My aunt once called me the family historian. I never really thought of myself in this way...but I suppose she's right. On our recent trip to Arizona, she shared with me a video of my grandfather along with his sister and brother. The three of them, in their older years, sat together on a couch in front of a video camera and recounted events from their youth in order to share their story with their children, grandchildren, and future generations. This video was a treasured gift for me from my aunt - not only because I was able to make copies of it and share it with my siblings and parents as a Christmas gift this year but also because my grandfather and his siblings have since fallen asleep in the Lord. Their stories are part of my story and I cherish them.
This year, I wanted to make more traditional vasilopitas instead of the Americanized versions I've done in the past. Not that anything is wrong with my Americanized versions because, let's face it, I'm American. I just wanted my thoughts and prayers to be with my great-grandparents this year as I thought about them fleeing from the Turks and then pausing for a moment as they went back to grab their icon of Saint Nicholas. Their Orthodox faith was important to them. These traditions we pass down have roots. These traditions have meaning. These traditions teach.
Not long ago, I learned my great-grandmother was from Bursa, Turkey. While I hope to learn more precisely where my great-grandfather is from, I do know he's from northern Greece. Unfortunately, my papou passed away before my grandfather got married and my yiayia died when I was a young girl so I didn't get to learn from them first hand. But..my aunt has shared with me that my yiayia was an incredible baker who never used a recipe and that my yiayia frequently used orange and mastic in her sweets. Thus, I decided to make vasilopitas from the regions of Alexandroupolis and Constantinople today in anticipation of the feast of Saint Basil tomorrow and as I keep the memory of my great-grandparents alive in my heart.
The tradition of baking Vasilopita and sharing it goes beyond hoping to find the "lucky coin". It's about sharing the story of Saint Basil with our children. It's about letting our children help us scoop the flour and crack the eggs as they learn how to make vasilopita by our side. It's about teaching our faith and sharing it with the next generation.
Saint Basil and the Vasilopita
One year, during a horrific famine, the emperor ordered the people of Caesarea to pay an enormous tax they could not afford. The people were so poor that they were forced to not only give up the few coins they had but also any precious family treasures they owned in order to pay their taxes.
Saint Basil learned about this excessive tax and went to the emperor to persuade him to give the people back their money and treasures. By the grace of God, the emperor repented and ordered that all the taxes from the people of Caesarea be returned to Saint Basil.
Although Saint Basil now had the town's money, he wasn't sure how to distribute them to their rightful owners. He prayed and prayed about it and then asked the town's bakers to bake the coins and treasures inside loaves of bread. Saint Basil then gave each of the people of Caesarea a loaf and miraculously each of them received their own valuables back.
Placing a Coin in the Vasilopita
When it comes to putting a coin in your dough or batter before baking, you can use either a quarter or a Saint Basil coin. I grew up with a quarter (wrapped in foil) in the vasilopita. It's up to you which one you want to use.
Cutting the Vasilopita at Home
Usually the oldest person in the home cuts the vasilopita, making the sign of the cross over it before cutting it. The first piece is dedicated to Christ (which my family usually puts out in the wooded area of our backyard for God's creatures). Some people will dedicate the second piece to the Theotokos and the third to Saint Basil. Others will give the second piece to the oldest person in the home followed by the next oldest until everyone receives a slice.
Vasilopita from Constantinople (Sweet Bread Recipe)
- 2 packets of rapid rise yeast
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup milk, warmed
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup butter, melted
- 5 tsp ground mahlepi*
- confectioners sugar for dusting (optional)
*Mahlepi is a Mediterrean spice often used in desserts. It is the stones from a specific type of cherry which is ground using a mortar and pestle or coffee bean grinder. It is available from ethnic grocery stories or online from Penzey's Spices.
Dissolve the yeast and 1/2 tsp of sugar in the warm milk, cover and allow to rise for at least 15 minutes. Place 5 cups of flour in a mixing bowl and mix in the sugar and salt. Mix in one egg at a time, the butter, mahlepi, and activated yeast in milk. Mix into a smooth but stiff dough, adding additional flour, if necessary. Knead thoroughly for 10 minutes, then allow to rise in a warm spot until it doubles in size. (About 2 to 3 hours)
Punch the dough down then form into a ball, placing the coin (wrapped in aluminum foil) in the bottom of the dough. Place dough ball in a 9 inch cake pan, cover, and allow to rise a second time until it has doubled in size again.
Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees for the next 30 minutes. Lower the heat again to 325 degrees and continue baking for 10 minutes or until done. Remove and cool on rack.
Optional: Dust with confectioners sugar. (Traditionally, this vasilopita is brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled with sesame seeds before baking.)
Vasilopita from Alexandroupolis (Cake Recipe)
Alexandroupolis is the last stop before Turkey. This vasilopita is a luscious, dense cake with a sweet orange flavor.
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 6 eggs
- 4 cups flour (I used an all-purpose gluten free flour for mine)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- Grated rind of 2 oranges
- Juice of 5 oranges, by hand (juice of 3 oranges if using a juicer)
Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar, beating on medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time then add the zest of the oranges. Then slowly add the flour, baking powder, and baking soda - alternating with the juice of the oranges.
Butter and flour a round 10 inch cake pan. Pour the batter into the pan, insert coin (wrapped in aluminum foil), and smooth out the top of the batter as best as possible. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking for another 20 minutes. Cool then remove from pan.
Optional: Dust with confectioner's sugar before serving. (Traditionally, this vasilopita does not have any glaze.)