Bakery Bulletin by Phillipa Kelly: An annual slice of Helenic happiness

Vasilopita
Vasilopita

Vasilopita is not a Russian revolutionary, nor a cure for chapped lips, nor a repurposed horse-trailer selling feta filled pittas at festivals. Vasilopita is a Greek baked-good served on New Year’s Day. Yes, it’s so good they only want it once a year. Bit like figgy pudding. Or seeing your cousins.

It’s also called a Saint Basil Pie. Asides from being the patron saint of pesto, Brush, and Fawlty Towers, he has his very own legend.

Basil’s tall tale starts in Caesarea, which is in Israel, and might be connected to Julius, and also possibly to C-sections, but I haven’t bothered to check. A little homework for you there, if you care. One of us should.

So the citizens of Caesarea were being besieged by a chieftain (or an evil emperor, depending on the storyteller - I’m sticking to chieftain because it’s a pretty word). The chieftain demanded a ransom from the people in return for stopping his attacking armies. Under siege, and with Stephen Seagal busy with his Just For Men (seriously, have you seen him lately? Google him. More homework) the citizens had no choice but to hand over all their jewellery. When the ransom was met, the enemy was so in awe of the peoples’ collective efforts that he was too embarrassed to continue with his siege or appropriate their valuable possessions, so off he went without taking a single item. If only this sentiment had been mirrored by future enemies who demanded everyone’s jewellery be handed over. Yes, Hitler, I mean you.

So now Saint Basil enters, stage left. You could argue that a proper Saint might have entered the fray slightly earlier and maybe done something before all the jewellery was collected, but he didn’t, so we’ll deal with that and move on. Basil came on the scene when it was time to give back the jewellery, and all he had was this big pile of gold and no idea who owned what. So what did he do? Did he hold a town meeting and ask the people to claim their property? No, he didn’t. He baked lots of cakes and put a bit of jewellery in each of them. He then distributed them amongst the citizens. Now, if a baddie came and took my stuff, then decided to give it back, and then a guy called Basil came along and baked it into a cake, I’d be more than a little bit peeved. Miffed, even. Or narked. That’s the one - I’d be narked. Anyway, as it’s a legend, every citizen miraculously received exactly what was owed to them. End of. Well done, Basil.

The special feature of a Vasilopita cake is not the flavour, shape or indeed anything to do with the cake itself; it’s Basil’s influence again - there’s a hidden coin baked into the cake, to signify the jewellery Basil ruined, and to bring good luck (and chipped teeth) to the recipient of the coin-laden slice. When the tradition began, highly valuable coins were used; gold sovereigns, for example. These days, the coins are relatively worthless - they’re regular Greek currency, so they’re literally worthless.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the cake is cut and a slice is given to each member of the household, starting with the oldest. Presumably this is to avoid another incident like when Audrey’s husband Alf screwed up New Year’s Eve 1999. Some houses cut slices for their invisible friends, like Saint Basil or other saints with less herby names and with acts of heroism attributed to them that are less pathetic than baking cakes. Other houses will cut slices for “the poor”. They won’t actually give the slice to the poor, but it’s done in the true sense of charity - giving away little or nothing, but ensuring others are aware of your “generosity”. Little twisted ribbon or brightly coloured wristband, anyone?

May your 2017 be filled with good health, happiness, and success, and perhaps you could do something for others and not tell a soul you’ve done it (last bit of homework). Happy New Year, everyone.