A blessed 2006 to each and every one of you! We kick off the year with Vasilopita, which comes to us from the Greek Orthodox Church. It is a traditional bread served on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Rich with eggs and butter, this bread is named after St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers.
St. Basil, who died on January 1, 379, is considered the father of Eastern monasticism. Basil, along with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and their sister Macrina (all saints) were born in Caesarea — their family seems to have grown a bunch of saints and holy people, including two grandmothers who are also revered as saints! Basil was studying to be a lawyer; he wasn’t particularly pious as a young man, but through Macrina’s influence turned to the religious life. After traveling different monasteries, he came back home to live with his family and formed the first monastery in Asia Minor. He developed his “rule of life”, which later influenced St. Benedict as well (and thus Western spiritual monasticism). St. Basil eventually became bishop of Caesarea. According to St. Basil Academy in Garrison, NY, he was the first person in history to open a children’s orphanage, and he also opened the first hospital in the world. Today, he is venerated as one of the Four Greek Doctors of the Church and the liturgy that he edited is still used in Byzantine churches. St. Basil helped to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity (three persons in one God). He is also known for his debates against Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.
To commemmorate St. Basil, this aromatic bread is baked for St. Basil’s Day (New Year). There is conflicting information, but most sources say the first slice is dedicated to Christ, and the second to St. Basil. The rest of the slices are distributed to the family members, eldest to youngest. Whoever is lucky enough to find the hidden coin in their bread receives a special blessing from St. Basil that year. The hidden coin, Sha tells me, can be pure gold (obviously those who can afford to put one in), though in the US people use a sterilized dime or wrap it in foil before putting into the dough.
My recipe for Vasilopita comes from A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz. (These are her ingredients, but the instructions are my own.) It has the usual spice water, flavored with bay leaves, cinnamon, aniseed, and orange peel. Ouzo is also traditional for a stronger anise flavor. The result is drier than I would have liked, probably owing to the smaller number of eggs. Most recipes I came across called for 5 or 6 eggs, but with egg sensitivities in the family, I opted for Vitz’s recipe which calls for three. Some also call for specifically Greek ingredients, such as mastic/mastika and mahlepi, 2 things which were probably not available to Ms. Vitz when she wrote her book, but which is available at Greekshops.com, MinosImports.com, and other online sources these days (or from your local Greek food grocer). Mastika, or mastic gum, is a natural resin from a small tree, Pistacia Lentiscus, found in Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Mahlepi is a spice made from the pits of the Mahaleb cherry, Prunus Mahaleb.
Vasilopita, a.k.a. Basilopita, Vassilopitta, or Vasilopeta, is closely related to the tsoureki, another Greek bread traditionally served at Easter. Tsoureki (a.k.a. lambropsomo) is a Turkish word which means “that which is kneaded”; it probably arrived in Greece via Constantinople.
1/2 cup hot water
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon aniseed
3/4 teaspoon freshly grated orange peel
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tesapoon salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 packages active dry yeast (if using instant yeast such as SAF, decrease amount by 25%)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
6 to 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
Sesame seeds for sprinkling
Whole blanched almonds, walnut halves, and/or maraschino cherries for garnish
Combine hot water, cinnamon, aniseed, orange peel and bay leaves in a bowl. Stir well and let sit until needed.
Scald the milk, then stir in the sugar, salt and butter, until butter is melted. Set aside.
In a large bowl, stir sugar and yeast into warm water, and let proof for 5 minutes or so (if using instant yeast, omit this step and add sugar and water to hot water mixture; add yeast to flour and mix well). When yeast mixture is ready (bubbly), add the milk-butter mixture, then the spice water, removing the bay leaves first. Stir well, then add flour slowly, continuing to stir to incorporate the flour. Continue to add more flour, using your hands when it becomes necessary. Turn onto a lightly floured or oiled surface and knead 15-20 minutes until smooth. The dough should be slightly sticky but not gloppy. When well-kneaded, your finger will stick lightly to the dough but you can pull your finger free without any dough remaining on it. Return dough to the bowl and let rise, loosely covered, until doubled, about 2 hours. (My favorite draft-free place is the oven. The light, turned on, gives off enough heat to help the dough rise without warming it up too much.) Punch down and shape the dough into 2 loaves or one large round loaf. Ms. Vitz suggested shaping an orange-sized bit of the dough into the numbers of the new year, but I had difficulty getting them to stay on the loaf. Maybe next year I’ll use the more traditional, simple round, or use a smaller amount of dough to shape the numbers, so they all stay on top.
Let rise again until doubled, about 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the room temperature. Brush lightly with beaten egg yolk all over, and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Decorate with almonds/walnuts/cherries if desired.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 to 60 minutes or until golden brown. The bottom should give out a hollow sound when tapped.
Variations: A tablespoon of ouzo, used in some recipes, can be added to the spice water before mixing with the dough if desired. Add 1 teaspoon ground mastic and/or 1 tablespoon mahlepi if available.
If you are interested in learning about other traditions for celebrating the liturgical year, there is another fabulous (out-of-print) book called My Nameday — Come for Dessert by Helen Loughlin; it contains prayers and other suggestions to celebrate children’s patron saints and/or their namesakes. The full text is available at EWTN.
Next up: A meat pie from Albania!