It’s time for the last bite of holiday symbolism–the vassilopeta (pronounced with the emphasis on the “lo”), a sweet yeast bread that marks the new year.
Diane Kochilas in The Glorious Foods of Greece, describes this traditional New Year’s bread made the Peloponnesos as “seasoned lavishly with orange, bay, and spices and rich with butter and eggs.” It sounds like the panettone that my Italian-American family enjoys every Christmas (and a distant cousin of the much-maligned fruitcake).
Our family’s vassilopeta is a much leaner affair, with eggs and butter, but no spices. It is the recipe of my husband’s grandmother who was a briskly efficient Ohio housewife who ran a small farmstead while her husband ran the local drugstore and soda fountain.
But whether it is a plain bread or richly adorned, the feature that everyone loves about the vassilopeta is the hidden coin. Whoever gets that slice will have luck for the whole year. It is a tradition repeated in a New Orleans King Cake and the French Galette des Rois (the gift of the kings who traveled to see the newborn). Whether it’s a little plastic infant, a bean, or a coin each slice is eagerly anticipated.
It’s best to have a bread that can be completely parceled out, so the prize is discovered at once rather than at a sleepy breakfast a few days later. The bread is cut in a particular order to ensure clarity about exactly who gets the luck.
First slice is for the house, second for the man of the house, third for the woman (who probably made the bread), and slices then for children in order of age, and pets if you are so inclined.
There’s a dusty coin in the bottom of my jewelry box, pulled triumphantly from a slice of vassilopeta, and I suppose it has brought me luck.
Best wishes for a lucky and cake-filled new year!