submitted by May Lerios on 16.01.2006
There are two competing explanations regarding the origin of the name of this cake, tradionally served on New Year's Eve:
It is a composite of Vassilias [king] and pita [pie], and it is so named to commemorate the visit of the three kings to the infant Jesus (the day of Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th).
It is a composite of Vassilis [the Greek form of the name Basil] and pita [pie], and it is so named after the Greek equivalent of Santa Claus, St. Vassilis; every saint in the Greek Orthodox calendar is commemorated on a fixed calendar day, and St. Vassilis's day is January 1st.
This recipe is the easy variety: it's a cake recipe, relying on baking powder. A more complex and time-consuming recipe, but also a more traditional one, relies on yeast and produces vassilopita bread; this type of bread is also known as tsoureki.
For 12 people
In a mixing bowl, place
2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter. You can soften (but not melt) refrigerated butter by placing it in the microwave for 10 seconds.
1 tbsp shortening (an additional 1/2 tsp is needed later in the recipe).
You may substitute butter with
2 sticks (1/2 lb) margarine, which is soft enough for mixing right out of the fridge.
Mix the butter and shortening until you get a creamy consistency. It's easiest if you use an electric mixer or blender. Add
1 cup sugar,
4 eggs (a total of 5 eggs will be used for this recipe),
and continue mixing until the mixture is even again. It is best that you split the sugar into four equal doses, add each dose along with one egg, and then mix until smooth before proceeding with the next dose; this makes it much easier to keep the mixture smooth.
In a separate bowl, mix lightly (by hand)
3 cups all-purpose flour (unbleached is fine),
1 tsp mahlepi, and
2 tsp baking powder.
In a third bowl, mix lightly (by hand)
1 cup whole milk, with
1/2 tsp vanilla extract.
Now mix the flour and milk bowls into the mixing bowl, in four equal doses, as you did earlier with the eggs and sugar. That is, pour a fourth of the liquid into the mix along with a fourth of the powders, and mix until smooth before proceeding with the next dose. That's the end of the batter.
Grease a cake pan with
1/2 tsp shortening
The shape of the cake pan is up to you. Tradition recommends a round pan, but a bundt cake pan ("Why does this cake have a hole in it?") or a square pan work just as well (although cooking time increases for a bundt cake pan). If you don't have a non-stick pan, also sprinkle evenly
1 tsp flour
along the pan's interior surface, to make sure the cake won't stick to it while baking.
Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, and insert into the cake a
well-washed small coin, wrapped in aluminum foil (for sanitary reasons).
The coin is part of a tradition shared by Greeks, Albanians, and others: whosever cake piece gets the coin has good luck in the new year. Of course, if you are making this on a day other than New Year's Eve (e.g. for Greek Easter), you may skip the coin.
A point of note here: where money and luck are involved, a fight may break out if the ownership of the coin is disputed. So make sure not to put the coin smack in the middle of the cake (since no piece can claim sole ownership); halfway between the center and edge is just fine. Also, do not place the coin flat on the cake; place it so that it's flush with the surface of the knife that you'll use to cut the cake when it's served. And, finally, put the coin deep enough that the batter will close up behind it, making it invisible: little kids love to turn pies upside-down, and examine the markings on the cake to figure out where the coin had been inserted.
Bake the cake with the coin for an additional 45 minutes. Remove from oven, and then remove the cake from the pan, placing the cake on a cookie sheet right-side-up. Brush with
1 beaten egg (you'll probably use just a third of the egg),
and sprinkle with
1 tbsp sesame seeds
Place back in the oven for 7 minutes, at 250 degrees. Remove from oven, and set aside for 4 hours to let cool down.
For New Year's Eve, here are some serving tips:
Tradition suggests that the master of the house cuts the cake (that's the man, again according to tradition).
Before making any cut, make sure that you clearly state for all to hear who will own the two pieces on either side of the cut. This will prevent conflict if a coin lands between two pieces. If a coin does land between two pieces, it belongs to the piece that has 51% of more of the coin.
Tradition suggests that the first few pieces are allocated to the Holy Trinity and the Virgin (one piece for both or one for each), the household, the poor, and St. Vassilis (one piece each). In practice, those pieces are omitted or combined if too many people are present and the cake is too small.
Tradition also suggests that the next pieces are allocated to the master of the house, then his wife, and then the children from oldest to youngest. Subsequent pieces are allocated to close relatives (e.g. grandparents), then further ones (e.g. cousins), and last are the pieces for present guests. Absent individuals or families are typically not assigned any pieces. Finally, depending on the number of those present and the size of the cake, a whole family may be allocated a single piece.
Of course, feel free to adapt tradition to modern times, or to the specific circumstances of your household; it's the family spirit that matters, not the small details of tradition.
© 2002 May Lerios
The first course of a Greek meal at my home: soup and appetizers.
All recipes on this site came from my mom's kitchen. Some were given to her from family or friends, others she picked up from cookbooks and tweaked to her taste, and so on. She scribbled some of them on pieces of paper, or annotated photocopies of cookbook pages; but over the years, she had memorized them all and her memory was the only place they could be found.
One fine day, I left home to study engineering in college, a few thousand miles away from home. Soon I realized that my mom's cooking was not to be discovered in even the best Greek restaurants in the US; and following standard cookbook recipes didn't produce the result I remembered from childhood. So I asked her for her recipes, and I got them all. But they were the kind of recipes meant to be read by other cooks. I was a kitchen ignoramus and an engineer too: some kasseri meant nothing... How much is some, in pounds? Since I can't find kasseri at the local store, what other cheese can I use? And so I set out to rewrite her recipes into a form that is slightly more idiot-friendly, consulting other cookbooks for substitutions, tables for measure equivalencies, and doing lots of experimentation.
This is the outcome. The neighbor's dog (see the picture above) enjoys the leftovers, even the veggies. Greek friends that taste it at my home find it very authentic. Tell my mom what you think: username recipes; domain lerios.org.
© 2002 May Lerios
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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