Vasilopita, Greek for sweet bread of Basil or St. Basil’s bread, is sweet bread or cake with a coin baked inside that is traditionally consumed on New Year’s Day in Greece, the Balkans, and other areas of Eastern Europe. Regional and family tradition dictates the type of dough used to make the bread, which is cut in a ritual meant to bring good luck and blessings in the new year. In some regions, it is a loaf of bread, while in others it is a spicy sheet cake. The king cake tradition associated with pre-Lenten celebrations or Epiphany is similar.
Typical vasilopita is made with butter, sugar, and eggs. Flour, baking soda, and milk are also necessary. Orange and lemon zest as well as crushed sour cherry pits, blanched almonds, and sesame seeds give the bread a sweet and fruity flavor. Any coin can be used and is generally wrapped in gold or silver foil.
The type of dough or cake batter used to make the sweet bread varies regionally but is often tsoureki, or sweet bread formed by braided strands. The sweetness of the dough symbolizes the joy of everlasting life. The baker wraps a coin in foil, makes the sign of the cross over the dough, and places the prize into the unbaked vasilopita without looking. The bread is then baked and cooled before cutting.
The sweet bread is traditionally cut on New Year’s Day by the most senior family member and distributed to all present. Portions of the bread can be cut and reserved for Jesus Christ, St. Basil, or the Greek Orthodox Church. The person who finds the coin in his or her piece is believed to be blessed for the coming year.
In Greece, the tradition of vasilopita is associated with Saint Basil, and January 1 is Saint Basil’s Day. According to legend, a heavy tax was levied on the people of Caesarea in the fourth century. St. Basil confronted the emperor, who canceled the tax.
Although the tax was canceled, St. Basil had to decide how to return to their rightful owners all the coins and jewelry that had been paid. He asked that all the revenue be baked into one giant pita that he cut and distributed to the people. Miraculously, each person received his or her valuables back in the piece of vasilopita received. The tradition of the sweet bread is observed in remembrance of St. Basil’s actions.
Similar to vasilopita is the king cake tradition celebrated during the Christmas season in parts of Western Europe and Latin America. In America, the king cake is eaten during the pre-Lenten Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana and New Orleans. A king cake is baked with a small trinket inside, usually a plastic baby, and the person who finds it in his or her piece earns rewards as well as obligations, including having to buy the king cake next year.