faith

Gluten Free Vasilopita with Traditional Spices

 

the author of Tea & Crumples shares her  gluten free Vasilopita recipe

Happy New Year! Joyous Feast of St. Basil from Summer Kinard!

 

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.

summer kinard gluten free vasilopita ingredients displayed ready to cook.

The assembled ingredients, except the butter, which was melting just then.

 

Gluten Free Traditional Vasilopita by Summer Kinard

Ingredients:

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

pinch cardamom

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.

There was still half left after cutting for 10 people and the sacred 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

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.

If you like holy cake and fiction, you’ll love The Salvation of Jeffrey Lapin! (Click title for affiliate link.)

Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Tea & Crumples! (Click title for affiliate link.)
“This uplifting story will warm your heart and renew your faith.” – Texas TEA & TRAVEL magazine (click magazine title for full review).
“Any Christian who enjoys well-written stories about faith, friendship, hardship, and miracles will be drawn into the community created at the tea shop. Tea & Crumples would fit perfectly into any church library or bookstore and would make a beautiful book club book for a women’s group at church.” The Orthodox Mama (<–Click for full review)

The Body of the Book

When you drink tea, you come to know the lingo. Teas are usually rated on body, astringency, fragrance, and liquor. I find myself thinking of books the same way, both in reading and writing. Tea & Crumples has daily graces as its body. It’s full-bodied with grace, but not very astringent, like the best-loved tea of the main character Sienna.

This is one of my favorite quotes about the intersection of the sacred and daily living with tea.

This is one of my favorite quotes about the intersection of the sacred and daily living with tea.

I thought of the idea for Tea & Crumples the tea shop and stationery store in college. I went to university in a small town with a vibrant main square around the courthouse. The buildings were elegantly proportioned brick with plate windows and balconies running along the walls inside. There was a building there that put me in mind of the perfect place to meld my love of tea and my love of fine papers. I purchased a notebook and wrote out a business plan and menu. Then I put it away for a Plan B, in case grad school didn’t work out, or in case life failed me somehow.

In the dark, the blanks on the pages filled with story. By my second year of grad school, I was writing letters to friends in the persona of Cleotis Reed. He was the narrator then, telling the world about Sienna and her shop, Tea & Crumples. His aged wisdom always came across in words as Southern as BBQ.

Around the time that Cleotis was turning my backup plan into a novel, I read Kathleen Norris’ essay, “Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work.” I was moving deeper into the Christian tradition, focusing my time and scholarship on the 3rd and 4th century fathers. Norris’ essay opened my eyes to the sacredness of daily rituals. It was through her insight that I saw the history I was reading come alive. I could see how the fathers lived out what they said. I was attracted ever deeper into the living, ancient faith.

Eight years, two children, and two masters degrees later, I found myself on the brink of publishing Can’t Buy Me Love, my debut novel. The process of writing one novel to publication shook loose the story that needed to unfold in Tea & Crumples. I delved in, spinning a story through sadness and joy. The book threw me a surprise early on when I discovered that Sienna had lost a pregnancy at 19 weeks. My outline had not contained that detail originally, but it made sense. I wrote the characters forward through the shadow of grief.

I was about 1/4 through the first full draft of Tea & Crumples when my personal life took an unexpected turn as well. Our third child whom we awaited with great joy and expectation died by miscarriage at around 10 weeks. Anyone who has experienced such a loss knows the horror of it. But I was left with an additional layer of grief. I had to finish the novel I had started, the story of a woman I had loved and imagined for over a decade, who lost her child in stillbirth.

That’s when I began to experience the truth of the words I had already written and the faith I had long held. I believe that God seeks us out wherever we are, in whichever state, and loves us. I believe that we can let ourselves be found. There’s a line in Rilke’s Book of Hours about a thing “ripened until it is real” so that it “can be found when” God “reaches for it.” That was my hope, that by sticking to the habits of faith, tea, and love, I would look up one day and see God reaching out for me.

I wasn’t worried that God couldn’t find me. I was worried that I wouldn’t notice.

That’s where tea comes in again. There’s ritual with tea. It’s a drink of welcome and succor. Even when you drink alone, the ritual of tea makes you pause and assess. It’s the perfect rendezvous point for meeting in the valley of the shadow of death.

Tea & Crumples isn’t my personal story, but it echoes the healing in my life that came through the kindness of friends, through the steadying power of daily rituals, and the wellspring of grace in faithful marriage. Elder Sophrony of Essex advised, “Stand at the brink of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea.” To me, that advice sticks to the heart of Tea & Crumples. God strengthens us not only in our struggles, but in our refreshment, for He is a good God Who loves humankind.

***

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you have experienced loss, you might find a local remembrance day group by searching for October 15 events.

*Affiliate links are embedded above, but I would be pleased as peaches if you’d look up my books at your local independent bookstore. Here’s my local shop: The Regulator Bookshop.

Prayer When You’re Busiest

Coming this November with Light Messages Publishers.

Coming this November with Light Messages Publishers.

After my dad died in 2012, there was a long period of going through the motions. What kept me sane and kept my family together was the daily need for food, drink, connection. I had loved tea with friends and family before then, but we solidified our family tea tradition that year, capping a summer of hot grief with the warmth of the tea table. I dug in a garden that summer, too, and the mints and herbs that grow there have come to be regulars at our teatime.

In Tea & Crumples, the protagonist Sienna is suffering under a terrible grief. But the people around her bridge the gap across her sorrow by reaching across the tea table. It’s not always our words that make sacred spaces. Sometimes it’s the daily rituals, the cleaning of cups, the laying of tables, the tucking in of chairs. Most of the time, holiness seeps in right between our weary fingers. Often, it leaves them warmer.

My hope for this novel is that it creates a safe space for love, for grief, for questions too big to ask all at once. It’s a spot of tea for the soul.

Has tea helped you through a hard time?

Basil Tea

The children's tea set, laid out for five. Our fifth child is expected in February.

The children’s tea set, laid out for five. Our fifth child is expected in February.

 

When our newborn son Basil was in the NICU, tea became our lifeline. We discovered on the day after our twins were born that Basil, the youngest twin, had an upside down stomach, what’s called a gastric volvulus. His brother was cleared to go home with us, but Basil needed surgery. He was only two days old when the surgeon walked into the room where we were praying with our priest and announced an incredible finding. When the surgery team flipped my baby’s stomach back into place, they found that the flip had concealed a dangerous diaphragmatic hernia. In essence, our son only had the right half of his diaphragm. Miraculously, and to the surgeon’s amazement, Basil’s stomach had flipped in the womb to block the hole. Because of the volvulus, Basil’s lungs developed normally. He had to have his diaphragm reconstructed and a little Goretex patch added, but he would most likely be okay. His problem became a miracle that we received without asking. Our tiny baby was cut wide open, but he would heal.

Even with a hopeful prognosis and the help of my amazing sister who came to stay with us, Basil’s recovery time in the NICU was stressful for us. With three other children including Basil’s newborn twin at home, I could only visit my youngest child once a day. Fortunately, the hospital had a 24 hour café that served tea. Like the wires stretching out from Basil’s machines when we held him, tea reached across the gap between medicine and Mama, health and home. We would sip our courage from favorite mugs at home before we drove to see him. We would sip a salve for our sorrows from paper cups when we had to leave him.

We took our boy home on a freezing day, snuggling him and his twin together in a wrap against the cold. Our first order of business after settling the boys in their crib was to brew a pot of tea. The hospital stay behind us at last, we thawed to peaches under the influence of our favorite Keemun.

Our Basil is strong now, steeped in love and healing. We celebrate him week by week, making home the way we always have. We lay the tea table: plates and cups and spoons on a tray, slices of lemon, brown sugar cubes, an apt pitcher for cream. At center, with a cozy for when the babies’ sweet cries invariably interrupt us, a piping pot of tea. Each day that passes, we look forward to a future we were afraid to let ourselves imagine in the NICU. When I imagine it, my children gather at the tea table, one, two, three, four, five, to look at the day’s teacakes. They argue over who will pour and settle on their big sister. Basil’s toddler hands, pudgy and elegant, grasp his little porcelain cup as he waits his turn. He drinks his cream cooled tea and smiles. He knows he is home.

Tea, Stationery, and Healing

This is the model for the sign that hangs outside Tea & Crumples, a fictional tea and stationery shop you can enter in Fall 2015!

This is the model for the sign that hangs outside Tea & Crumples, a fictional tea and stationery shop you can enter in Fall 2015!

Writing longhand and drinking tea have been part of my prayer life for decades. Next autumn, join me in a journey of healing with the release of Tea & Crumples from Light Messages Publishers. In the meantime, please sign up for my free monthly newsletter Finding Balance One Cup At a Time for tips on how to write each day. With simple steps and ideas hard-won through my life of motherhood, study, writing, and faith, I will offer you proven ways to heal your mind, soothe your soul, and know your heart in just minutes a day. Why am I offering this free newsletter? Because writing is not just my business; it’s my calling. I write to build up my fellow creatures, and I want to share with you some of the ideas that help me. Sign up today, and you’ll receive your first free newsletter within six weeks right in your inbox. I’ll also share with you when I’ll be in your area or release a new book so we can continue the conversation.

What little rituals build your prayer life? Join the conversation in the comments.