The pomegranate has a long history in Greek cuisine and figures prominently in the myth of Persephone. Her mother Demeter, grief-stricken, did not allow anything on earth to grow when her daughter was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Persephone ate six seeds (or arils, to be more exact) of the pomegranate during her stay. As anyone familiar with the ancient Greek myths knows, eating or drinking anything in the underworld meant you would have to stay there. Since Persephone had only consumed the six seeds, it was decided that she would spend six months with Hades and then return to visit her mother on earth for the rest of the year. The myth explained the changing of the seasons.
In more recent times, the pomegranate continues to symbolize fertility and good luck. In many regions of Greece, it is part of the Christmas and New Year’s traditions. The pomegranate is hung up above the front door for the twelve days of Christmas in some areas. The fruit is placed on the table at Christmas-time and for the Presentation of the Virgin Mary on November 21.
On New Year’s Eve, the family gathers outside and when the clock strikes midnight, a pomegranate is rolled and smacked on the front door of the house. The more seeds that scatter on the floor, the luckier the New Year will be. Others take the pomegranate with them to church to be blessed and then someone else must open the door for whoever is holding the fruit, then, once inside he or she rolls it against the door to smash and scatter the seeds as mentioned above. The rolling or smashing must always be done with the right hand since it is the good luck hand.
Today, mindful that pomegranate juice stains, some seal the pomegranate in a plastic ziplock bag before smashing to avoid making a mess. In this case, however many seeds are in the plastic bag determines how lucky the year will be. Smashing the pomegranate on the ground is also part of traditional weddings. The scattered seeds are thought to bring good luck and many children to the newlyweds. Retaining their ancient connection to the afterlife, the seeds are also used to decorate kolyva for funerals and memorial services in the Greek Orthodox Church.
The pomegranate is also a good luck housewarming gift. Available from September through February in the Northern Hemisphere, the fruit is packed with vitamins and antioxidants, including vitamin K, folate, and dietary fiber. It can be juiced or the seeds (arils) can be used for smoothies or to top salads, yogurt, cakes or ice cream.
Cake with Pomegranate Seeds
1/2 cup Greek extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour, plus more for dusting the pan
1 cup toasted, chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon Greek sea salt
3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons orange zest
For the syrup:
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup orange juice
1 (1-inch) cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 cup Greek yogurt, for serving (optional)
1 cup pomegranate seeds (arils)
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare a 9-inch springform pan or cake pan by brushing with oil and dusting lightly with a little flour. Shake out any excess flour and set the pan aside.
In a food processor, grind the walnuts until coarsely chopped. Place the walnuts in a bowl with the 1 cup of flour, the baking powder, and salt. Whisk together and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and sugar until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes, scraping down sides of the bowl as necessary.
Add the orange juice, vanilla extract, and orange zest, then slowly add the flour mixture at low speed. Add the 1/2 cup olive oil and beat for a minute or so to combine. Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pan.
Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack, then remove from the pan and place on a cake plate.
To make the syrup: Place the sugar, orange juice, cinnamon stick and cloves in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then spoon half the syrup over the cooled cake. Slice the cake and serve with a bit of Greek yogurt, if preferred. Spoon more syrup over each portion, if desired, and top with fresh pomegranate seeds.