My mother often came to spend the holidays with us in Kea. After all, on the island we usually enjoyed better weather than in her suburban home in Kifisia, north of Athens, the first place in the city's outskirts to experience snow and frost. Once, she and my sister's family were stranded here for five days, as the whole region around Athens was under snow, the airport closed, and only the main roads cleared, while we enjoyed marvelous winter sun!
No matter that for the past 15 years I was officially the cooking expert of our family; my mother always came with heavy bags brimming with all sorts of seasonal food and sweets. She had spent days overseeing her companion and the lady who cleaned her house as they prepared, under her detailed instructions, melomakarona—the traditional orange, honey, and spice cookies; a big pot filled with her stuffed cabbage dolmades; pastitzio, macaroni and meat casserole; and, of course, her vassilopita, the New Year's cake we all loved.
According to our tradition, on New Year's Eve or after the family lunch on New Year's Day, the head of the family cuts into the rich and aromatic cake, which has the year written in almonds on top, and a lucky coin baked and hidden inside. A piece is distributed to each family member, starting with the eldest, and whoever gets the symbolic coin is rewarded with a gift of money and, according to superstition, good luck entering the new year.
My mother didn't bring one cake, but two: one for our family and one for my cousin next door, Leonidas, who was very fond of sweets, but was also the one who adhered to family and religious traditions, insisting, for example, that we should start by cutting a piece "for the home" as our grandmother used to do. This was a nuisance because who would get the coin if "the home" was the lucky winner? The owner of the house, Leonidas answered, claiming that the person who held the New Year's lunch or dinner deserved the extra chance....
Now that both my mother and my cousin are gone, I have mixed feelings regarding the vassilopita tradition. I know that to an outsider it is not a particularly special recipe, just an orange juice, egg, and butter cake with brandy, probably a luxury in the old days. The cake is something that I could bake more often in the winter, especially as I have wonderful eggs from our neighbor's hens. But some traditions die hard. As in the old days, and like most islanders still, I bake this fragrant cake only once a year!
Recipe: Vassilopita (New Year's Orange and Brandy Cake)
Makes one 10-inch round cake
• 4 large eggs, separated
• 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
• 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted, or a combination of butter and olive oil
• 1 1/4 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
• 1/2 cup brandy
• 4 cups all-purpose flour
• 4 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
• grated zest of 1 orange
• grated zest of 1 lemon
• whole blanched almonds
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Grease a 10-inch round cake pan. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until light yellow and creamy, about three minutes. Add the butter or butter and olive oil and beat for one minute more. Beat in the orange juice and brandy.
Whisk together the flour with the baking powder, baking soda, and the zests in another large bowl. Add to the yolk mixture and stir with a rubber spatula until incorporated.
In a large clean bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold them into the batter. Pour the batter into the pan and shake gently to even the top. Decorate the top with the almonds.
Bake the cake for about one hour, or until it is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack before removing from the pan and serving.