I didn't remember my mother making New Years' bread until I stumbled on the word-- vasilopita-- somewhere a few years ago. I immediately got a smell and an image in my head; somewhere in my past I watched either my mother or my yiayia making this sweet bread.
Vasilopita is a sweet yeast bread flavored with mahlepe, ground cherry pits. (Thank goodness for The Spice House, which had this spice, as it was very hard to find.) This bread is made in honor of the patron saint of Greece, St. Basil, on his name day, January 1st; hence the association with the new year. The tradition is to bake a coin or trinket into the bread; the person who gets the slice with the coin has good luck the rest of the year. I used a Chinese coin in honor of the other half of our family heritage.
This recipe is from Adventures in Greek Cookery by Kapulos and Jones.
2 yeast cakes (or equivalent dry yeast)
3/4 cup + 2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup melted butter
3 eggs, well-beaten
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon mahlepe
1/3 cup lukewarm water
up to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 or 2 clean coins
3 tablespoons light cream
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/3 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sesame seeds
Scald the milk and set aside to cool. Crumble the yeast in a small bowl, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons sugar, and set aside for 10 minutes, or prepare dry yeast per packet directions. Don't put the dry yeast straight into the mixture, however careful you are with temps. It doesn't work as well. *
When milk is cool (I cooled mine in the fridge, to about 100F/38C, or just warm to the touch) combine it with remaining sugar, and the next 5 ingredients (through the mahlepe) in a large bowl. Beat with electric beater for 5 minutes. If using fresh/cake yeast, add the lukewarm water to the yeast, blend until smooth, then stir into the mixture. For dry yeast, simply stir the foamy, activated yeast into the bread. Add the flour and cup at a time and knead the dough until soft and pliable. If you use a dough hook, use it for the first 4 cups of flours, then work in the last 1 or 2 cups by hand, kneading as you go. (I seldom use all 6 cups.) Thoroughly grease the sides and bottom of a large bowl. Turn the dough into it and rotate until all sides are greased. Cover with a heavy cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It should at least double in size.
After two hours, turn the dough out on a floured board and knead lightly. Divide into two parts and put a clean coin in the center of each, or for one loaf leave dough in one piece and use one coin. Then knead until the coins are well hidden. Shape the dough to fit into two greased 9 inch round cake pans or one 12-inch round pan. Combine the cream, sugar and cinnamon, brush over the tops of the loaves and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place to rise for two hours. It will double or more in size again.
Bake at 350F/175C for 50 minutes (check at 45) for 9-inch loaves, or 1 hour for 12-inch loaf. Remove from pan immediately and cool.
The first slice is for the lord (or the goddess, depending on how you roll). The second is for St. Basil. Dole out the remaining slices from the youngest person at the table to the oldest.
* 2 packets of dry yeast
1 day ago