Vasilopita Bread

Prep: 4 hrs
Cook: 40 mins
Total: 4 hrs 40 mins
Servings: 32 slices
Yields: 2 (9-inch) loaves

Vasilopita, literally translated to "Basil's pie," is a Greek sweet bread traditionally eaten on New Year's Day in Greece. The bread dates back to ancient civilizations and is baked in honor of Saint Basil the Great who is celebrated on January 1. The bread contains a foil-wrapped coin baked into it—similar to Mardi Gras King's Cake which has a plastic figurine baked into it. On New Year's Day, the bread is cut and served, starting with the eldest member of the family, so that each member of the household gets his or her own piece. Legend has it that whoever's piece contains the hidden coin will have a year filled with good luck.

Vasilopita also comes in a cake version which has a much sweeter flavor, cake-like texture, and is usually flavored with orange, and sometimes a sweet liquor such as brandy. Vasilopita bread and cake are often decorated with elaborate designs or the number of the year it is celebrated. This version is simply topped with sesame seeds and is the perfect accompaniment to morning or afternoon coffee or tea once sliced and served.

This recipe makes enough dough for two 9-inch cake pans or one 16-inch cake pan.

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups (350 grams) all-purpose flour (plus more for kneading) 
  • 2 cups (280 grams) bread flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup whole milk (warmed to lukewarm, 100 F to 115 F)
  • 3/4 cup sugar (divided)
  • 1 packet (1/4-ounce) active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (melted and cooled to lukewarm, plus more for greasing)
  • 3 large eggs (beaten) 
  • 1 coin (wrapped in foil)
  • 1 large egg yolk (whisked with 1 teaspoon water for egg wash)
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon white sesame seeds or 3 tablespoons sliced almonds

Steps to Make It

  1. Preheat oven to 175 F for proofing the dough. Once preheated, turn off. Meanwhile, gather the ingredients.

  2. Sift both flours into a large metal bowl.

  3. Add salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon to the sifted flours, and whisk to combine. Set aside.

  4. Combine warmed milk and 1 tablespoon of the sugar into a separate medium bowl.

  5. Sprinkle yeast over top and whisk to dissolve.

  6. Add remaining sugar, melted butter, and beaten eggs, whisking to combine. 

  7. Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gently pour in the wet ingredients, gently stirring with a wooden spoon in a circle around the well to form a sticky dough. (This can also be done in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment, on low speed.)

  8. When the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl, transfer it onto a clean surface lightly dusted with flour. (If using a mixer, skip this step.)

  9. Knead the dough by hand for at least 10 minutes, or on medium-low speed in the mixer, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. To prevent it from sticking to the surface or inside of the mixing bowl, add more flour a little at a time, as needed.

  10. Form the dough into a ball and transfer to a large metal bowl brushed with melted butter.

  11. Turn dough to coat in the melted butter and place seam side down in the bowl.

  12. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and transfer to the warmed oven to proof. (Note: if the oven seems too hot, leave the oven door partially open for the first 20 to 30 minutes of proofing.) Allow dough to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

  13. Remove from the oven and gently punch down the dough and divide in half. Briefly knead each halve, folding again to reshape, now into two round loaves. (If using a large 16-inch cake pan, don't halve and just reshape into one loaf.)

  14. If using a coin, insert the foil-wrapped coin into the dough from the bottom so it is not visible from the outside.

  15. Transfer loaves to greased cake pans (or large cake pan) and return to oven for final proofing, covering with a clean kitchen towel. Let rise again for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in size. Remove from oven and set aside.

  16. To bake bread, preheat oven to 350 F. Meanwhile, brush egg wash over the top of each loaf, then sprinkle with sesame seeds or almonds, if desired. 

  17. Bake the loaves for 30 to 40 minutes or until the entire surface is golden brown and the bread sounds hollow when tapped.

  18. Cool on a wire rack before serving.

Tips

  • Proofing time may vary depending on the ambient temperature; the best guide is to check the dough periodically (ie. after 1 hour, and then every 30 minutes) to see if it has doubled in size rather than solely sticking to the times given in this recipe. 
  • The dough does not have to be proofed in a warmed oven, it will rise in any warm place like near a fireplace or radiator; the ideal temperature is between 75 F and 78 F. 
  • Instead of preheating the oven to warm it for proofing, some bakers simply turn on the oven light about 1 hour before putting the dough in, and the heat from the light raises the temperature just enough. 
  • Bread can be made 1 to 2 days in advance and stored in an airtight plastic bag or wrapped in foil; for extended shelf life, freezing is best.


Recipe Variations

  • Add orange or lemon zest to the dry ingredients. 
  • For an even more authentic recipe, add 1/2 teaspoon ground mastiha to dry ingredients. 

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