Just about every country that celebrates Christmas or New Year's has a traditional sweet yeast bread to commemorate the occasion. But Christmas breads outnumber those for New Year's by a mile.
In "Celebration Breads," Betsy Oppenneer's outstanding book of breads from around the world (Simon and Schuster, 2003), she provides recipes for 21 Christmas breads and only six for New Year's. Since I usually favor the underdog, I decided to make a New Year's bread for this month's column, and I chose one of my favorites, the Greek, Vasilopita.
Vasilopita (pronounced va-see-LOP-eeta, with the accent on the third syllable) is a New Year's bread made to honor St. Basil. Oppenneer says "This caring priest knew the poor members of his church were proud people who would not receive charity. Wanting to ensure that they had enough for life's necessities, he came up with a plan to have the ladies of his church prepare sweet breads with coins baked into them."
The person who found the coin in his or her portion of bread would be especially blessed with good fortune for the coming year.
Traditionally, Vasilopita is served at midnight on New Year's eve, following a precise ritual. The first piece is usually set aside for a saint, the second for the poor, and the third piece goes to the oldest member of the family.
Then portions are given to the head of the house, his spouse, and on down the line of children according to age, boys before girls, until everyone has received a piece of Vasilopita.
According to Oppenneer, each person then dips his slice of bread into a bowl of wine and says, "This is for our grandfather, Saint Basil."
There are many recipes for Vasilopita. Oppenneer's carefully researched version is one of the best I've tried. It is extremely easy to make and requires no kneading. The dough is very wet and sticky and comes together with a few minutes of beating with a wooden spoon.
The use of rapid rise yeast (not active dry yeast, which requires proofing - dissolving - in liquid before being added to the dough) streamlines the process because the dry granules are stirred into the flour and become activated by the addition of hot liquid. Any supermarket carries rapid rise yeast. The most common brands are Fleischmann's and Red Star. I personally prefer SAF brand, but any rapid rise yeast will work.
The only special equipment you'll need is a 10-inch diameter springform pan. A pan of this size is generally available in large department stores in the housewares section or in specialty shops such as In Good Taste in Missoula. It can also be ordered from The Baker's Catalog by calling toll- free (1-800-827-6836) or online at http://www.bakerscatalogue.com.
Award-winning author and chef Greg Patent writes a monthly column about food for the Missoulian. Reach Patent via e-mail at ChefguyMT@aol.com.
Vasilopita (St. Basil's Bread)
This fine-textured, no-knead buttery New Year's yeast bread is delicious any time of the year. It will stay fresh, securely wrapped, for several days at room temperature. When stale, it is delicious cut into thickish slices and toasted.
A word about zests: this is the outer, colored portion of citrus fruits. To remove it, I use a microplane grater, which is very efficient at the job and produces fine shreds of zest. You can also zest your fruit with a vegetable peeler. After removing the zest in strips, chop into very small pieces with a sharp chef's knife.
When zesting citrus fruits, try to avoid the underlying white pith, which is bitter.
3 3/4 cups (total) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 packages rapid rise yeast (not active dry yeast)
1/2 cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 large orange
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft
A coin, preferably a quarter, washed and wrapped in foil
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon water
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
Measure the flour by spooning it lightly into dry measuring cups to overflowing; sweep off the excess with the back of a knife. In a large bowl, stir together 2 cups of the flour (reserve the remaining flour for later use), the yeast, sugar, lemon and orange zests, and salt.
In a medium saucepan, beat the eggs with a fork just until the whites and yolks are well mixed. Add the milk and set the pan over medium low heat. Stir constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula just until the mixture feels hot to a fingertip. An instant-read thermometer should register 130 degrees. Immediately pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and stir well with a wooden spoon until a very soft batter forms.
Beat vigorously with the spoon for 2 minutes.
Add the very soft butter in 2-tablespoon dollops and beat well with the spoon after each addition.
Gradually stir in 1 1/2 cups of the remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time. When incorporated, beat well with the spoon for 1 to 2 minutes. The dough will be very sticky. Scrape the side of the bowl and the spoon with a rubber spatula and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup flour evenly over the surface of the dough.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours (but this will depend on the temperature of your kitchen).
To test, press indentations into the dough with a fingertip or two. If the depressions remain, the dough is ready.
Stir the dough with the wooden spoon to deflate it slightly and to incorporate the surface flour. Wash a quarter, dry it, and wrap it tightly in a small square of aluminum foil. Press the coin into the dough to hide it completely.
Butter a 10-inch springform pan and scrape the dough into the pan.
Smooth the top. The pan will be about 1/2 full. Coat the surface of the dough with a light film of cooking spray and cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap.
Refrigerate 1 to 2 hours, or until the dough has risen to the top of the pan. The surface of the dough may actually make contact with the plastic wrap.
About 30 minutes before the dough has completed its rising (it should be about 1/2 inch from the top of the pan), adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
When the dough is ready, remove it from the refrigerator and carefully lift off the plastic wrap. If the dough is sticking to the plastic, carefully nudge the dough away from it with a fingertip.
For the topping, beat the egg yolk and water in a small bowl with a fork. In another small bowl, mix together the sesame seeds and walnuts.
With a pastry brush, paint the top of the loaf with all of the egg wash. Try not to let the egg dribble down the sides, which would cause the bread to stick to the sides of the pan.
Sprinkle with the sesame seeds and walnuts and place the pan in the oven.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes, until the vasilopita is well-browned and a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. An instant-read thermometer should register 190 degrees.
Remove the pan from the oven and cool the bread in the pan for 20 minutes.
Carefully remove the bread from the pan and set the vasilopita on a cooling rack to cool completely.
To serve, cut into wedges with a serrated knife.
This bread freezes well for up to 6 months. To serve, thaw the bread in its wrapping. Then unwrap and set the bread on a baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes to freshen.