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The Luckiest Food to Eat in May: Vasilopita from Greece

Photo by Kankana Saxena

The delicious Greek cake vasilópita is considered to bring good luck to the person who gets the slice that contains the treasure of a floori, a coin baked into the cake. Author of the beautiful book Greek Chic Cuisine (Lulu.com, 2010) Stephanie Patsalis shares the legend behind the cake: “The most popular New Year’s custom is cutting of the vasilópita (bread for St. Basil) in honor of a miracle performed by St. Basil. The Roman emperor Julian had commanded St. Basil to collect a large tax. But before it could be turned over to the emperor to stop him from sacking the city, the emperor was killed elsewhere. In gratitude, the people gave two-thirds of the riches to charity. St. Basil then became responsible for returning the remaining riches to the people. However, they could not agree on the rightful owners. St. Basil suggested that the women bake the valuables inside a large pita. When he cut the bread, each owner miraculously received their right share of valuables. Today a single coin is baked inside each loaf to honor this miracle and the recipient has good luck.” The tradition has been around for centuries, and depending on the part of Greece you are from, it could be a cake or bread that you are baking and serving.

Virginia-based home cook Kathy Alsegaf lives far away from her parents but says her father will still cut a slice for her — and if it has a coin, he mails it to her! “What I especially love about this tradition is that it is so readily shared and enjoyed by others. When we gather at my home, I share the cutting with my husband and his parents, who are Muslim, my sister-in-law and her husband, who are Hindu, and friends of other faiths, as well. Who does not want to find money and be told they will have a blessed year?”

Even the cutting of the cake has some special logistics. “Pieces are cut in a prescribed order and for specific recipients: a slice for Jesus Christ, for the Virgin Mary, St. Basil, the house you live in, the head of the household, the poor, all those present and those who are dear but absent,” says Kathy. Each slice should be about the same size so that everyone has an equal chance at the coin — a task that sometimes requires patience and geometry! Regardless, the coin often has a way of ending up where it should: Her father-in-law got it the year he was recovering from cancer, a neighbor got it right after he had been laid off from a job, and during the depths of the recent economic crisis, it went to the poor.

“By practicing this tradition, we remember the miracle of St. Basil. It’s a great reminder that miracles happen today,” adds author Stephanie.

Greek Cake: Vasilópita

Adapted From Treasured Greek Recipes by the Philoptochos Society of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, Albany, N.Y.

Total Time:   2 hours 30 minutes
Prep:   2 hours (including 1 hour 30 minutes for rising)
Cook:  25 to 30 minutes
Yield:
3 loaves
Level:
Medium difficulty

Ingredients

Dough
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup warm water
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon anise seed
1/2 cup orange juice
3 eggs, lightly beaten
Cooking spray or vegetable shortening, for the pans

Glaze
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon milk
Sesame seeds (optional)

Directions
To make the dough: In a small saucepan, heat milk just to boiling. Remove from heat, and add the butter and shortening. Stir until melted. Let cool.

While the milk mixture is cooling, combine the yeast with 2 tablespoons of the sugar and the water. Set aside until foamy.

Stir together the flour, the remaining 1 cup sugar, the salt and the anise seeds in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture, gradually mixing it with the flour. Add the milk mixture, orange juice and eggs. Mix the dough for about 10 minutes until smooth. It should be slightly sticky and all the flour should be worked in. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until double in size, about 1 hour.

Pull the dough away from the sides into a ball. Flip the bowl over onto a floured board and knead until smooth and not sticky, 5 to 10 minutes. Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Wrap 3 coins separately in aluminum foil and bury one in each piece of dough. Shape into loaves. Lightly grease three 8- or 9-inch loaf pans and place the dough in the pans. Cover the pans loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until the loaves double in size, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Beat egg yolk with milk, and brush the top of loaves. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until well browned and the loaves sound hollow when rapped. Turn loaves out of the pans onto a wire rack to cool completely before cutting.

Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

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