St. Basil, the Vasilopita, & Living Orthodoxy

The following is excerpt from a book written by Pres. Georget Photos, Let Us Live Orthodoxy, Volume 1. The first volume is made up of activities for Orthodox youth groups from the Nativity to Epiphany, which can easily be replicated by families.

Today’s blog discuses the importance of St. Basil the Great, ending with recipes for two different kinds of Vasilopita, the bread and cake which take their creation after him.

The Calendar Year

Our lives revolve around calendars, and calendars revolve around what is important to each of us. Those who go to school start their year in August or September. The start of the budget year for the U.S. government and for many businesses is October 1. The calendar year starts in January, and it is easy to assume that January 1 is also the start of the new year in the Orthodox Church. But September 1 is the true start of the Orthodox Church year, the beginning of the calendar of readings and feasts. Nevertheless, January 1 is an important day in the life of the Church, as we celebrate the feast day of St. Basil the Great.

Raising Children to Live Orthodoxy

Parents try to give their children a strong foundation for life. They teach their children what is right and wrong, and hope that the children mature and blossom into responsible adults with good moral character. Great parents are graced with the ability to not only teach their children to respect and love God, but also to live Orthodox Christianity to its fullest.

How would you feel as a mother or father if one of your children became so good that he or she became a saint? That would be wondrous! Imagine further: what if you had six children, and you worked hard to teach them right and wrong, and your efforts helped all of them to become saints?

St. Basil’s Life & Work

St. Basil is usually associated with the tradition of baking bread and hiding lucky coins inside it. Youth of all ages rally around the table on January 1 to see who will find the lucky coin.

St. Basil (330–379 AD) was an individual who lived Orthodoxy. He believed in his responsibility to God and the souls entrusted to him as a priest and then as a bishop. The tradition of the bread is a way that we as Orthodox remember St. Basil the Great. But St. Basil did not become “the Great” on bread alone.

St. Basil was a brilliant scholar and a great spokesperson for Christianity. He won people over to Christ through his love. St. Basil could have become a bishop in a major city; instead, he humbly chose to return to Caesarea, where he was ordained a bishop. He was an authority on monasticism, and he established a set of guidelines, called a “rule,” for those living in monasteries. His writings and teachings reflected his love for Christ. Among other accomplishments, he created a Divine Liturgy, which we now use during Great Lent, on Christmas Eve, and on his feast day. St. Basil founded orphanages, hospitals, and homes for older adults.

St. Basil’s act of putting money in bread has brought him much recognition and has become an enduring custom. The traditional story begins during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Julian the Apostate, who denounced Christianity. Emperor Julian levied a tax on the people. St. Basil collected money from the people of Caesarea to protect the city from the army of the emperor. The emperor died prior to the collection of these monies. St. Basil tried to return the money by baking it in sweet bread to be distributed to the people of Caesarea.

It seems almost foolish that a man as accomplished as St. Basil is known by our youth only for the coins in sweet bread. The exercise here is part fun and part work, but it is all creative. We often forget that we can also teach the youth by example. St. Basil handed us his teachings through his liturgy, writings, and his leadership—in establishing many monasteries, orphanages, homes for the elderly, and the famous bread. Let us follow his path.

The Retreat

  1. Start making the Vasilopita (St. Basil’s bread) using one of the following recipes. While preparing the bread, explain to the youth how St. Basil derived the idea for this wonderful custom, and stimulate their creativity by continually asking them their opinions and their beliefs (correcting them kindly when wrong).
  1. Explain to the youth that St. Basil had other gifts as well: those of writing and speaking from the heart. (Beforehand, take some time to brush up on your own knowledge of St. Basil and his writings and homilies, which include his Divine Liturgy, On Social Justice, On the Human Condition, and On the Holy Spirit.)
  2. After the first of the year, cut the bread and distribute it to those present.

About the Recipes

Vasilopita can be made either as a sweet orange/lemon cake or as sweet bread. People in Asia Minor use the double-headed eagle stamp and decorate the exterior of the stamp and the eyes of the eagle with cloves. other common decorations are the year or a simple cross out of cloves. The following recipes are simple enough to be prepared by youth groups.

Enjoy these traditional recipes, and make sure that participants understand that St. Basil the Great stood for a number of great things in addition to this wonderful tradition—and that is why “the Great” always follows his name!

Vasilopita Bread Recipe

  • Preparation time: 45 minutes
  • Total time: ~ 4 hours, 15 minutes
  • Makes 6 loaves

Ingredients

  • 2 packages dry yeast
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 5–8 pounds flour
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon each: cinnamon, anise seed, orange rind, and lemon rind
  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 1 cup ouzo, or 1 tablespoon of ground anise or anisette flavor
  • 5 eggs
  • 2 cups honey
  • 5 cups lukewarm milk (milk can be placed in the microwave for a few seconds to remove chill); have more milk on hand in case it’s needed
  • 1⁄4 cup sesame seeds
  • Honey
  • Cloves (whole)
  • 6 coins covered in aluminum foil

Directions

1. Proof the yeast by combining the package of yeast with sugar, salt, and 1 cup of lukewarm water. Stir the liquid with a spoon until everything is combined. Set the mixture aside and give it time to become totally frothy.

2. While waiting for the yeast mixture to proof, place 5 pounds of flour into a large mixing bowl. Use your fingers to make a well in the center of the flour mound. Set this aside.

3. Combine the spices and rinds together into a different bowl.

4. By this time, the yeast mixture should have completed proofing. Add it to the well of the flour. Combine the flour and yeast mixture with a large mixing spoon or your hands.

5. Add the spices and rind, and knead.

6. Add the butter; knead.

7. Add the ouzo; continue to knead.

8. Add the eggs and honey; continue to knead.

9. Add the milk slowly, making sure you in- corporate all of the flour in the bowl. Add more flour if necessary.

10. Knead the dough in one of three ways:

Method A: Place on a lightly floured flat surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8–10 minutes.

Method B: Transfer to a stand mixer with a dough hook. Knead until smooth and elastic and until dough does not stick to the sides of the bowl. If the dough is sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until desired texture is attained.

Method C: Transfer to a food processor with a plastic blade. If your machine cannot handle the entire 5 pounds of flour (about 18 cups), divide the dough in half and work with each half separately. Process by adding 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until a soft, elastic ball has been formed that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. When this consistency has been reached, continue to process for only 1 minute.

11. To save on utensils, wash and dry the large mixing bowl from step 2. Grease the bowl with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil.

12. Place the dough in the large bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Place a bath towel over the bowl for extra warmth. Allow this to rise about 1 1⁄2 hours until doubled in bulk. The rising time will depend on the room temperature. (Bread will rise quickly in warm, humid air and may take longer in winter months if room tempera- ture is on the cool side.)

13. Grease six 8-inch springform pans, cake pans, or other desired shape.

14. Divide the dough into six parts.

15. Remove a handful of dough to use for forming the year or using with the eagle stamp. (This amount may vary.)

16. On a flat surface, form each section of dough into a ball. Form each ball into an 8-inch circular loaf.

17. Place each loaf into a cake pan, wrinkled side down.

18. Cover the breads with a white kitchen towel (not terry cloth). Let these rise until double in bulk, about 1 1⁄2 hours.

19. Wrap coins in aluminum foil. Place a coin in the center of each loaf. Use your finder to press the coin down into the dough. Smooth the dough to hide the indentation. Make sure to conceal the location from those in attendance.

20. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

21. Make the desired decoration for each loaf and lay it on top of the bread. With a pastry brush, gently coat the top of each loaf with honey. Sprinkle the bread with sesame seeds (optional).

22. Bake 30–35 minutes or until the bread is golden in color on top and sides and the sides have pulled away from the pan. Time may vary according to type of cake pan or oven. It would be ideal to fit all six of the loaves in the oven at the same time, leaving ample room for circulation between each pan. However, this depends on oven size.

If Using a Convection oven: Convection baking will take 35 minutes if using dark coated cake pans. If the convection fan has both high and low settings, set it to low so the bread bakes evenly.

23. Within a few minutes of taking the bread out of the oven, remove the loaves from the cake pans. They fall out easily when baked properly. Place on racks to cool.

Vasilopita Cake Recipe

  • Preparation time: 20 minutes
  • Total time: 2 hours
  • Makes 1 cake

Ingredients

  • 5 eggs
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 1⁄2 cups sugar
  • Zest from 1 orange and 1 lemon
  • 1⁄4 cup orange juice
  • 1⁄4 cup orange water
  • 4 cups cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 coin wrapped in aluminum
  • Cloves (whole) for decoration
  • 1⁄4 cup honey
  • 1⁄4 cup orange water
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 cups powdered or confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon milk
Directions

1. Chill mixer beaters and a large glass or metal bowl for a few minutes.

2. Separate the egg whites from the yolks. In the chilled bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff, then add the egg yolks and beat until creamy.

3. Add the butter and sugar to the egg mixture and beat for 5 minutes.

4. Add the orange rind and continue to beat.

5. Add the orange juice and water.

6. In a smaller bowl, stir the baking powder and the salt into the flour.

7. Sift the flour mixture into the egg mixture. Have some extra flour handy, if the batter is too loose, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time. The batter needs to be soft and glossy but not sticky.

8. Set aside a small amount of batter.

9. Place the batter into a 10-inch round springform pan. Tuck the coin into the center of the bat- ter and push down to make sure the coin is embedded in the batter.

10. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

11. Brush the entire vasilopita with orange wa- ter and honey.

12. Bake for 45–60 minutes, or until the dough separates from the sides of the pan.

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