Monthly Archives: January 2021

Twelfth Night Approacheth…

When did you put the decorations up in 2020? A lot of our neighbours started early. I think I saw the first lights going up in late October, and there were definitely a few trees that stood proudly in bay windows, drowning in ornaments, from the first few weeks of November.

We actually decided to wait, and our decorations only went up around mid-December. This was also a very deliberate choice. 2020’s “Lockdown Christmas” needed all the help it could get to feel special, and I reasoned that if we waited as long as we could, we would have the thrill of anticipation, and it would all still feel quite special when Christmas Day rolled around. And I think it worked.

Then of course there is the question about when to take everything down again. Traditionally decorations are kept up until Twelfth Night, which can be either 5 or 6 January depending on whether you count the Twelve Days of Christmas as starting on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. In our house we side-step any bickering by taking them down on New Year’s Day. Maybe it is a sign of getting older that we are now up and about, with clear heads, early on 1 January. But it does also mean we start the New Year with a clean slate, the tree comes down, and suddenly the sitting room feels much bigger. I reckon that this year we also timed it just right – the tree still looked good, but another day or so and the needles would have been dropping all over the place.

In the midst of the lockdowns and social distancing (and the fact we in London are now going into our third lockdown in ten months…), I also overlooked the fact that this is the tenth instalment of my Twelve Days of Festive Baking. Number 10! That means that I’ve made a grand total of 120 recipes from various corners of the world. Goodness knows how much that must be in kilos of butter and sugar, or how many eggs were involved. And by now I’ve made a lot of the more well-known recipes, so each year gets more challenging and obscure. But then, that is a big part of the fun – trying new things and not really knowing how they will turn out or what they will (or should) taste like. It’s also fun hunting down some obscure ingredients. I know you can get a lot of them online, but I’m still analogue and like to find them in shops.

So a toast to my 2020 edition – a year we’re not madly keen on,  but at least if gave me the time to be at home and tackle some complex baking. I think we came up with a pretty wild and eclectic selection.

Finally, as I have done in previous years, I’ve matched the bakes to the original lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas to see if there is any sort of random correlation. So how did I compare to the carol?

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Greek Vasilopita)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (American Italian Rainbow Cookies)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Norwegian Brune Pinner)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Slovakian Oriešky)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Queen’s Cinnamon Stars)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (French Calissons)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (German Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen)…
…five Gold Rings (German Gebrannte Mandeln)…
…four Colly Birds (Norwegian Kakemenn)…
…three French Hens (Philippine Paciencias)…
…two Turtle Doves (Argentinean Alfajores)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Italian Spongata di Natale)!

At a pinch, you could say that calissons recall elegant white swans, and that the gebrannte Mandeln are a rich, golden colour like the five rings, but that’s all a bit of a stretch. Overall though my favourites were the “Italian” Rainbow Cookies. Not as hard as I thought, and they tasted wonderful as well as looking utterly crazy. I’ll definitely make them again.

Now…time to think about recipes for 2021. Should I go for an “all-stars” edition (and reinterpret the most popular cookies from previous years), focus on cookies that are all about decoration and looks rather than traditional recipes, or hunt out another set of Twelve Festive Delights? Let me know what you think!


Filed under Uncategorized

{12} Vasilopita Cake

Happy New Year! We’ve made it out of 2020, and we’ve also reached the last instalment of our 12 Festive Bakes for the year. Or more accurately last year.

I normally try to finish everything before Christmas Day so that all the goodies are on offer over the festive holiday, ready to hand to all those guests who will be popping in. Except that imperative was not there this year, and we’re working our way through the various baked goods. Another thing that is different this year is that I’ve run a little later, and as the final bake was due to coincide with New Year, I decided to make something that celebrates this time of year. Well, I found out that in Greece it is traditional to eat a vasilopita. So I made one.

The name vasilopita means “St Basil’s pie”. It can be no coincidence that the Feast of St Basil is on 1 January, and he happens to be the patron saint of wishes and blessings. Very fitting for the time of renewal, new hopes and good intentions. The vasilopita can come in one of two forms. It can either be an enriched yeasted bread, or a cake. As I was making this late on New Year’s Eve, I decided to go the cake version as I thought it would be quicker to make. Truth be told, on that day I had already spent many, many hours outside in the park, and all that fresh air and very cold temperatures left me ready for bed quite early. Those New Year’s Eve celebrations where we partied until the wee hours seem but a distant memory these days…

There is also a lovely ritual that goes with these cakes. A coin is hidden in the bread or included in the cake when it is baked. When the vasilopita is served, it is cut into pieces and offered to guests in turn, from the oldest to the youngest. The one that gets the coin will enjoy good luck in the year to come. This is presumably on the basis that they’ve already enjoyed some good luck by neither ingesting the coin nor breaking a tooth on it? Anyway, I think this is a fun thing to do, but make sure you have a clean coin, wash it thoroughly in hot, soapy water, and wrap it tightly in tin foil. Safety first.

Vasilopita cakes are usually smooth, and decorated with a dusting of icing sugar. Often the year will be written in numebrs on top, either using a stencil, in icing, or perhaps using nuts. However, I decided that I would just dust with icing, as this was a good chance to use my intricate Dutch cake mould, which is shaped like a Zeeuwse Knoop. This is traditional symbol from the Zeeland region. It has twelve points on it rather like a clock, and that felt like enough of a link to New Year’s Eve to justify using it.

The traditional flavour in a vasilopita cake is orange zest, which I’ve used here. Note that I was quite heavy-handed and used the zest of two whole oranges, plus a bit of lemon zest. I loved the result, but I love citrus and this cake did pack a punch. If you want a more delicate flavour, use just one orange.

I also saw a couple of recipes that suggested using mahleb (the ground pits of the St Lucie cherry, which has a bitter-almond flavour) and ground mastic resin which is popular in Greek sweets and baking. The flavour and aroma of mastic are hard to describe, but I think it’s reminiscent of something light, fresh and resinous, with a touch of pine about it. So I added both of those since I happened to have them in the spice drawer. Neither dominates, but they add to the overall result – an aromatic, zesty cake.

After all those rich spices and chocolate over the last couple of weeks, this made a very pleasant change. We enjoyed it with breakfast on New Year’s Day, then set about taking down the decorations. We always do this on New Year’s Day, and it feels right. The festive period is drawing to a close, the house returns to a calmer state, and we get to marvel at how spacious and airy our home suddenly feels. Yes, in lockdown times it feels a little sad to be putting away all the sparkle and wrap all the tree ornaments in their protective paper, but I’m hopeful that we will be unwrapping them again in December 2021 surrounded by our nearest and dearest.

I mentioned that the vasilopita can be both a bread and cake. I think I’ll also have a go at the bread version. I’ve seen a couple of recipes, and it seems similar to an Italian panettone, but without the dried fruit and the inclusion of orange zest and mastic. If it’s good, perhaps it will make the 2021 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas?

To make a Vasilopita Cake:

For the cake

• 150g butter
• 250g white caster sugar
• zest of 1 or 2 oranges
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1 teaspoon mahleb (optional)
• 1/2 teaspoon ground mastic resin (optional)
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3 large eggs
• 225g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

• 50ml whole milk
• 75ml yoghurt
• 2 tablespoons orange juice
• 25g ground almonds
• 25g flaked almonds, roughly crushed

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons orange juice

To finish

• icing sugar, to dust

1. Prepare a 20cm (8 inch) diameter cake pan. Either line one with greaseproof paper, or if using a fancy mould, grease it generously with butter, then dust it with plain flour.

2. Put the butter in a large bowl, and beat until fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth, then add the flavourings (orange zest, lemon zest, mahleb, mastica and vanilla extract). Mix well.

3. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Add a spoonful of flour with each egg to prevent the mixture from splitting.

4. Mix the remaining flour and the baking powder in a separate bowl. Combine the milk and the yoghurt in another bowl. Add one-third of the remaining flour, and mix; then half the milk mixture; then next third of the flour; the rest of the milk mixture; then the last of the flour. Finally fold in the orange juice, ground almonds and flaked almonds

5. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking tin. If you’re using a fancy mould, spoon it gently so that you do not disturb the flour layer lining the mould.

6. Bake the cake for 1-1 1/2 hours until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Cover with tin foil after 45 minutes to prevent the cake from getting too dark. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

7. Make the glaze. Mix the icing sugar and orange juice until smooth, then cover the top and sides of the cake. Leave to dry.

8. Just before serving, dust the cake with icing sugar.


Leave a comment

Filed under Cake of the Week, Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things