Baking a Vassilopita or Saint Basil’s Bread is a New Year's tradition in Greece.
January 1st is the feast day of Saint Basil, a fourth century bishop known for his generosity to the poor.
St. Basil would try to help the needy by anonymously hiding gold coins in cakes that were delivered to the poor.
Recipes vary from household to household. Some are cake-like while others are breads. The following recipe is for a rich yeast bread that is flavored with Mahlab (also called Mahlepi) a spice that is ground from the pits of wild cherries.
Prep Time: 4 hours
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 5 hours
Yield: 1 large round loaf
- 7 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for counter)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 1/2 cups milk, warmed (not hot)
- 3 envelopes dry yeast
- 1 2/3 cup unsalted butter (3 sticks plus 3 tbsp.)
- 1 2/3 cup sugar
- zest of one orange
- zest of one lemon
- 1 tbsp. Mahlab
- 5 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 egg, beaten with a splash of water
- Slivered almonds for decorating
Sift the flour with the salt in a large bowl and set aside.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk. (Be sure it is lukewarm, not hot). Add ½ cup of the flour and 1 tbsp. sugar to the mixture. Cover tightly and set aside until it becomes bubbly and foamy.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat. Stir in the sugar, orange zest, lemon zest, and mahlab. Remove from heat and stir in the beaten eggs. Cool slightly.
Add the yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add in the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Slowly incorporate the flour until the mixture forms a smooth, wet dough.
Cover the bowl and let rise until it is about double in size – about 2 hours in a warm place.
Turn the dough out on to a well-floured counter and punch down. You will need to keep sprinkling the dough with flour to keep it from sticking. It will remain a loose, wet dough.
Cover a coin with aluminum foil and fold it into the dough. Shape into a large round ball and place in a greased round baking pan, about 16 inches in diameter. While it may not initially fill the pan completely, the dough will expand and rise to the size of the pan.
Once the dough has risen to about double again, carefully brush the surface with egg wash and sprinkle with slivered almonds or make your own pattern. We often like to write the number of the New Year in almonds across the top.
Bake in a preheated 280-degree oven for about an hour until the crust is nicely browned all over.
This bread is delicious toasted or made into French toast.