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Everyone has their own traditional New Year’s foods. Some swear by black eyed peas, but as a devout Yankee, I never quite got the hang of them (though heaven knows we could all use a bit of luck at the start of a new year). Goose is ever-popular; if we’re going to get symbolic, I’d assume that the fat would represent a bounteous year ahead. Grapes, pork, collards, cod—none of them ever graced my table in any intentional way (except for the grapes present in champagne), but growing up the daughter of an Athenian always meant a heavy round of fragrant New Year’s bread on the table in the morning.
The making of Vasilopita, or Saint Basil’s Bread, is a Greek Orthodox tradition dating back centuries. In the center of a large, sweet loaf, a single coin is baked; the finder of the coin is said to have good luck throughout the coming year. The roots of the story are sweet; Saint Basil, having saved his people from oppressive taxation, was said to have returned their money to them by baking it into bread. Given the recent fiasco in the Greek economy, not to mention the mess here in Washington, I think the story is particularly apropos this season (though I tend to prefer that my refund checks come via direct deposit).
Vasilopita isn’t the only treat to include a surprise in the center—it’s a cross-cultural tradition that spans everything from King Cake to Swedish rice pudding, not to mention Cracker Jacks and cereal boxes. Our collective unconscious seems to relish a hidden good luck charm. This year I’ve resurrected, and in some cases, reinvented many of the traditions of my childhood, from recipes to holiday decorations. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps it’s finally feeling as though New York is home, perhaps it’s the knowledge that I’ll be forming a family of my own next year, but the fact of the matter was that I needed a good recipe for Vasilopita, and quickly. Which turned out to be no easy feat—as with any memory-laden holiday recipe, the proper way to make Vasilopita turns out to be as contentious as tax law. There are those who treat it like a coffee cake, leaving out the yeast and studding the dough with almonds; others flavor the yeasted dough heavily with orange zest (these folks think, of course, that leaving out the yeast is a complete sacrilege). I chose to create my own recipe, taking cinnamon from one, mahlepi from another, and creating my own recipe to tweak in the coming years.
I have, in fact, tried to make Vasilopita before, as well as its close cousin, Tsoureki (an Easter bread), but was stumped by some of its more traditional and obscure ingredients. Many recipes for Greek sweets contain both mahlepi (or mahlab) and mastika (mastic), neither of which is commonly sold at C-Town—or at most gourmet grocers, for that matter. I did finally turn up mastic at Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, on a bottom shelf, but elected to pass on it—mastic is an acquired taste that I frankly have not yet acquired. The resin of a small tree, produced almost entirely on the island of Chios, mastic is used extensively in the eastern Mediterranean in sweets, gum and as a food stabilizer, and has a strong and flowery flavor nearly impossible to relate to any other. Mahlepi, on the other hand, is the small pit of a sour cherry, with a bitter almond taste (one reason why so many recipes for vasilopita include almonds, with or without mahlepi). It’s this spice that stumped me almost for good; though I combed through grocers in New York for weeks, I couldn’t find it anywhere.
In the spring of last year I paid a long-overdue visit to relatives in Greece, this time toting my boyfriend, now fiancé, with me. We spent a week in Athens, then a week in Rhodes, a large island in the Dodecanese, close to the Turkish mainland. We ate our way heartily through both locations, but it was in Athens that we truly cut loose, shopping and browsing in the Athens meat and fish markets and the spice market on Evripidou Street. It was on Evripidou that I finally found mahlepi, of course (along with enormous cinnamon sticks, mountain tea, wildflower honey, tin wine jugs and bars of handmade olive oil soap to give as gifts). Nothing in Greece is ever done halfway, particularly when it comes to food, and by the time we left, my suitcase was hurting nearly as much as my very full stomach.
Now I know that spices are volatile, that keeping them around for a year and a half isn’t the best-case scenario, but I kept my mahlepi whole in the back of a cupboard and only ground it up before baking the vasilopita this year. True, I could probably have found a new batch in Astoria, but I come from a long line of cooks who kept their oregano near the stove in a clear container for years, and I’m not about to break their habits of frugality now. Despite the potential loss of complexity in one of its component parts, my Vasilopita was everything I’d remembered it to be—dense from the butter and eggs, floral from the spice and the almonds, and somewhat addictive (from the gambling chance of finding the hidden coin, of course). I won’t tell who came up the lucky winner this year, but as happens every January, the anticipation of a new year is enough to make me feel lucky, coin or no coin. I have a tremendous amount to look forward to in the next 12 months, and ever so much cooking to do.