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. 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 sugar and some decoration on top. The following vasilopita is a relatively easy to prepare cake recipe.
1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons cognac
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 cup Greek yogurt
6 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour or Zea flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon Greek sea salt
Confectioners sugar for the topping
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cognac with the baking soda dissolved in it. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest, and yogurt, and beat until well combined. In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture one third at a time until the dough forms. Be careful not to overwork the dough or it will become tough. Transfer the dough into a prepared, greased and floured, 10-inch round baking pan and place the coin, having first washed, dried it, and then covered it with aluminum foil, in the vasilopita. Bake the vasilopita in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 45 minutes to an hour or until golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before removing from pan. Cool completely then sprinkle with confectioners sugar, and serve. If preferred, the coin can be placed in the vasilopita after it is removed from the pan to cool. Cut a slit in the bottom of the cake and place the coin inside.