Mahlab- (pronounced mă-HĂ-lăb) the seed kernel of a St. Lucia Cherry, and tears of Chios- resin of the mastic tree. The flavor of the mahlab is something akin to bitter almonds crossed with cherries, while the tears of Chios is very clean smelling, almost antiseptic. In ancient times this mastic gum was worth its weight in gold, chewed as a remedy against bad breath, and was considered a powerful medicinal drug. Even today its antibacterial properties continued to be studied and it is reputed to kill H. pylori, the bacteria that cause ulcers which can cause stomach cancer.
You could use pre-ground ingredients or commercially prepared extracts, but I like being connected to all the little Greek women of the past, who had to grind their own spices and seasonings for their festal breads and cakes. I use a heavy brass mortar and pestle.
Here is a little history about St. Basil the Great and the cake or bread baked in his honor from the website, The Vasilopita Coin:
THE HISTORY - This age old tradition commenced in the fourth century, when Saint Basil the Great, who was a bishop, wanted to distribute money to the poor in his Diocese. He wanted to preserve their dignity, so as not to look like charity, he commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Thus the families in cutting the bread to nourish themselves, were pleasantly surprised to find the coins.
THE MAN - St. Basil was one of the greatest Fathers of the Christian Church and appeared on the spiritual horizon of the Orthodox Faith. He was Bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia (Asia Minor). He was born four years after the First Ecumenical Council held in the year 325 A.D. Saint Basil was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers of the Church (the others were Gregory of Nazianzus, his best friend, and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa). Saint Basil was the first person in human history to establish an orphanage for little children. He also founded the first Christian hospital in the world. His fame as a Holy Man spread like wildfire throughout the Byzantine world. He was considered one of the most wise and compassionate clergymen in the entire history of the Church. His Feast Day is observed on January 1st, the beginning of the New Year and the Epiphany season. The Church, therefore, in respect for his many contributions to the Church and to mankind in general, combined the joy and happiness of the New Year with the glory of the birth of Christ, and the Epiphany into what is known in the Orthodox Church as the Vasilopitta Observance.