Recipe: Vasilopita -- Greek New Year's Bread

by Julie Snyder

VasilopitaJanuary 1 is the feast day of Saint Basil, a fourth century bishop known for his generosity to the poor. He helped the needy by anonymously hiding gold coins in the cakes that were delivered to the poor.

Would you like this add this tradition to your New Year's Day celebration to bless your house and bring good luck throughout the year?

Bake up your Vasilopita with a coin hidden inside. Then offer a slice to each family member and then all visitors, from eldest to youngest.

In older times, a valuable, gold coin was baked into the rich sweet bread. Now, money or a prearranged gift may be given to the fortunate person who finds coin or medallion.

Vasilopita - Greek New Year's Bread

Prep time: 45 minutes | Total time: 4 hours | Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

• 7 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for counter)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/2 cups milk, warmed
• 3 envelopes dry yeast
• 1 2/3 cup unsalted butter
• 1 2/3 cup sugar
• zest of one orange
• zest of one lemon
• 1 tablespoon mahlab (you may substitute cardamom, fennel or Chinese almonds)
• 5 eggs, lightly beaten
• 1 egg, beaten with a splash of water
• slivered almonds

Directions

Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl and set aside.

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm milk. Add 1/2 cup flour and 1 tablespoon sugar to the mixture. Cover and set aside until it becomes bubbly and foamy.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Stir in the sugar, orange zest, lemon zest, and mahlab. Remove from heat and stir in the beaten eggs. Cool slightly.

Pour the yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add the egg mixture. Slowly stir in the flour until the mixture forms a smooth wet dough.

Cover the bowl and set in a warm place until it doubles in size, about two hours.

Turn the dough out on to a well-floured counter and punch down. Sprinkle the dough with just enough flour to keep it from sticking.

Shape the dough a large round ball and place in a greased round baking pan, about 16 inches in diameter. Cover a coin with aluminum foil and insert vertically into the loaf. Set in a warm place to rise.

Preheat the oven to 280 F.

Once the dough has risen to about double, carefully brush the surface with egg wash and decorate with the slivered almonds.

Bake until the crust is lightly browned, about an hour.

Cook's note

Religious tradition tells us that in the 4th century, Saint Basil, the Archbishop of Caesarea raised a payment to stop the siege of the city. Each citizen gave all their gold and jewelry. Embarrassed, the enemy called off the siege without collecting payment.

St. Basil tried to return the unpaid ransom, but didn't know which items belonged to which family so he baked the valuables into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves throughout the city, and by a miracle each citizen received their exact share.

In another version, St. Basil wanted to help the poor without embarrassing them. He instructed his parishioners to bake sweet breads. In each of them, Saint Basil placed one of the valuables. The next day, he passed them out his parishioners, who were astonished to find that it contained a coin.

Now it's an annual celebration to commemorate the event by having all households bake vassilopita, or, Saint Basil's bread, and the bread included a coin. Does your family take part?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.