Throughout Greece, breads and pies with a coin inside, have been established as a custom on the first day of the year, in the memory of the following event: In the 4th century, Cappadokia, a Byzantine province in Minor Asia, suffered from famine. However, the situation did not touch the eparch of the province,1 who demanded to get the taxes, threatening the people with the sack of the area. St. Vasilios (St. Basil), Bishop in Kaisareia of Cappadokia, appealed to each one of the citizens to offer every valuable (rings, bracelets etc) they had to save themselves. Then he intervened, smoothed the anger of the eparch and managed to change his mind. The treasure was given back to the saint, who made a pie for each family, in which a jewel was hidden.
Since 9th century, the vasilopita has been established as a custom in Orhodox tradition. Though the reason for making vasilopita is commonly said to be the commemoration of St. Vasilios, the truth is more complicated: vasilopita is also connected to the ancient Greek breads and cakes which were made specifically for the purpose of religious offerrings to the gods and the spirits of nature and the Roman cakes which were offered to the double- faced Ianus, the god after whom Ianouarios/ January is named. The custom of hidden coin is connected to the Roman Saturnalia, the festival in honor of Saturnus, god of seed and sowing. Saturnalia is thought of as the Greek equivalent of the Greek Cronia, a festival that was held in honor of Cronos, god of agriculture, harvest, fertility and father of Zeus. During Saturnalia a ‘king’ was selected by lot.
Hence vasilopita has ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine background. The word itself comes from the combination of the words vasileus (king) and pita. Vasilopita is a pie for a king.
It is generally made in a round shape and can be a common bread, leavened or unleavened or a sweet bread, a sweet or savory pie (pumpkin pie, milk pie, cheese pie, bulgur pie, rice pie, meat pie, fish pie etc.) or something different. Until 19th century, in Arcadia (Peloponnesos) the coin was put into the vasilokota, a stuffed hen (vasilokota = hen for the king). While not technically bread or pie, mention should be made of New Year loukoumades (Aegean islands) and halva (regions of Asian Minor) which also contained a coin. In nowadays the sweet pie, which once was mainly made in urban areas, predominates transformed into a big luxurius cake.
From first to last, vasilopita is treated very seriously. In some remote places the pita is still baked by the house mistress, who is clean and wears her best clothes and jewellery for the occasion. Having a deep religious and agricultural significance, it is regarded as the bread or pie of fertility and good luck and is accompanied by actions of magic. Until recently Greek peasants made the sign of the cross before baking it. Keys, needles etc. were used for making strange shapes on sweet vasilopites and breads, intending to lock the gossips or to prevent the evil eye from entering houses. The farmers’ wives made with pieces of dough trees and animals, the shepherds’ wives made dough -sheeps, dogs and pots of milk, the kind St. Vasilios should bless. In the savory vasilopita that was made with many phyllo sheets difficult to be decorated, symbols and signs, aside from the coin, were hidden in the stuffing: a small stick for the shepherd, a straw or a grain of wheat for the farmer, a bean or a nut for the fertility of fields and family. When the pie was cut whoever found the straw or the stick in his piece had good luck for his harvest or his animals and whoever found the coin had good luck for himself.
On the coming of the New Year the father of the family rotates the pie three times in the name of trinity. Afterwards he makes the shape of cross above the pita with a knife and cut the pie into pieces naming each of them in an established turn. The first piece is for Jesus, the second for Virgin Mary, the third for St. Vasilios, the fourth for the house, the fifth for the poor and stranger and the rest for the members of the family in order of age.
The piece for the poor and the stranger is of special interest because symbolizes the duty to care for the unfortunates of the world. Since care for the poor and stranger is not only the basis of philoxenia and philanthropy, fundamental values in Greek social ethics, but also a principle of Christianity, the New Year pie is magical both for the unfortunates and for those who offer shelter to them. The Homeric advice ‘The stranger and suppliant are like your brother. And stranger you are welcome. Our house is yours.” Homer. Odysseus. IX, 546-547 and the Christian ‘I give hospitality to the stranger so that God not become a stranger to me’ have found their echo in a piece of pie.
1 Governor of a province of Roman and Byzantine Greece.
Vasilopita from Constantinople
480 gr fresh milk
4 eggs + 1
480 gr milk-butter, melted
480 gr sugar
23 gr. vanilla powder
25 gr salt
1282 gr. flour
650 sourdough starter
Place starter in a large bowl, cover loosely and let stand in a warm place for about 4 hours.
Beat the butter with sugar, add the eggs one by one, milk, vanilla, salt, mahlepi and continue beating. In a large bowl shift flour and make a well in the centre. Pour in the starter and the butter mixture and mix well. Knead well, adding flour if it is sticky or warm milk if it is too hard. Cover dough and let it rise for 2 hours. Knead again and place the dough on one or two buttered baking dishes. Cover and let rise for 2 hours. Preheat oven to 180ºC. Beat the egg and glaze the pie. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden brown. Remove from oven, and insert into the cake a well-washed coin, wrapped in aluminum foil.
Vasilopita with yogurt
½ glass olive oil½ glass milk – butter, melted5 eggs
1 glass sugar
zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
juice of 2 oranges
3 tbs brandy
220 gr drained yogurt
½ k. self raising flour
Mix sugar with olive oil and butter and beat them. Add yogurt and beat again. Beat the eggs. Pour the eggs, orange juice, brandy, zest and vanilla into the mixture of yogurt. Add the flour little by little and mix well. Bake at 200ºC.
Remove from oven, and insert into the cake a well-washed coin, wrapped in aluminum foil.
Pumpkin pie from Thrace.
1 k. fresh pumpkin, grated coarsely
1 glass of almonds, crushed
½ glass of rusk, crushed
1/3 glass of sesame seeds, browned and crushed
½ glass of raisins
1/4 glass of honey
zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
1 tsp of ground cinnamon and cloves (or more, if you like)
7 sheets of commercial phyllo dough
olive oil for brushing
½ glass of sugar
½ glass of honey
1 glass of water
1 tbs lemon juice
peel of ½ lemon
Boil the pumpkin in its liquid for 10 minutes. Let drain for 2-3 hours and press to remove excess liquid before using.
Brush a baking dish with olive oil.
In a bowl mix the almonds, raisins, sesame seeds, rusk, honey, cinnamon, cloves, zest. Add the pumpkin and knead with your fingers to mix well.
Brush 3 sheets with olive oil and put them one on the top of the other. Spring half of filling on phyllo and spread evenly. Lay one olive – oiled phyllo sheet on the top and spread the rest of filling. Brush with olive oil the phyllo that extends out of the sides and turn it over the mixture.
Lay the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing each with olive oil. Trim off the edges that extend out of the pan. Score the top layers with a sharp knife into triangles or squares. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven, set the baking dish on a rack and let it cool completely.
Boil the sugar, honey, water, lemon juice and lemon peel for 5-6 minutes. Discard the lemon peel and and pour the hot syrup over the pie. Cover pie with a towel and let it cool. Insert into it a well-washed small coin, wrapped in aluminum foil.
Vasilopita with phyllo pastry from Constantinople
For the pie:
40 phyllo pastry sheets
For the filling:
100gr. of toasted sesame seeds
1 kgr pounded walnuts
2-3 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
2 ½ tea-cups of sugar
extra sesame seeds to sprinkle (un-toasted) and 3 walnuts cut in half
extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 180°C and brush well with olive oil the bottom and the sides of an oven pan.
Lay 3 phyllo sheets at the bottom of the pan (brushed with olive oil) allowing some of the edges to hang over the rim. Sprinkle on top with some of the mixture. Lay another sheet and brush it with olive oil, lay another one and brush again, then sprinkle with some of the mixture.
Continue in the same way until the phyllo sheets and the filling are used up. Finish the pie laying on top 3 sheets, without any mixture in between. Don’t forget to brush them with oil. Bring the edges of the pastry inwards twisting all around so to form a border.
Brush the last sheet with beaten egg and decorate with walnuts and sesame seeds.
Put in the oven (180C) and initially bake for 15 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 150°C and continue cooking for another 30-35 minutes or until the pie is nicely golden and the phyllo crunchy.
While the pie is hot cover with a kitchen towel and leave it to rest for a few hours before you serve.
Happy New Year Bread