By Angela Denstad Stigeler
While the idea of hiding something in a cake is not new, it’s always fun to find, and this New Year’s treat is no exception. Drawing on ancient Greek Orthodox tradition, the Vasilopita, or “sweet bread of Basil” is a subtle lemony cross between a quick bread and a pound cake, in which is hidden a coin (or whole almond substitute, for the germ wary). The cake is served to all on New Year’s Day, leaving a slice for St. Basil as his commemorative feast. The one who receives the hidden surprise in his or her slice shall be blessed with good fortune in the year to come.
The tradition comes from the legend of St. Basil wishing to give alms to the poor. Not wanting to compromise the recipients’ dignity by handing them charity, he commissioned the baking of sweetened breads, or pitas, which were easily accepted as gifts, and which easily concealed his gift of gold coins which he tucked inside..
Even without the gold, the cake is rich. It’s moist and tender—a perfect brunch item served with coffee, yogurt and fruit. Better yet, all those who get a slice will likely think themselves lucky, whether or not they receive the special slice. So whether you keep your change in your pocket, or bake it in your pita, it’s one sweet way to start a new year.
Greek New Year’s Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
6 large eggs
finely grated zest of one lemon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup warm milk (110 degrees)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup blanched slivered or sliced almonds
2 tablespoons white sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and generously grease a 10-inch round cake pan.
In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light. Stir in the flour until well-combined; the mixture will look sandy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the lemon zest. Combine the baking powder and milk (it will foam), add to the batter and mix well. Then combine the lemon juice and baking soda and stir into the batter. Drop a foil-wrapped coin or a whole almond into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, mounding it toward the sides.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven. Remove and sprinkle the nuts and sugar over the cake, then return it to the oven for 20 to 30 additional minutes, until the cake springs back to the touch. Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes before unmolding.
Serve the cake warm. The person who finds the coin or almond will have good luck for the whole year!