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Βασιλοπιτα (various transliterations include vasilopeta, vasilopita, or vasilopitta) is a sweet Greek bread, traditionally baked for New Year's day. Literally meaning "Basil's bread", it is named after St. Basil, whose feast day is celebrated on January 1. The bread is sweet and somewhat heavy; it's great with butter or dunked into coffee or tea.

When the bread is made, a coin is baked into it. When it is served (on New Year's Day), the person whose piece of bread contains the coin will have good luck in the year to come.


Put flour in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine milk, yeast & water, almost all the butter, eggs, sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange zest; mix thoroughly. Add the liquid mixture into the flour, mixing by hand until well blended. Using additional flour as needed, knead the dough until it's smooth and firm. Place dough in bowl (you might want to grease the bowl first), brush the remaining butter on the top of the dough, cover loosely, set in a warm place and let it rise, for about two hours.

OK, you're back. Grab the dough, knead it some more on a floured surface. Now, here's the important part. Get some sort of coin (ideally a drachma, but any will do. Paper money doesn't work as well, for some reason). I'd wrap the coin in aluminum foil, so you don't have to worry about icky germs. Take the coin and stick it into the dough. Shape the dough into a rounded loaf, cover it, and then allow it to rise for another hour.

All right, the dough's done rising (finally!). Now, brush the top of it with the egg yolk. Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. Then, arrange the almonds so that they spell out the number of the new year. Bake at 350°F for 1 hour.


With the good luck charm lurking somewhere in the depths of the bread, serving it out can become a source of dispute. In my family, we've instituted the following house rules, which seem to work well (of course, YMMV):

  • The oldest person cuts the bread
  • The slices are distributed to people by age, oldest to youngest
  • Before slicing, the slicer declares whose piece it will be. If the coin is encountered during the cutting, it belongs to that person.
  • A person may request a larger piece, however, they are required to eat the entire thing.
Bon Appetit and Χρονια Πολλα

The Greek vasilopita, for those more familiar with American cuisine, occupies a ritual place similar to the king cake of cajun tradition. Etymologically they're strangely similar since St. Basil's name means 'king.' It's a light (if prepared well) cake that will typically be yellow with a glossy brown top. Between us, I'll take a New Orleans king cake over a vasilopita in the taste department.

Its origins are uncertain, and the stories about it numerous. Perhaps the most plausible (as a story, if not as an actual event) is that the 4th century saint had coins baked into sweet bread made for the poor as a means of giving them the money without it looking like a handout. The recipe and tradition might, for all we know, be as old as money itself but it's become associated with this saint, whose feast is on the 1st of January.

A vasilopita will be, first of all, round. Having only rectangular pans disqualifies you from baking one. Go the nearest confectioner and buy one. Usually it's the first thing to come out after the clock has struck midnight and everyone's done embracing and kissing each other and before everyone pigs out in general and disappears to gamble the night away (that too, "for luck" of course). It's cut into either pie slices or into squares and distributed by the head of the household. When the cake is cut, the two first pieces are dedicated to Christ and to the host's house and finding the coin in either will bring blessings upon the house.

You may not refuse. You can request a small piece but you must eat it. In a less traditional environment you can take a token bite, and spend the rest of the night feeling guilty for not eating it, because that is the right thing to do. Hosts must be prepared to accommodate every guest with a piece--running out of vasilopita before everyone has had a piece is... actually, I don't think I've ever heard of it happening. Running out of food just Does Not Happen at a Greek feast, especially with such a vital item. The surplus vasilopita can be eaten by everyone and, as long as some is left, new visitors will be offered a piece.

In character with the Greeks' love of games of chance, a vasilopita is nothing without some opportunity for monetary gain involved in eating it, and the host is expected not to be stingy with the gift. Before the advent of the euro, larger drachma coins were often substituted for a fixed amount of paper money and the person to find the coin would receive that money. Today a euro coin of a high denomination is acceptable for small-time affairs. Households that can afford to, or really want to show off, will use an English gold sovereign.

Vasilopita is not served exclusively on New Year's Day but is brought out at the first opportunity. Every house, office and organisation needs to have one for the first meeting of the year and, for places like clubs where people gather infrequently, it's actually possible to get an invitation to "cut the pie" as late as March. The average resident of Greece will sample at least a dozen vasilopites before getting really sick of them. Until the next year, that is.

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