On the first day of a brand new year, it is customary to take part in a sweet-tasting lucky game: cutting up Vasilopita (St. Basil’s Cake). Across the country, recipe variations are quite a few; they all have one basic ingredient though: the much sought-after flouri [golden coin]!
So, before you cut this cake, you might like to know a few things about where and how it all started!
Variations & recipes
Looking for the origin of St. Basil’s Cake custom (aka New Year’s Cake) takes us back to antiquity, when ancient Greeks would offer bread and honey sweets to honour the gods during the great agricultural festivals. This custom is observed everywhere in Greece and the variety of recipes used is closely connected to the culinary tradition of each area: sweet bread, cake or tsoureki; pastry sheet pies sweet or salty made in Macedonia and Epirus, as these two areas are renowned for their traditional pie-making. In Athens, the most popular recipe for St. Basil’s Cake is one called politiki vasilopita and the main ingredients are flour, eggs, sugar and milk: it comes in all shapes and types but usually it is a sweet puffy cake.
Recipe ingredients vary across the country. In Zante Island, bread is kneaded with yeast, almonds and spices; in Crete it is kneaded with raki (local spirit) and mastic drops. In the north of Greece, tradition calls for a pie made with sesame or a sweet pumpkin pie; in Lesvos Island it is made with myzithra cheese; in Epirus pies are filled with meat (lamb or pork), feta cheese and a sizeable portion of mint.
There are also differences in the way they are decorated. There are however common decorating elements: the new year’s number written with blanched almonds or with sugar (on a sweet St Basil’s Cake); a round cake shape; and flouri, a coin which is sometimes a gold or a silver one.
The golden coin custom
According to tradition, when St. Basil was bishop of Caesarea, the then prefect of Cappadocia claimed taxes. The scared Caesareans, following the advice of the saint, gathered whatever precious items they possessed and went out to welcome the prefect. Saint Basil managed to persuade the prefect not to deprive the locals of their jewellery. Then, the problem of returning each item to its owner arose! The saint advised the locals to prepare small pies and then he placed one piece inside each pie. Miraculously, each one got back the item they had offered!
Queen of the day
The festive table may well be laid with delicious-looking dishes and traditional sweets with honey such as mouthwatering melomakarona, fried pancakes, loukoumades and diples, yet all eyes are fixed on the queen of the day: St Basil’s Cake!
It symbolises good luck for the New Year, it is cut up by the householder immediately after the year change or on the family table at lunch time on St Basil’s feast day (January 1). Young and old, relatives and friends gather around the table and can’t wait to see who will be fortunate enough to win the lucky coin!
According to the custom, the householder makes the sign of the cross three times with a knife over the cake and then starts to cut up the pieces. The first one is for Christ, the second for the Virgin Mary, the third for St Basil, the fourth is for the house (some add a piece for the poor man). Then the pieces for the members of the family are cut by order of age. In the villages of continental Greece, the family’s livestock and fields equally get their piece; and in the islands, if the family owns a boat or a mill, they too get to have their piece of the cake!
Happy New Year!