (480 grams)
3 cups almond flour (320 grams)
1 ½  cups flour (200 grams)
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
16 egg whites  (just protein here, it's the yolks that contain the cholesterol.  I threw my egg yolks away.  Some markets sell containers that contain egg whites only.  In that case, you will need to weigh 560 grams of egg whites)
18 tablespoons melted butter  (520 grams)
Rind from 2 medium oranges

  • In a large bowl add all the dry ingredients and mix them well.  
  • Add the egg whites and mix gently. 
  • Add the butter and mix gently.  
  • Place into a greased 10 inch spring-form pan that's resting on a baking sheet.
  • Take a clean coin such as a quarter and wrap it in aluminum foil.  Drop the coin into the batter.
  • Bake at preheated 350º F for ½ hour, lower to 325º F and bake for another ½ hour to 45 minutes depending on the oven.  Don’t open the oven door for at least the first half hour.  
  • Let cool and remove from the pan.  Decorate the top with powdered sugar, and tie a pretty ribbon around it until it's time to cut it.  I added some melted white chocolate and chocolate chips on top just to make it fancier.  
  • This vasilopita is very easy and quick to make, and it tastes really good too.  The recipe is from chef Parliaros, who is a Greek master pastry chef.    I don't understand how he can work with all that sugar and butter and stay so thin.  But, he says that if you have small portions of everything the calories are less significant.  Below I include the You Tube video in which he and his sous chef make this recipe.  The video is in Greek, but even if you don't understand Greek you can get a general idea of how he makes the vasilopita.  The amounts for the ingredients are given in the metric system, and chef weighs everything.  I weighed everything also, and then I converted the amounts to to cups.  Do you see that tiny crack on the chef's vasilopita?  Mine had a crack also, only it was much larger and deeper.  Truth to tell, that's why I covered the top with both powdered sugar and melted white chocolate.  The melted chocolate covered the crack beautifully, and made the vasilopita look pretty fantastic too.  What can I say?  My vasilopita may get a crack, but my cheese cakes never do!  How about that???
  • Signing off now, and once again I wish you a happy and healthy 2013!