Greek Vasilopita made by a third generation Smyrnian

In Greece, we traditionally celebrate the coming of the New Year by making vasilopita, a pie named after the Orthodox Saint Basil (Vasilios in Greek). It is either a leavened sweet bread or a dense cake, or even a savory pie, depending on the region and it always has a coin hidden inside. The tradition is to cut it on New Year’s Eve, after 12.00, and the person who finds the hidden coin in his piece is the lucky one.

We wanted to try an authentic, traditional recipe and so we visited our friend Varvara, a third generation Smyrnian and specialist in traditional confections. She made us a leavened vasilopita, called anevati vasilopita (anevati means the one that goes up, because the pie rises) with the recipe she has inherited from her great grandmother and she told us about her experience of Smyrnian housewives. Everything we write below is exactly how Varvara experienced and narrated it, and because of that it is of great value to us.

We drunk our coffee, ate delicious sweets and had a nostalgic conversation about Smyrna and its traditions.
To begin our sweet discussion, Varvara offered us traditional finikia (Smyrnian melomakarona), kurabiedes and walnut saragli, all handmade with the authentic recipes.

Varvara grew up in Athens, among Smyrnian women, her mother, her great grandmother, her aunts, her mother’s friends… The great grandmother, whom she was lucky to have the time to know, used to give them the traditional recipes of foods and desserts. The younger generation carries on with the traditions.

Refugee houses in Peristeri, Athens (source)

When they came to Athens, after the destruction of Smyrna, they lived in refugee houses in Evangellistria, Peristeri. Later, they were given regular houses. Smyrnian women were great housewives, they made awesome food, confections such as the Smyrnian koulourakia, cookies made with olive oil to be fasting, or with butter and eggs. They were very clean… The Smyrnian would do her housework and then wash up, get dressed, put on her make up and wait for her husband.

On Christmas and New Year’s Day they would organise very rich feasts. They made a lot of desserts, Christopsomo (the bread of Christ), finikia (read about them in our article), kurabiedes, baklava, other confections with syrup that abounded in Minor Asia, and on New Year’s Eve vasilopita. The tradition was to hide inside a coin, and the rich ones would put in a lira (golden coin of great value).

Varvara’s traditional finikia (Smyrian melomakarona)

The traditional vasilopita of Smyrna was the one called anevati, a sweet bread leavened with yeast. They would also make a crumbly vasilopita with butter, called trifti vasilopita. It is not exactly a cake, but more like a shortbread, resembling the dough of melomakarona before getting into the syrup, that crumbles if you try to break it. As it is simpler than anevati vasilopita, we suppose that maybe the poorer houses would make this one, while the reacher the anevati one.

Varvara made us a traditional anevati vasilopita!
Trifti (crumbly) vasilopita decorated traditionally with a stamp of the Two-Headed Eagle (a Byzantine symbol) (source)

We looked into the origin of the custom of baking vasilopita for New Year’s Eve. In our Orthodox Christian religious tradition it is connected to Saint Basil of Caesarea, whose morality, temperance, purity, charity, self-sacrifice, fight against passions, persistence, rhetorical skill and defense of the right faith were great. Therefore Saint Basil is also called Saint Basil the Great.
 

Saint Basil the Great (330-373 AC) (source)

Once, a cruel prefect of Caesarea implemented huge taxes to buy warfare or to buy out prisoners of war. The residents asked for the help of their bishop, Saint Basil the Great, and he told them to bring their wives’ jewellery. When the Saint went to give the jewellery to the prefect, he either got ashamed in front of the holiness of Saint Basil, or he no longer needed them as the prisoners had been set free. In both cases, he gave the jewellery back to Saint Basil. But he didn’t know which piece belonged to whom. So, Saint Basil told the residents to make pies and bring them raw to him. He put a piece of jewellery into each one, and when they got baked, each person miraculously found his own in his pie. Thus the custom of hiding a coin inside vasilopita was born.

Saint Basil the Great gives the pies with the jewellery to the residents (source).

Smyrnian women also prepared a dessert called Kazan Dipi. It is traditionally made with buffalo milk, but we can substitute it for another kind. Then, they used to cook in the fireplaces… They would make a cream with corn flour and place it in the fireplace. So it would burn on the bottom and this is why it is called Kazan Dipi, meaning a burning caldron. Now this method is extinct, and the cream is made on a gas hob or burnt on top with a blowtorch.

Kazan Dipi (source)

Samali is another dessert of Minor Asia, with semolina and mastic. It is similar to ravani but moister, while ravani is more bread-like. They also made ekmek, which is prepared traditionally with a base of sweet bread, similar to vasilopita. Here’s a zero waste tip from Varvara: if you have vasilopita leftover, slice it, place it in a baking pan, moisten it with syrup, make some pastry cream and whipped cream to put on top, and you will have an authentic ekmek! Savaren is also another dessert made with a recipe similar to vasilopita and moistened with syrup.

Ekmek with a sweet bread base (source)

Back then, in Minor Asia they had kaimakia, the oily substance that forms on top of milk after milking. Smyrnian housewives used to whip that into whipped cream. Also, they would put kaimaki on their face as an anti-wrinkle mask for a nice skin. The ingredients they put in their food, Smyrnian women would put them also on their faces, whipped egg whites, yolks, fruit…

The Smyrnian woman always takes care of herself (source)

They used to make cremes, usually made of bees wax and oil infused with herbs. They also used to put the infused oil right on their faces. Smyrnian women always taked care of themselves! Continuing the tradition, Varvara makes her own cremes in addition to traditional food and desserts…

Handmade cream made by Varvara, with aloe vera and essential oils.

Traditional vasilopita was made with flour, eggs, good butter (not margarine). Smyrnian housewives put butter everywhere… Lots of and good quality dairy butter, as they were very well-off. Even now, they use a lot of butter. Varvara’s mother makes lamb roast and adds butter too… Except of course for fasting periods, which they followed a lot there. Then they would use oils, and especially sesame oil, which is even now very expensive.

The wealth manifested itself in the ingredients they used in their food, their spices, their clothes… Let’s not forget that Smyrna was called “Little Paris”! From our historical knowledge, Smyrna was a crossroad of civilisations, people were educated, knew foreign languages, spoke French… In a magazine by Giannis Sarantopoulos we read that Smyrna was the warehouse of the Western Minor Asia trade. Cotton, yarn, Persian rugs, dyes, medicines, wax, wheat, barley, tobacco, opium, oils, wines, figs, raisins were arriving to Smyrna shops from the East. From the West, French, English and Hollandais silk, silver, gold, sugar, spices from America, iron, glassware and many more… The West met the East, trade blossomed and the city prospered.
 

Smyrna waterfront before 1922 – The Kremer Hotel in the background (© Library of Congress of America) (source)

And then the Destruction of Smyrna happened in 1922… From what Varvara has heard, Smyrnian women, in the first years after the destruction lived off the jewellery they brought with them. It is even said that before leaving Smyrna, they filled oil tins with golden liras, dug holes in the ground and hid them.

The Great Fire of Smyrna, on the morning of September 14, 1922 (source)

Only the Turkish neighborhood stood up, as well as some houses in Punta… The regular Turkish army set fire to many spots, fueled by incendiary bombs that were constantly thrown into flames. The scenes of the massacre that followed were horrific.

Daily Telegraph – 05/09/1922 (source)
Trains of refugees arriving to Greece © Library of Congress (source)

The flavorings they used to put into anevati vasilopita were mahleb and mastic. They sometimes used cardamom, but today it is more common in Macedonia. The Greeks in Constantinople used orange zest in their vasilopita. For Varvara, the combination of orange zest, mahleb and mastic is the best, even though her traditional Smyrnian recipe doesn’t include orange zest. According to Simoni Kafiri the Greeks in Constantinople called New Year’s Eve the “good evening”. They decorated their vasilopita with twelve candles that symbolised the twelve months of the year. At twelve o’clock they would light the candles and the head of the house would cut the pie, give out the pieces and then it was time to find the lucky one who got the coin in his piece.

Varvara’s traditional anevati vasilopita is flavoured with mastic and mahleb.

And now, after some nostalgic sweet stories, it was time for Varvara to give us her authentic, traditional recipe. Before that though, as a classic hospitable Smyrnian housewife, she treated us with homemade ydromeli made by her son. Ydromeli is a drink made with honey (meli in Greek) and water, which is fermented with wine yeast, for about one year. It was amazing!

Handmade ydromeli, with a taste like a sweet, fruity wine.

Varvara’s recipe

Anevati vasilopita (New Year’s Eve pie)

Ingredients -and secrets- for the vasilopita

Bread flour1 kilo
Sugar250 gr
Βutter250 gr
Milk250 gr
Eggs5
Yeast (from a bakery)60-70 gr
Mahleb (crushed)10 gr
Mastic (crushed)1/2 tsp

For vasilopita, it is very important to choose a good quality flour, a strong  one, like the one we use for breads. The secret is to make a dough that will not crumble. Good flour helps a lot in that, as well as kneading. Using a stand mixer is no good help, as every dough needs its own kneading. You must knead vasilopita as if washing clothes by hand. You must lift the dough and fold it, bring it up so that it gets air inside. This way it will rise and not crumble.

We can add some more sugar, but not a lot, up to 50 gr more. If using too much sugar, the dough will fall in the centre. As for the butter, Varvara prefers butter made of cow’s milk, as it gives a nice flavor. You can use less mastic, but with almost one teaspoon the pie will have a rich aroma. But if you use more, it will get bitter.

As for the yeast, if you don’t buy it from a bakery, you can use two cubes of packaged fresh yeast from the store (50 gr). Be careful! Don’t use 70 gr of packaged yeast, because this yeast is pressed and you must use less. Many recipes call for more yeast, but according to Varvara’s experience, this way the dough will rise faster and more, but as soon as the pie gets out of the oven it will fall and the center won’t be fully baked.

Use 70 gr yeast from the bakery or two cubes of packaged fresh yeast.

Also, you must use the right baking pan, not too big and not too small. The deepest the pan, the more the vasilopita will rise.

The utensil you use for kneading the dough also plays its role. Varvara’s great grandmother used to knead in a clay basin, because it holds the temperature and the dough rises better. Back then, they didn’t use to bake pies, sweet breads, cookies at home but they sent them to the neighbor’s bakery. The bakery is the best, as everything gets in the oven together and gets baked evenly. You just have to knead the dough the day before and get up very early in the morning to bring it to the bakery.

Clay kneading basins (source)

Then, Smyrnian housewives used to knead the dough the night before, cover it with a clean tablecloth, and with a blanket tightly wrapped around it. They would leave the dough to rise all night, and get up from their sleep to check it -if it had risen, they would knead it again and cover it back with blankets

In the old times it used to be a much bigger procedure than today…

How to make the vasilopita

Take a basin, pour inside the flour and open a whole in the middle. Crush the mahleb with the mastic and add them to the flour.

In the mixer bowl, place the sugar with the eggs and whip them well. Add them to the basin with the flour, in the centre.

Lightly warm the milk, until lukewarm, not hot. Pour inside the yeast and dissolve it well. As soon as the yeast fully melts, add the milk into the flour mixture in the basin. Meamwhile, melt the butter in a small pot and leave it beside you.

And now the kneading starts! Put your hands into the basin and mix all the ingredients together. The dough will be sticky but we don’t mind. After mixing them well, put your hands into the melted, very warm butter and knead over and over again, until using up all the butter. The dough will no longer stick, on the contrary it will be fluffy. Knead it some more and then make a cross with your hand, by pressing the side of your hand onto the dough. This way you will have God’s blessing, and also it helps the dough rise.

Warm the oven for five minutes at 100°C. Turn it off and put the dough inside for approximately one hour, maybe a little more. Then, take the dough out of the oven and knead it again. Put it back into a lukewarm oven, for less time, until it rises. Take the dough out and knead for the third time. It is better not to make the dough rise more times, because then the yeast will start to smell. Two times rising in the basin is enough.

Cover a pan with butter or parchment paper and place the dough in, after hiding the coin inside. Put it back into the oven to rise, and as soon as it rises to the verge of the pan, brush it with some egg yolk whipped with water. Then decorate it.

Bake the vasilopita in a preheated oven at 170°C for 45-50 minutes, depending on the oven. It is best for the vasilopita not to bake too much so that it doesn’t get dry but still is a little moist inside. This is why we bake it on the grill mode and not the fan mode, as in the latter the hot air will make the pie rise more, but it will also make it drier. With the grill bake, the pie gets more aromas, while if it gets dry, it will have an intense yeast smell. So, check your oven so that you don’t overbake your pie, and get it out as soon as it gets a nice golden brown colour.

We wish a happy and blessed new year to everyone!

We liked Varvara’s recipe so much that we will definitely try it next year… We wish you a good and blessed new year, with love, health and happiness! Happy new year with lots of sweet creations!

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