Feasting for good fortune: Greece’s good luck cake

In many places around the world, special foods are believed to bring good luck to the coming year. In Greece that food is Vasilópita, or Saint Vasilio’s, or Basil’s, pie. More a cake or bread than a pie, Vasilópita is the centerpiece of the New Year’s table throughout Greece and indeed much of eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Within the Vasilópita is hidden a coin. At midnight, the sign of the cross is etched with a knife onto the cake’s surface and then it is cut and served from eldest to youngest. (Often the first slice is set aside for St. Basil.) The cutting of the Vasilópita is said to bless the house; the receiver of the coin hidden within is not only that much richer, but also destined to have good fortune in the New Year.

The type of dough used to make Vasilópita varies widely from region to region and household to household. In some places it is a yeast dough made with little to no sugar; in others it is a quick bread and is quite sweet. In some regions, pumpkin is an ingredient. In others, yogurt. Some recipes call for mastic.

My friend Patra makes a delicious Vasilópita. It is sweet, and with good reason: She says the sugar she adds symbolizes the hope that the New Year will be filled with sweetness and joy.

Καλή χρονιά or Happy New Year to you! May 2012 be filled with both sweetness and joy…and much good fortune.

Vasilópita

Dough:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 ½ cups sugar
  • 7 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup almonds, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 3 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk

Topping:

  • 1/2 cup slivered, blanched almonds
  • 2-3 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12” round baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add extracts, crushed almonds, and orange zest.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Alternating with the milk, gradually incorporate the flour mixture into the batter.

Spread batter into pan and tuck a coin (thinly wrapped in aluminum foil) into the batter until it is completely covered. Sprinkle with sugar and decorate with blanched almonds.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes until it is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (If it browns too quickly, cover with aluminum foil.) Cool on a rack before removing from the pan.

Melomakarona (honey-infused, citrus-scented spice cookies)

With Christmas just around the corner, tomorrow will be our cookie-baking day. Among the batches will be Melomakarona, the honey-infused spice cookies that are traditionally enjoyed throughout Greece during Christmas and New Year’s. Subtly perfumed with orange and lemon, they are utterly delicious. And since they are made with olive oil rather than butter, they are among the healthier of the season’s sweets. Unlike many holiday cookies that grow dry and crumbly after a few days, Melomakarona get better with time.

This recipe comes from Aglaia Kremezi, the author of many books on Greek and Mediterranean cuisine and a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. With her husband Costa, Aglaia also runs a cooking school on the Cycladic island of Kea. Her website, which is chock full of recipes, interesting articles and lovely images from Kea, can be found here.

Melomakarona

1 1/4 cups olive oil
1/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
3–4 cups all-purpose flour
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
11/2 cups fine semolina
1/2 cup brandy
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

FILLING (optional) or COATING for the cookies
2 cups finely chopped walnuts or 1 cup, for sprinkling
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon or 2 teaspoons, for sprinkling

SYRUP
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
11/2 cups water

In a large bowl, beat the oil and sugar with an electric mixer until blended. Beat in the orange zest and juice. In a medium bowl, combine 2 cups of the flour and the baking powder. Gradually beat the flour mixture into the oil mixture. Beat in the semolina, brandy, lemon zest, cloves and cinnamon.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding 1 cup or more flour as necessary to obtain a smooth, soft, oily dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 20-30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Make the filling, if you are using it, by combining in a medium bowl, the walnuts and cinnamon.

Take pieces of dough the size of a small egg and roll with your hands into ovals, about 2 1/2 inches long. If you are stuffing them, push three fingers into the bottom of each cookie to make an opening, and stuff with 1 teaspoon of the filling; reserve the remaining filling. Press the dough to close the opening. Slightly flatten each cookie and if you like, make an indentation on the top with the tines of a fork. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets about 1 inch apart.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until they just start to color.

Meanwhile, make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, simmer the sugar, honey and water for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Place the hot cookies in a large dish or baking pan that holds them snuggly, and pour the syrup over them. Let stand for 15 minutes. Turn the cookies to moisten the other sides and let stand until the cookies have absorbed all the syrup. Place the remaining filling, the chopped nuts and cinnamon, on a plate and roll each cookie in it to coat on all sides.

Place the cookies in an airtight container, with parchment or waxed paper between each layer. Let stand for at least 1 day before serving. Store for up to 1 month.

Makes about 40 cookies.

Flu season and extra “virginity”

I returned from Greece last week to a household through which a virulent flu had just swept. (My son is still down with it.) Thus, despite having a head full of thoughts on Peloponnesian food and foodways thanks to my time on the peninsula, I’ve not posted for awhile.

Rather than let my blog lay fallow as I dispense medication, make trips to the pharmacy and the clinic, and stoke the fire in the woodstove to keep us extra cozy, I’ll use these days as an opportunity to keep you all posted on what I’m finding interesting these days (related to, of course, Mediterranean food!).

The first is this interview by the inimitable Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air. It’s of Tom Mueller, a writer for the New Yorker and the author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, and (especially for food geeks like me) it is quite fascinating. So much so that Tom’s book is on my Christmas wish list. (Hint, hint, Mom or Dad.)

More to come very soon. Hoping this finds you all well…and successfully avoiding the flu!

Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil: Finding, Storing and Using It

On the Peloponnese, and throughout much of Greece and the Mediterranean, olive oil is flowing from the presses. Unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t improve with time, but is at its best when it’s fresh. New olive oil is a delicious, deep green elixir, with flavors ranging from grassy to nutty to peppery, depending on the climate, soil and variety.

In the States, just a trickle of fresh-pressed Mediterranean oil makes it to our markets. Most imported olive oils are shipped months—maybe even a year—after pressing. While it’s fine to eat olive oil that’s up to two years old, the flavors and nutrients are at their peak within six months of pressing.

If you live in the States, far from the presses of California and Oregon, and you want to taste fresh olive oil, you can, but it will take a little sleuthing. Start with the shelves of your local gourmet or import food markets; natural foods stores may carry fresh-pressed oils, too. While it’s unlikely you’ll find days or weeks-old olive oil, you’ll likely find oil that is still at its peak. And since olive season is upon us, now is the time to begin the hunt.

Once you find yourself facing the rows of bottles, here are a few tips for navigating them, as well as tips for storing and using olive oil, both the super-fresh and oil that is still good but beyond that six-month window:

  1. Look for bottles that are marked with a harvest date, not only a “best used by” date. (Most companies don’t reveal the harvest date, but some do–hold out for those that do.)
  2. Because olive oil oxidizes when exposed to light, heat and air, find it sold in dark glass bottles or in tins. Don’t buy it if it’s been displayed in direct sun.
  3. For the abovementioned reason, once you’re home, remember to store your oil in a cool, dark place, but not in the refrigerator.
  4. Consider keeping two olive oils on hand: the fresh stuff for dipping and for dressings, the other, less expensive oil for cooking (the finer, more subtle flavors of fresh-pressed oil will get lost in the cooking).
  5. Even after it has passed its peak, olive oil remains good (if properly stored) within two years of pressing, but no longer.
  6. If you’re using extra virgin olive oil, remember that it has a lower smoke-point than other oils: 375 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that if it reaches its smoke-point, the flavors and nutrients quickly break down.
  7. Last but not least, olive oil is packed with antioxidants and other nutrients. Use it liberally and enjoy it with gusto!