It’s hard to believe 2016 is almost at a close! Time for celebration and reflection—but forget all those resolutions about dieting, because, if you’re celebrating New Year’s Greek style, you’ll be dining down on the beloved, charmed Vasilopita, the annual cake that signifies the coming of the new year. Read on through this edition of the The Holiday Chomp to discover why this cake has the ability to grant a year’s worth of good luck, and where to get the best Vasiopites in Athens!
Vasilopita (vah-see-low-pee-tah) is a cake baked and eaten only on New Year’s all over Greece, and variations of the cake are in eaten in areas of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. On New Year’s Day, usually right after the turn of midnight, a piece of cake is cut for each member of the family, usually in order from oldest to youngest.
Baked into the cake’s dough is a decorative coin, called the flouri; whomever find the flouri in their piece is blessed with good luck for the rest of the year (which usually incites a lot of cake-tearing and frantic digging before the cake itself is actually consumed!). Sometimes extra pieces are cut for Christ, the Virgin Mary, and St. Basil (who, in Greek, is eponymous with Santa Claus), or for the home.
Some trace the origins of the Vasilopita all the way back to ancient Greece, but this dessert is intrinsically tied to the Greek Orthodox tradition. The popular folktale of its origins concerns Saint Basil the Great, was the archbishop of Caesarea Mazaca, the modern-day city of Kayseri in Turkey. Due to crushing taxes in the Byzantine Empire, the impoverished among St. Basil’s flock had to surrender their gold and heirlooms to keep out of debtor’s prison. St. Basil, fortunately, managed to convince their emperor to return back these treasures. Struck with the task of returning each piece of treasure to its proper owners, St. Basil baked them all into a huge pie-cake. He distributed a piece of this blessed dessert to each person, who miraculously received their exact treasures in their piece.
A Vasilopita is usually fluffy, light and grainy (perfect for coin-searching), with a notable tang of orange zest. The top can be covered with caster sugar, icing, or chocolate, with the coming year inscribed in icing, chocolate, or thin almond slices, or emblazoned onto the dough. In the past, the flouri used to be real gold or silver; today it is usually plastic gold, with “Xronia Polla” (“Many Years”, a catch-all blessing for birthdays, holidays etc.) engraved on it.
A Vasilopita can also be made from tsoureki, a traditional, round Greek bread that is soft, buttery, sweet, and chewy (thanks to a small addition of mastic gum), with a smooth external glaze embedded with almond slices. For those who cut their cake right at midnight, tsoureki Vasilopita tastes great toasted with butter the next morning!
Almost every Greek bakery stocks Vasilopites this time of year. For those in Athens, Greek blogs recommend the Terkenlis and Konstantinidis bakery chains, as well as Malebi on D. Gounari 172, in Glyfada, Bread & Cake on Kiprou 27 in Vrilissia, Sahinidis on Madzouraki 2, in Filothei-Psychiko, and Afoi Asimakopouloi on Harilaou Trikoupi 82, in Exarchia. Check out ww.olivemagazine.gr/ρεπορτάζ/μαγαζιά/από-εδώ-θα-πάρετε-τις-καλύτερες-βασιλό/, http://www.bovary.gr/taste/3286/vrikame-tis-8-kalyteres-vasilopites-tis-athinas-afrata-keik-kai-mastihota-tsoyrekia , and http://parallaximag.gr/geysi/i-korifees-vasilopites (this includes some places in Thessaloniki) for more.
Hope you’ve enjoyed your holidays (and gained a few kilos from the love of Greek sweets)! Best wishes for the New Year—The Holiday Chomp will be back next year come the spring holidays!