As the holiday season continues, the cutting of the vasilopita is a New Year’s tradition that brings family and friends together.
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 origin of the vasilopita can be traced back to stories concerning the payment of taxes or a ransom. 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 the 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 sugar and some decoration on top. Some recipes are basically large cakes, while others are yeast-based and more bread-like. So whether your vasilopita is the cake-type or the bread-type, we hope it brings good luck and good health to everyone in the New Year!
Vasilopita with Yeast
1 package dry active yeast
1/4 cup warm water, at 105 degrees F
1 pound (3 1/2 cups) bread flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon Greek sea salt
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1/2 cup warm milk
1 egg, beaten well, for the egg wash
Slivered almonds or sesame seeds, for topping
In a mixing bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the yeast and the warm water. Stir in 1-2 tablespoons of the flour, the 1 tablespoon of sugar, and set aside for 10 minutes for the yeast mixture to become frothy. Meanwhile, melt the butter and set aside. In the bowl of a mixer with the paddle attachment, stir together the sugar and the orange and lemon zests. Add the warm milk and continue mixing. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook and stir in the yeast mixture and about half of the flour. Knead lightly, then add the rest of the flour and the salt and continue kneading lightly to incorporate the ingredients. Add the melted butter a little at a time and knead it into the flour. The last bit of butter should coat the dough, to keep it from drying out during the rise. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place to rise for about an hour. Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down. Form into one large round vasilopita or into individual ones, as many as needed so each member of the family gets one personal vasilopita, if preferred. At this point, place the lucky coin, after washing, drying, and wrapping it in foil, in the large vasilopita or in one of the individual ones. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes. Brush with egg wash and decorate with almonds or sesame seeds. Place in a large baking pan and bake in a 400-degree F oven for about 30-35 minutes for the large vasilopita, about 20 minutes for the individual ones, or until golden brown. Cool completely and store tightly covered to prevent the vasilopita from drying out until ready to serve.
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