Monday, January 4, 2016

VASILOPITA WITH BRANDY AND CITRUS FLAVOURS


She's looking good, isn't she? Very easy to make. Lovely brandy and citrus flavours. This is a vasilopita made with baking powder instead of yeast. Its texture is that of a dense cake, which is characteristic of a vasilopita, also not very sweet, another characteristic. That's how vasilopitas are made; they are celebratory New Year's cakes, so they have a more substantial, doughy texture than an average cake. 

By now you may have noticed the Santa decoration. What's he doing up there you may ask? Doesn't Santa take a much-needed vacation after Christmas Day? No, not really. He still has the Greek New Year's Eve to contend with, that's when Santa visits Greek households. You might ask why, the words "Greek time" might come to mind, but that isn't the reason for Santa's late arrival. Saint Basil and Santa are one and the same in Greek tradition. Saint Basil's feast day is on January first, therefore, Saint Greek Santa (Agios Vasilis) puts in his appearance directly after the arrival of the New Year. Oh, then there's the coin. There is a coin hidden within every vasilopita. Saint Basil was a generous individual, a philanthropist, so the coin commemorates that fact. The actual practice of hiding a small trinket inside a cake, a surprise meant for a lucky recipient, dates back to pagan times. The practice was very popular and rather than eradicate it, the early Christian church incorporated it into its rituals. It's a fun ritual that survives to this day. 

I wrapped a shiny penny in aluminium foil and dropped it in the dough right before baking. A penny I thought, not the usual quarter. To me, a penny is symbolic of much more than a quarter dollar can be. Problem was, the penny being small, people had trouble finding it. "Did you forget?" they asked several times. I was entitled to two pieces, one for myself, and another for an absent friend. I took them apart, who wants to eat vasilopita when the coin can't be found? I turned them into crumbles. Cake crumbles are just as nice to eat as regular cake, alright? Everyone else also smashed their slice into tiny pieces. "Is it that important?" my nephew Alex asked. This from the kid who a few years ago used to storm upstairs and hide in his room if he couldn't claim the coin. "Yes, Alex, it's important, it's very important." "Where is that coin? Let's have the cake x-rayed. Can we get a portable x-ray machine over here?" That one got a big laugh. "Then we'll eat it and glow in the dark." We all gave up after a while. After a long, long while. 

The next day at breakfast, Alex finished eating his slice, and there was the penny, he found it. "Somewhere in the middle of the piece," my brother said when he called. I had asked him for the coordinates. 

Below is the recipe. Decorate the cake as you wish, perhaps use a dollar coin, it's larger, or you may want to use a penny, much more fun! As you probably know, the alcohol in the brandy gets burned off during baking, and only the flavour of the brandy gets left behind. For those of us either permanently or temporarily on the wagon, that's a plus!



Ingredients:

All ingredients should be at room temperature. Remember that beating egg whites into a meringue requires a bowl and a whisk that are free of oils. Make sure no yolk has accidentally fallen into the egg whites.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond flour
4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Grated zest of 2 oranges


5 eggs, separated
a pinch of cream of tartar
1 ¼ cups sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
6 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

¼ cup brandy
½ cup milk


Directions:
  • Preheat the oven to 375° F, 190° C.
  • Grease and flour a 10-inch, 25-cm, round cake pan. Fit a piece of parchment paper on the bottom of the pan and grease the top of the paper. 
Note: I use a square 11-inch, 28-cm, pan because I don't have a round 10-inch one. My vasilopita doesn't suffer, but I should note that I am looking to buy a round 10-inch pan, it's been on my "to buy" list for years. There is an unwritten rule specifying that vasilopitas must be round. The circle is a symbol of  lots of things, I like to think it symbolises love, love without beginning or end. Oops, I got sentimental and somewhat serious for a moment, I apologise.
  • In a bowl, whisk together the flour, the baking powder, the baking soda, and the orange zest. Set aside.
  • In the large bowl of your mixer, on high speed and using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar until stiff peaks are achieved. You want a nice, thick meringue. When ready, remove it to another bowl and set it aside. 
  • Clean your mixer bowl and add the yolks. Beat with the whisk attachment until the yolks are creamy. 
  • Add the sugar and beat until creamy and pale in colour.
  • Add the butter and oil, and beat until incorporated. 
  • Add the orange juice, brandy and milk, beat until incorporated.
  • Slowly add the reserved flour mixture to the yolk mixture. Halfway through, switch to mixing by hand. Use a spatula and mix only until incorporated. 
  • Fold in the reserved egg whites. 
  • Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with an offset spatula. 
  • Bake the cake for about 1 hour, or until it's golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 
  • Cool on a wire rack before removing from the pan. Decorate as you like, let your inner artist take command!

Season's Greetings Everyone!!!

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