Vasilopita – Greek New Year’s Cake

Happy new year!

I’m sharing a very special family recipe with you today.  Vasilopita is a traditional Greek cake served on New Year’s Day (or thereabouts).  A coin is hidden in the cake and it’s said that whoever gets the coin in their slice has good luck for the year.  It’s a fun family tradition that I’ve done for as long as I can remember.

This cake is part of a story of greedy kings and excessive taxes. It was used by St. Basil as a way to give taxes back to the people after the king was convinced to have a change of heart. Miraculously, everyone got their own things back after slicing the cake up and giving a piece to everyone. If you want to know more about the story of St. Basil and the tradition for how to cut up the cake, head over to the excellent description on Wikipedia.

Some vasilopitas resemble a sweet bread.  Others like this one are a cake.  This recipe is from my godfather’s mom.  My godmother uses this same recipe and so does my mom.  It’s loved by everyone that I know that’s had it and for good reason.  It’s hands down one of my favorite cakes of all time because it’s so delicious.  It’s a simple cake without much added to flavor it and the texture is somewhere between normal cake and a pound cake. In other words, even though it’s kind of fluffy, it’s also kind of dense at the same time.

If you’re familiar with me then you know that I don’t make cakes often.  Don’t get me wrong, I like cakes, but I’m just not a fan of baking them because I don’t have the confidence that I’ll be successful. (Silly, I know. Maybe I can work on that as a resolution in 2020.)  You can ask my husband because he’s a witness to the multiple questions that I ask him (multiple times each) when I’m baking a cake.  I decided to finally put my doubts aside and carry on the tradition of this vasilopita. 

I’ve included step by step photos partly as a reminder to me, but I thought they may be helpful to someone else who is making it for the first time. There are more detailed directions in the recipe itself (below).

Step one: Mix the flour, baking soda, and salt together. Make sure that the baking soda has not expired because the cake may not rise when its baked, and that’s no good.

Step two: In a separate bowl, mix the olive oil, half of the sugar, milk, egg yolks, and vanilla extract together. My mom uses olive oil and my godmother uses extra virgin olive oil. Either works, it really just depends on what you prefer. My husband and I enjoy both versions but we prefer the taste of normal olive oil, which is what I used. If you use extra virgin olive oil then you’re cake will have a yellowish-greenish color from the deeper color of that oil, and it will have notes of the flavor that oil brings with it to the party.

Step three: Add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix again. Easy peezy so far.

Step four: Here’s what I find to be the tricky part. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites just until they’ve almost come to stiff peaks. The egg whites will be stiff in the bowl, but will not hold on to the beaters. You want to be very close to having stiff peaks at this point because once you mix the remaining sugar into the egg whites, all they will do from that point on is lose air.

Step five: Gradually add the remaining sugar while beating until the egg whites to stiff peaks. See the peak in the bowl and how they stick to the beaters? It took me two tries but it was worth it. You have to be quick with the sugar and stop as soon as it’s incorporated. Overshooting will ruin them and you’ll have to start over.

Step six: Fold the egg white mixture into the cake batter. This is what gives the cake a light airy texture.

Note to self, use a bigger bowl next time.

Step seven: Pour the batter into a greased pan and bake it. How cool is this pan? My godparents bought it for me, because they have one too and it’s perfect for vasilopita. I love the pretty edges.

The cake is a lovely golden color. Your kitchen will smell heavenly while it’s baking.

Step eight: Clean a coin, wrap it in tin foil, and place it into the bottom of the cake. Once the cake has cooled completely, carefully flip it over and stick the coin into the bottom of the cake. The coin is still sticking up a little in the photo below so that you can see it more easily, but make sure to push it in so that it’s fully inside the cake. Don’t accidentally push it out the top of course.

I clean my coin by washing it with dish soap and then boiling it in a small amount of water on the stove for a couple minutes. Once that’s done, because I’m a germophobe, I also wrap it in tin foil to be extra sure nothing icky ends up in the cake.

Make sure you give people the heads up if you’re serving it to someone who is not familiar with the tradition. Half the fun is anxiously awaiting while the cake is being divided to see if you are the lucky person. But also, you don’t want someone to chip a tooth on an unexpected hard object.

Step nine: After placing the coin into the cake, place the cake flat down side onto a serving dish and sprinkle the top of the cake with confectioners sugar. Use as much or as little as you like. I dusted copious amounts of it because I think more is better. 🙂

Voila, look at this gorgeous beauty ready for serving!

Can you tell by the crumb how fluffy it is? Seriously, this is one of the best desserts you’ll ever have. I look forward to it all year long. It also makes for good leftovers the next morning with coffee if you can’t finish your piece, or if the extra slices you cut don’t end up getting eaten.

Here’s to happy and healthy 2020 to all! (And good luck getting the coin!)

Vasilopita Recipe
(Makes a 12 inch cake)

Ingredients:

  • 3 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour (equivalent to 412 grams)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup olive oil (any kind you like)
  • 1 and 1/2 cups white sugar, divided per the directions
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • confectioners sugar, for topping
  • a coin, covered in tin foil

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12 inch baking pan and set it aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set these dry ingredients aside.
  3. In another large bowl, add the olive oil and 3/4 cup white sugar and mix it together.
  4. Add in the milk, egg yolks, and vanilla extract and mix it together. These are the wet ingredients.
  5. Add the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix it together. Set this bowl of batter aside.
  6. In another large bowl, add the egg whites and beat them until they are just about to form stiff peaks.
  7. Gradually add the remaining 3/4 cup of white sugar to the egg whites and beat until you have stiff peaks. (This was literally a few seconds).
  8. Add the stiff egg mixture into the bowl of batter and fold the egg white mixture until it’s completely mixed in.
  9. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and bake it in the preheated oven for about 55 minutes or until a tester inserted comes out clean.
  10. Place the cake (still in the cake pan) onto a wire rack to cool completely.
  11. Once the cake has cooled lay a flat plate over the top of the cake pan and carefully flip the cake over onto the plate.
  12. Insert the tin foil covered coin into the cake. Vertically is best so you are less likely to smack into it with the knife while cutting slices.
  13. Carefully flip the cake back over onto the serving platter, so that the rounded part is facing up again.
  14. Dust the top of the cake with confectioners sugar. 

Source: My Godfather’s mother’s recipe

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