Every new year, Orthodox Christians, especially Greek Orthodox Christians, celebrate the feast of St. Basil the Great on January 1. The traditional cake that is shared that day and throughout the month of January is called a Vasilopita, or Basil Cake.
The recipes for wheat flour vary from a sweet yeast bread to a cakier texture.
I knew that I didn’t want to attempt a gluten free yeast bread, since the flours and gums for that sort of recipe would detract from the earthy warmth of a good Vasilopita. Instead, I heavily adapted a favorite gluten free cake recipe to make a nutty, rich cake that highlights the traditional mahlab and mastika spices.
Notes on the ingredients:
Because I have hazelnut flour on hand for holiday baking, this recipe calls for some, but a mixture of almond meal and coconut flour would also work. I’m allergic to cinnamon, of all things, so I have not included any here. I would not have added it anyhow, as I wanted the mahlab and mastika to stand out.
Before you get started, you’ll need to refrigerate the mastika, which comes in little pellets. It’s a tree resin, and preparation requires pounding it to a powder. It’s much easier to get the right consistency when the resin is cold. If you usually set your eggs out an hour before baking, go ahead and refrigerate the mastika at that time if you’ve forgotten.
Mahlab is made by grinding small seeds that come from a certain type of cherry. I have a special grinder set aside for grinding spices that has a removable, washable grinding chamber. I don’t recommend using a grinder that is also used for coffee, but do what you have to do. Vasilopita goes great with coffee, so it probably won’t hurt if you get coffee oil in your cake. I used more mahlab than you would in a wheat Vasilopita because of the nut flours. Adjust according to taste. It adds a sort of vanilla cherry flavor.
Gluten Free Traditional Vasilopita by Summer Kinard
1 1/3 Cups almond flour (blanched almond meal)
2/3 Cup hazelnut meal
1/3 Cup coconut flour
2/3 Cup lightly packed brown sugar or coconut sugar
1 teaspoon aluminum free baking powder (Rumford brand)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 Tablespoons ground mahlab
1-1.5 teaspoons mastika powder
1/4 sea salt
1/2 Cup milk or cream (or almond milk)
1/2 Cup melted butter (or olive/coconut oil)
3 eggs (pastured eggs are the best)
slivered almonds for garnish
simple icing for garnish, optional
Coin washed and wrapped tightly in aluminum foil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Set out cream or milk and eggs to come to room temperature. Butter an 8 inch round pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Prepare the mahlab and mastika. Grind the mahlab seeds for around 45 seconds until they are semi fine. Place a couple of teaspoons of mastika pellets in a zipper plastic bag or waxed paper sandwich bag. On a sturdy surface (I used a porch rail), pound several times with the flat side of a meat mallet until the mastika is a fine powder.
In a mixing bowl, add dry ingredients and stir together well with a wooden spoon or a whisk. Set aside.
In a large measuring cup, melt the butter. Add the cream to the melted butter and stir well. Break eggs into the measuring cup and stir to combine.
Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and turn several times until well combined and evenly moist. Add the coin to the batter and stir well to conceal.
Pour or scoop the batter into the prepared pan, using the spoon to evenly distribute and slightly smooth the batter.
Bake in oven for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Top will be golden brown.
Cool in pan till cake pulls a little away from the sides, or at least ten minutes. Run a toothpick or thin knife around the edge, and turn the Vasilopita out onto a plate. Flip it again so that you may decorate the rounded top.
Using almond slivers, make a tiny Greek cross or two, along with the year. (A Greek cross has four equal sides.) If you would like to garnish with a simple icing, combine 2-3 tablespoons liquid (milk, maple syrup, honey water, fruit juice–I like freshly squeezed satsuma juice) with 1/2-1 cup powdered sugar. You may also sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.
This Vasilopita is quite rich and will serve 12 generously or up to 20 smaller pieces.
Cutting the Vasilopita
When you cut the Vasilopita, first make the sign of the Cross on the top while praying aloud, “In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the a Holy Spirit, Amen.”
The first slice goes to our Lord Jesus. (Many people save this slice in foil to dry in their iconostasis for the year. I recommend caution with this practice due to the high moisture level of this cake. If you wish to save it, set it aside on your stove or other well ventilated place for a few days so it can dry out before going in foil.)
The second slice goes to the Holy Theotokos.
The third, to St. Basil and the children.
Next comes the householder, followed by those present from oldest to youngest. If there is a special guest, you may honor them by bumping them in rank to anywhere after St. Basil.
The coin reminds us of a miracle. Once, the people in St. Basil’s area were beseiged by invaders. They each brought their riches to the church to pay a ransom to end the seige, but their generous giving so impressed their opponent that he left without collecting. (An alternative story is that the Emperor collected an exorbitant tax, which St. Basil persuaded him to give back in repentance.) Whatever the precedent, the miracle was the same: St. Basil prayed and was given insight as to how to return the riches to their proper owners. All of the treasures were baked into one giant pita. When it was sliced and distributed after church the next day, each person found that his or her own treasures were in their slice!
Usually the coin is seen as a sign of extra blessing in the new year. If the coin is in one of the pieces dedicated to Jesus, the Theotokos, or Basil, it should be given to the poor or put in the offering at church.
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