Happy New Year, or Καλή Χρονιά, as our Greek friends say. I’m feeling very Greek at the moment, possibly because we spent New Year’s day with Greek and English friends. We feasted on a very British roast goose, but other elements of the meal were decidedly Greek. And, their New Year dinner wouldn’t be complete without a slice of vasilopita, the Greek holiday bread made for the feast of Ayios Vasileios (Saint Basil) on the 1st of January. One slice is for Saint Basil and one for each member of the family and guests. The lucky one finds a coin tucked inside the bread.
Ayios Vasileios, Basil of Caesarea, was a 4th century monk, a renowned theologian, also known for his care of the poor. Ayios Vasileios is one of the three Holy Hierarchs, influential bishops of the early Church and venerated as saints in the Orthodox Church. In Greek tradition, it is Ayios Vasileios who brings gifts on the 1st of January, making him (not Saint Nicholas) the Santa Claus figure for many Greek children.
Unlike many Greek recipes for this holiday bread, this is a Politikli Greek version (that is, Greeks “of the City” otherwise known as Constantinople or Istanbul). It is flavored with anise, mastic – the aromatic resin from the Pistacia lentiscus tree from the island of Chios – and mahlepi (Turkish, mahlab) – the kernels of the Prunus mahaleb or St. Lucie cherry. You can find these spices in Greek, Turkish or Middle Eastern specialist shops, or over the internet. This recipe produces a rich, cake-like bread.
Makes 4 small freeform loaves
- 1/2 cup (4 fluid oz or approximately 100ml) warm milk
- 1 Tablespoon dry yeast
- 1/2 (63g) cup flour
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Sponge (above)
- 1/2 teaspoon mastic
- 1/4 teaspoon mahlepi
- 2 cups (450g) sugar
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1 Tablespoon anise seeds
- 1/2 cup (4 fluid oz or approximately 100ml) water
- 8 cups (approximately 1kg + 250g) bread flour
- 1/2 cup (4 fluid oz or approximately 100ml) milk
- 6 large eggs
- 2 cups (450g) butter, melted
- 1 egg
- 2 Tablespons nigella seeds
- 2 Tablespons sesame seeds
In a large mixing bowl, make the sponge first by mixing the flour, sugar and dry yeast, then gradually adding warm milk. Stir with a fork until the mixture is smooth. Let sit for 1/2 to 1 hour until it has become bubbly.
While the sponge is sitting, put the mastic and mahlepi in a mortar and grind, together with a Tablespoon of the sugar, until fine. Sift through a fine mesh and set aside, discarding what solids remain. Heat 1/2 cup water and the anise seeds, bringing to a boil, reducing heat and letting it simmer for a minute. Turn off heat and let it cool before straining, reserving the liquid and discarding the seeds. Melt butter.
In the bowl with the sponge, add the flour, sugar, sea salt and mastic/malephi mix. Stir and gradually add the 1/2 cup warm milk, the anise liquid, and melted butter. At this point, it is better to mix with your hands. Add eggs (room temperature, not straight from the refrigerator) – one at a time until fully incorporated. Knead it a little in the bowl, until it is less sticky and comes away from the sides and bottom of the bowl. The dough will still be soft and very buttery. It is customary (although not required) at this point to draw a cross in the dough three times, using the side of your hand. Cover and let sit in a warm place for several hours to double in bulk. If you have the time or started to make the dough late in the day, it can even sit overnight in a cooler location.
When ready to shape the loaves, place the dough on a floured board, cutting off a small amount of dough for decorating. Set this aside, covered in cling film. Divide the rest into four equal parts. Traditionally, vasilopita is circular, much like a cake, but I usually make one circular and three oval forms which are easier to cut into slices after they are baked. Set the loaves on baking trays lined with baking parchment, cover with clean tea towels and let rest and rise for another hour.
Preheat a convection oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Beat the egg and lightly brush the loaves. Sprinkle with a combination of sesame and nigella seeds.
Before the circular vasilopita loaf is sprinkled with seeds, it is decorated using the dough reserved for this purpose – rolled or cut, formed into shapes. Place the shapes on the bread, brush more egg wash over the decorations and proceed to sprinkle with the seeds.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on racks. The decorated, circular loaf can be used for the New Year celebrations. Insert a coin in the bottom of the bread in a random place. The other loaves make excellent toast or can be frozen for future use.
Note on ritual of cutting of Vasilopeta during New Years celebration:
The head of the household performs the cutting of the bread. It is first crossed three times with the knife, much like the earlier crossing of the dough. Once crossed, the bread is cut into quarters and then sliced in a counterclockwise fashion. One slice is for Saint Basil, and the remainder of the bread is sliced, first to the head of household and for each member of that household in descending order of age, then to guests in the same hierarchical manner until the entire loaf is cut.