To view photos of the feast of St. Fanourios, click here.
Last week my hairdresser, Vagia, asked I if had a good recipe for fanouropita. I had known about St. Fanourios since childhood, and his feast day, August 27, the day specially baked cakes were brought to the church. I thought the tradition was long ago forgotten.
"Oh. You cannot believe how many cakes were brought to the church last year," Vagia said, filled with pride for her own special fanouropita. She then leaned over and whispered that she did cheat sightly by using real butter instead of olive oil, which the tradition called for. The tradition also mandated that the fanouropita be made with either seven or nine ingredients.
Throughout, the atmosphere was festive, like a social gathering rather than an austere religious ceremony.
Intrigued by her enthusiasm, I decided to bake my own cake and join the other Keans for the evening Mass.
Fanourios was a later Greek Orthodox saint. His name comes from the verb fanerono which means "to reveal." Anthropologists link the cake blessing to ancient rituals and offerings to the dead. In the Orthodox tradition, the celebration of the day is thought bring good health or to help people find lost objects. It is also thought to reveal to unmarried women their future husbands. This is one of many picturesque pagan rituals incorporated into church tradition.
When I arrived at the church for the celebration I was surprised at the number of cakes laid out on the tables and floor at the front of the sanctuary. Most cakes were covered with cling film or aluminum foil, protection from the tall thin candles burning in each of them.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
At seven the bells rang, summoning the worshippers. The service lasted over an hour during which Keans continued to bring their cakes. First the priests blessed the prosfora, special breads flavored with aniseeds and sugar, baked by the local bakery. Father Dionysios read the names of the attendees as well as those family members and friends in need of remembrance. During this reading the prosfora were sliced and offered to the worshippers. Throughout, the atmosphere was festive, like a social gathering rather than an austere religious ceremony.
I was walking back and forth taking pictures and was concerned that maybe the old lady with the black scarf who was sitting in the front and knew all the psalms would be annoyed. But at the end, as we were cutting and tasting each other's cakes, she said to me: "Bravo, bravo! How good of you to take pictures."
Fanouropita (Spicy Olive Oil Cake)
My version of the traditional cake based on a recipe from the island of Skopelos.
For a 9-inch square cake:
• 1 cup light olive oil (or a combination of sunflower oil and olive oil) • 1 cup granulated sugar
• 3 cups all-purpose flour • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 2 teaspoons mixed ground cinnamon and allspice • 1 cup dried currants or raisins
• 1 cup coarsely ground almonds or walnuts • 1/2 cup lemon or orange liqueur (or brandy)
• 1 1/2 cups orange juice
• 2 tablespoons sesame seeds for topping
Beat together the olive oil and sugar with a hand-held mixer.
In a large bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, spices, raisins, and nuts. Add the oil mixture, the liqueur, and the orange juice, and mix with a spatula.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Line a 9 inch square or equivalent round pan with parchment paper, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, and pour in the batter and sprinkle the top with one more tablespoon sesame seeds.
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cool on a rack and unmold.