On New Year’s Eve or after the festive lunch on the first day of the year, the father of the family cuts into a rich and aromatic cake, which has the year written in almonds on top and a lucky coin secreted inside. Each family member gets a piece, starting with the older ones, and whoever gets the symbolic coin is rewarded with a gift of money and starts the year with an advantage.
There are two basic kinds of Greek vassilopita, as this sweet is called: In my home we baked the Brandy & Orange Cake, a sumptuous westernized sweet with plenty of eggs and butter –a luxury in the old days. Other people baked vassiolopita politiki (from Istanbul) a yeasted, brioche-like sweet bread scented with orange zest and mahlep. The yeasted bread is probably closer to the older Greek traditions that have been kept alive by the so-called prosfyges (refugees), the Greeks who used to live in modern-day Turkey and were displaced from their homes in 1922, in accordance with the international agreements that followed the defeat in the Greco-Turkish war. Many bakeries throughout the country sell yeasted vassilopita, which can be baked in considerably large pans in the professional ovens. Offices, factories and all sorts of clubs and professional organizations order, and ceremoniously cut and distribute vassilopita to their employees or members, often rewarding the person who finds the lucky coin with a generous bonus.
In our family and our friends’ homes nobody baked yeasted vassilopita; hardly anybody of the many cooks I knew baked bread, and before I started to make my own, dough and its wondrous rising was somehow shrouded in mystery, something I could not imagine working out in my kitchen, especially because no Greek recipe ever cited specific amounts of flour. As my mother never baked bread I had no firsthand experience. The puzzling expression ‘as much flour as needed’ concluded the ingredient lineup in all Greek bread recipes. Furthermore, the old yeasted bread recipes I would have liked to try were for a whole week’s loaves, needing more than 10 pounds of flour, as I discovered on my first, disastrous attempt. I was well into my 30ies, at the height of my career as journalist, when I watched Nota, a famous actresses’ maid, whip up a kind of Greek focaccia in minutes. Holding my notebook and pen I kept asking ‘how much flour?’ and Nota responded ‘as much as it needs,’ but seeing her make the dough I finally got the meaning of the phrase.
Ela’s very different New Year’s cake
Coming back to the cake-like vassilopita, over the years I have tasted many variations; still, I believe that my mother’s cake is easily one of the best. I always wondered why we wouldn’t enjoy it more often in our home. My mother frequently baked cakes when we had visitors for coffee or tea, mostly on Sundays. But she never baked this one, our favorite New Year’s cake!
From Ela, my young neighbor from southern Albania, I recently learned to make a completely different New Year’s cake. She got the recipe from her mother, who got it from her own mother, and so on… With just egg whites and butter, crunchy with almonds or walnuts, it is a delicious festive sweet! In it, much like in ourvassilopita, a lucky coin is hidden.
Ela’s New Year’s Cake
From Ela Alamani, who halves her mother’s original recipe that calls for 16 egg whites…
For a 10-inch round cake
8 egg whites (from medium-size eggs)
1 cup melted butter (or mixture of butter and olive oil)
1 cup confectioner’s sugar, plus more to sprinkle the cake
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (100 grams, 3 1/4 ounces)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/4 cup ground almonds or walnuts
Grated zest of one orange or lemon
Line a 10-inch pan with parchment paper.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the butter and 1 cup confectioner’s sugar until well mixed. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, almonds of walnuts and the zest. Beat the flour mixture into the egg mixture, until fully incorporated. The mixture will be quite runny.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cool on a rack for about 15 minutes, and carefully invert and peel away the parchment paper. Sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar.