The story of the Vasilopita goes like this: Once, long ago, there was a terrible famine in Greece. The emperor at that time levied a sinfully excessive tax upon the people there. The tax was such a heavy burden upon the already impoverished people, they had to sell or give up family heirlooms, or what few coins they had.
Basil [now known as St. Basil the Great], the archbishop of Caesarea, saw his flock’s suffering. He took up his bishop’s staff and the book of the holy Gospels and entreated the emperor to repentance. This being a tale of miracles, the emperor repented [of course], canceled the tax, and instructed his henchmen to turn over to St. Basil all of the coins and jewelry which had been paid as taxes by the poor people of Caesarea.
Not knowing how to return each family’s treasures to them, St. Basil had all the treasures baked into one huge pita. He then called all the townspeople to prayer at the cathedral, and, after giving the Divine Liturgy, the bishop blessed and cut the pita, giving a piece to each person. As you might have already guessed, each owner miraculously received in his piece of Vasilopita his own valuables.
Today, Greeks celebrate St. Basil’s Day on January 1, New Year’s Day, with this traditional Vasilopita, or coffee cake. A lucky coin is wrapped in foil, dropped into the cake batter and baked. The person who finds the coin in their piece of cake is said to be blessed with good fortune in the coming year.
3/4 cup blanched, slivered almonds
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1 Tbsp honey
3 Cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp anise seed
1 Cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 Cups granulated sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk
A coin, wrapped in a bit of foil
Make the Cake:
Combine the almonds [or hazelnuts], brown sugar, and honey in a small bowl. In another bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and anise seeds.
In yet another large bowl, cream the butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the six eggs one at a time, beating one minute with a mixer on low speed after each addition. Add the lemon juice and vanilla. Combine the flour mixture with the butter mixture, alternating with the 1 cup of milk, and mix well.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Divide one-third of the nut mixture between two buttered cake pans: a 9-inch round cake pan and a little 4-inch round cake pan, scattering the nuts evenly over the pans’ bottoms. Fill the smaller (4-inch) pan 2/3 full with the cake batter, then pour half of the batter that remains into the larger (9-inch) pan.
Bake both cake layers for 20 minutes, until the cakes become a bit firm. Sprinkle half of the remaining almond or hazelnut mixture in an even layer over both cakes. Now place the foil-wrapped coin on top of one of the partly-baked cakes. [Some versions of this recipe say you should close your eyes and make the sign of the cross during this step – Elis.]
Pour the remaining batter on top of each cake layer. Bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until a knife or toothpick inserted in the center of each pan comes out clean.
Let the cakes cool in their pans for 10 minutes.
Remove the cakes from their pans, and place the smaller layer atop the larger one. Top with the remaining almond mixture, and serve warm.