By now you may have noticed the Santa decoration. You might ask why he's still hanging around. 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 so? I'll tell you: 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 Vasilios), puts in his appearance directly after the arrival of the New Year. Oh, then there's the coin. There is a coin involved. It's hidden inside every vasilopita. You might ask why so? I'll tell you: 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 own rituals. It's a fun practice 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 ever be. Problem was, the penny being small, people had trouble finding it. "Did you forget?" they asked me several times. I was entitled to two slices, 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 those slices into crumbles ... but cake crumbles are just as nice to eat as regular cake.
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 as his. "Yes, Alex, it's important, it's very important."
The next day at breakfast, Alex finished eating his slice, and there was the penny, he found it and claimed 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!
1/2 cup almond flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Grated zest of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 egg left whole, do not separate
1 cup of sugar (can use an additional 1/4 cup for extra sweetness)
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft, almost melted
one or two tablespoons brandy (optional)
1 vanilla bean
- Preheat the oven to 350° F/160° C.
- Grease well and flour a 12-inch/30-cm, round cake pan.
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, the baking powder, and the baking soda. 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.
- Add the yolks to the bowl. Beat with the whisk attachment until the yolks are creamy.
- Scrape the vanilla bean and add the vanilla to the sugar. Mix it in well.
- Add the sugar and beat until creamy and pale in colour.
- Add the one whole egg and beat.
- Add the butter and beat until incorporated.
- Add the orange juice, the orange zest, the lemon zest, and the brandy if using. Beat until incorporated.
- Slowly add the reserved flour mixture to the yolk mixture.
- Halfway through, switch to mixing by 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 a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.
- Cool on a wire rack before removing from the pan.
- Decorate as you like: let your inner artist take command!
Happy New Year!!!!