Vasilopita History and Recipe

Vasilopita. Photo by w:User:pfctdayelise, Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons

Vasilopita is the traditional sweet bread or cake with a lucky coin baked into it or inserted after baking, depending on the recipe, honoring Saint Basil the Great. Born into a wealthy family, St. Basil gave away his earthly riches to the poor and thus became associated with the tradition of gift giving, delivering presents for children on his feast day January 1. The story of the vasilopita can be traced back to stories concerning the payment of taxes or a ransom.

Saint Basil the Great from a fresco in Saint Sophia Church, Ohrid. Public domain
Saint Basil the Great from a fresco in Saint Sophia Church, Ohrid. Public domain

During a siege, the people were called upon to pay a ransom, donating their gold coins and jewels, the enemy was touched by the spirit of the people and returned the gold and jewels, but it was impossible to return the items to their rightful owners. The task fell to St. Basil to redistribute the wealth in an equitable manner. The saint baked the jewels into loaves of bread and distributed them to each household and miraculously, the items were returned to their rightful owners.

Today, the person who finds the lucky coin in his or her slice of vasilopita will be lucky for the entire new year. The head of the household cuts a cross into the entire vasilopita before cutting a piece for each person present, usually cutting the first for Jesus Christ, then for the Virgin Mary, Saint Basil, the poor, the house, and then from the eldest to the youngest person. There are several different recipes for vasilopita from the various regions of Greece, though all feature eggs and sugar and some decoration on top. Here is an easy cake version to make this New Year’s.

Vasilopita

  • 3 and 1/2 cups unbleached, all purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 teaspoons orange zest
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 and 1/3 cups orange juice
  • 1/2 cup cognac
  • 3 eggs
  • Slivered almonds, or sesame seeds, or powdered sugar for decoration
  • Coin

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and orange zest. In another bowl, whisk together the olive oil, orange juice, cognac and the eggs until well combined. Add the wet to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan, or round pan, and sprinkle with slivered almonds or sesame seeds. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour or until golden brown and a skewer or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for fifteen minutes in the pan on a wire rack and then unmold the cake. Cut a slit in the bottom of the cake and insert a coin that has been washed with soap and water, dried, and wrapped in tin foil. Turn the cake right side up and allow to cool completely before serving. If using, dust with powdered sugar in a decorative pattern with a stencil.

1 Comment

  1. I was looking for an easy and yummy recipe for vasilopita and this one sounds perfect. I am making it today. Thank you!!

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