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{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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