Tag Archives: greece

{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.


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

{8} Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes are a traditional cookie from Greece. And that should set some alarm bells ringing…

I always approach making traditional cookies with a little bit of trepidation. In this case, I have visions of Greek mothers and grandmothers raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes. In my head, there is this Greek chorus of collective tutting as an entire people just know that their version is clearly superior to my attempt. And that their recipe is obviously better than everyone else’s attempts as well…

With that disclaimer out there, I still think that my attempt is pretty decent. I mean, with all that icing sugar on them they look like they are made of snow!

In fact, they are part of a family of similar cookies – polvorones in Spain, Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, or Austrian vanilla crescents. What they have in common is a sweet, crumbly pastry with chopped nuts, with the whole cookies dredged in icing sugar to provide even more sweetness.

This is a very easy recipe to make. You just need to whip up the butter to get it nice and soft, then whip lots of air in as you add the sugar, egg yolk and various flavours. I’ve used vanilla as a background flavour, and combined it with brandy and orange blossom water. It is also important to use toasted nuts in this recipe – the nuts all some crunch to contrast to the soft, crumbly texture of the biscuit, but toasting them means the cookies had a richer flavour.

Shaping them is a doddle too – I found that it was worth chilling the dough slightly before shaping, as it made it a little easier to handle, but otherwise just scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture and roll them in your hands. However, I would not recommend my usual roll-into-a-sausage-and-cut-into-slices approach, as the mixture is a bit too soft for that. Tablespoons all the way!

Once you have baked the kourabiedes, you get another chance to add more flavour. I’ve seen recipes where Greek matriarchs liberally sprinkle ouzo over the hot cookies, which might be the way to go if you like aniseed flavours. I went for a less adventurous option and brushed them with some brandy cut with a little rosewater. There was a little sizzle, a puff of steam and a lovely aroma!

While the kourabiedes are still warm, you also need to get them into a dish full of icing sugar. They will still be fragile, so handle them with care. The icing sugar will combine with the butter in the cookies to form a sweet coating, then move them to a cooling rack and use a sieve to give them another coating of icing sugar. Get into the festive mood by imagining that this is snow. Then leave them to cool, and pile them high on a plate to serve alongside good strong coffee, or perhaps that herbal tea you picked up on holiday in Greece.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα (Kala Hristouyienna, Greek for Merry Christmas)!


To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

• 250g unsalted butter
• 125g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon brandy

• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g toasted almonds, ground
• 75g toasted almonds, chopped
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 300g plain flour
• pinch of salt

To finish:

• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
• icing sugar, to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat well until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and egg yolk, and beat for another couple of minutes. Mix in the brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla and give it another good whip, then fold in the ground almonds.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Fold into the butter mixture and mix until it all comes together. You might need to use your hands at the end. Pop in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Take generous spoonfuls of the dough. Roll half of them into balls, transfer to a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Roll the other pieces of dough into balls, then shape them into crescent shapes and transfer a baking sheet.

5. Bake the cookies in batches of 12 for around 15 until just golden, turning them half-way to get an even bake. In the meantime, mix the brandy and rosewater in a dish.

6. Once baked, remove from the oven and brush immediately with the brandy-rosewater mixture. Allow to cool for a moment, then roll them in icing sugar. Transfer to a cooking rack, and dust generously with more icing sugar and leave to cool.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Watermelon and Feta Salad

So we’re still in the middle of a heatwave…so today I’ve got a suggestion for a salad that is part tasty feta, olives and herbs, and part refreshing, juicy watermelon. It’s a funny old time of year. The things I usually love to eat – pasty, pastry, curry or warm lentils – are all just too, too heavy to enjoy when it’s hot by day and still warm by night. This has been driving me to try some new ideas, and this classic Greek combination has been part of my attempts to eat well while still also staying cool.


Most recipes for watermelon and feta salad seem to be fairly simple – just add some dressing and a few black olives, with perhaps a dash of mint. However, I have a garden and windowsill that have really taken off in the heat, so I was able to pick a selection of baby herb leaves to add to the salad which added some aromatic flavour to the dish. Baby basil, rocket micro-leaves, thyme, oregano and parsley. There would have been dill in there too, but my plant had wilted, but I think it would also make a nice addition. The overall effect of deep pink fruit, white feta, black olived and bright green leaves is really quite stunning on the table.

One little tip – I am normally an advocate for taking fruit out of the fridge well ahead of serving to allow it to come up to room temperature – the flavour is so much better. However, in this dish, you really want the watermelon to be chilled, and if it’s ripe, you’ll still be able to enjoy the flavour of sweet melon with the salt of the feta. One of those dishes that sounds strange, shouldn’t work, but does, and works really well!


To make a Watermelon and Feta salad:

• 1/2 medium watermelon, peeled and cubed
• 1/2 red onion, finely sliced
• 200g feta
• 70g black olives, quartered
• 2 limes, juice only
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• handful of mint leaves, finely shredded

• 2 handfuls of other herb leaves (depending on what is to hand)

1. Make the dressing – put the lime juice and olive oil in a jam jar. Shake vigorously. Add the red onions and leave to sit for 15 minutes.

2. Put the watermelon in a large serving dish. Add half the mint and half the other herbs, then toss lightly. Add the black olives and crumbled feta, trying to arrange them artfully on top (presentation is all!).

3. Pour the dressing over the salad, then sprinkle over the rest of the mint and the herbs, and serve right away.

Worth making? This salad is super-easy to make and fantastic as part of a casual lunch in the garden. It’s also very more-ish, and oh-so-easy to keep picking at pieces of feta and watermelon.


Filed under Recipe, Savoury