It is late December. The light scent of orange wafts from my mom’s oven, reaching every corner of the house. One of my favorite Greek holiday cakes is baking, Vasilopita.
If you come from a Greek home like I do, you know this dense, almost-scone-like cake very well, and look forward to it every year. It is our New Year’s cake, a special celebratory cake that is made for good luck in the coming year. Before going into the oven, the custom is to put a gold or silver coin into the dough.
Our family tradition has always been to pop a bottle of champagne and cut the cake at midnight. The first piece cut blesses our home. Then a slice is made for each family member, from the eldest to the youngest. We also include a slice for anyone we want to remember. Whoever finds the coin in their cake will have good luck for the year. (I used to cry when I did not get the lucky coin.)
To this day, making the New Year’s cake is one of my most cherished times of the year—especially when I can make it with my mom. I think every Greek girl who grew up near their mom’s apron feels this way.
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The tradition supposedly goes back to a legend about Saint Basil of Caesarea (the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, or Modern-Turkey today) who was tasked to return a ransom that had been voluntarily raised by local citizens to stop their city from being sieged. The enemy was so embarrassed by the collective giving that they never accepted it. Saint Basil did not know who to return the offered jewelry and coins to, so he baked them into loaves of bread, which were then distributed throughout the city. Miraculously, each person received back their exact offering.
May you receive exactly what you want this year.
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 egg yolks beaten
- 4 tablespoons orange juice
- Grated orange rind
- 1 beaten egg
- 1 coin for good luck. If you use a real coin, you may want to wash it first or wrap it in foil.
1. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolk, orange juice, grated orange rind, flour, and baking powder.
2. Knead the dough until it is firm when you pinch it. Place the coin into the mixture, making sure it gets well-hidden. Then, roll out the dough into a big round shape.
3. Line a 10-inch diameter baking sheet with wax paper. Place the round-shape dough onto its center.
4. For decoration, brush the beaten egg on top. Use the cloves to create a cross in the center of the dough.
5. Bake at 350 degrees, 40-minutes. You want the top to be golden.
Kalí Chroniá! Happy New Year!