Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year Preparations

We are getting ready for the new year and another name day, this time for our youngest son, B.  January 1st is his name day.  Never before has there been a more inflexible menu!  Except we changed a bit this year to accommodate my brother-in-law, J., who is Jewish. C'est la vie!

Every year we celebrate with a sugar spiced ham, black-eyed peas, braised cabbage, cornbread, and lighter-than-air, buttered biscuits.  This year Mama served roast goose.  The crowning glory of the dinner is a rich, aromatic cake called Vasilopita.  It is essentially a pound cake which it is perfumed with oranges and lemons and two spices of mysterious origin, 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.

The Vasilopita is a Beautiful Tradition, and a custom which should not be neglected by Greek Orthodox Christians as should perhaps be adopted by all Christians in the Western world. It is such a wonderful way to begin each New Year which God has given to the world. If you have been holding the observance in your home, congratulations 
and please continue to do so! If you have not, please start and keep this glorious family tradition!
Gran and B.
Happy New Year and a joyous feast to you and yours.  God grant my little B. many years in peace, health, and happiness.

Vasilopita Cake Recipe:

1½ cups of butter (room temperature)
8 oz cream cheese (room temperature)
3 cups of sugar, subtract two tbsp from the whole for grinding spices
6 eggs (room temperature)
3 cups of cake flour
zest of 1 lemon
zest of one orange
1 tsp of mahlab
2 tsp of tears of Chios
1 tbsp of lemon juice
1 tbsp of orange juice
1/4 cup of slivered almonds 
sesame seeds
a gold or silver coin or a Jordan almond

Preheat oven to 350ºF.  Butter or grease a bundt pan or cake pan well.  Sprinkle lightly with sesame seeds.

In a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, add 1 tbsp of sugar and the mastic tears. Pulverize or grind into a powder.  Set aside.  Add the mahlab to the grinder or mortar and pulverize with the other tbsp of sugar.  Add to the mastic tear mixture.  Add the zest of the lemon and orange to the bowl and mix well.  Set aside.

Cream butter and cream cheese together in the bowl of a stand mixer, gradually add sugar.  Mix until all the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is light and fluffy looking.  Add two eggs.  Mix until combined.  Add spice mix.  With the mixer on low speed, add the cake flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the remaining 4 eggs (flour, eggs, flour, eggs, flour).  Do not overmix! 

After the last addition of flour, add the citrus juices.  Stir until just combined.

Bake for 20 minutes, then decorate the top with the slivered almonds (usually a cross and the year).  Insert your coin and return to the oven for 20-30 more minutes (when a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean).  Let cool in the pan for 20 minutes and then turn out onto a cooling rack.  Cool completely.

We only had use of a bundt pan this year, and it took nearly a full hour to bake.  You can sprinkle with powdered sugar or drizzle with a citrus glaze should you desire, but it doesn't need it.

Also, check out Evlogia and Adventures of an Orthodox Mom for more Vasilopita recipes and also this thread on The Fresh Loaf.  Mine is a more American style recipe with Greek sensibilities.  


Michelle M. said...

Happy belated Namesday to B :) Many years!

I wanted to make one of these this year, but forgot. I really need to get into the cycle of the Church at home. It is a learned process for us converts :)

I that video clip!

Svetlana said...

I totally know what you mean. We struggle getting the cycle down too. Having lots of kids makes it easy to forget sometimes. No one can accidentally live the liturgical calendar. It takes purpose and attention and planning. We'll get there!