Vasilopita – A New Year’s Eve Tradition

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If you’ve been reading this little blog for any time at all, you’ll know that Greeks are sticklers for their holiday traditions. Naturally, our New Year’s Eve tradition involves food – specifically, you bake a vasilopita, which is a sweet bread baked into a round shape. We also make tsoureki (the same type of bread) at Easter.

Below is the email that my mom sent me with my Yiayia Vaso’s recipe included. This same recipe has been in my family for at least a hundred years (but knowing Greeks, it’s probably been around for two or three centuries longer than that).

Yiayia Vaso came to stay with us in Washington D.C. in 1975. That Easter, she wanted to adapt her tsourekia recipe so she can use our brand new Black and Decker mixer instead of mixing the ingredients by hand. I made this recipe for the first time when you were a few months old. By then, she would rather occupy you and Dean than cook. I wrote the recipe on an index card (I still have it) and I have been making her tsourekia ever since.

1 ½ cup milk
2 sticks sweet butter
1 ½ cups sugar
2 envelopes yeast
6 eggs + 2 extra egg whites (reserve the yolks)
1 orange the juice and rind
5 lbs – ¾ cup flour

Warm milk until comfortable to the touch (about 110 degrees). Pour milk in a large container and stir in the yeast plus 1 teaspoon of sugar and 2 cups of flour. Mix with a wooden spoon until well blended.

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Cover with plastic wrap, and put in a warm place (I put it in the cold oven with the oven light on) for the yeast to rise. When mixture is bubbly it is done. Set aside for now.

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In your mixer, beat eggs with sugar until light and fluffy (about 10 minutes). The mixture should be a very pale yellow.

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Melt butter and add it slowly to the egg mixture.

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Add orange juice and orange rind and continue to mix for another 5 minutes.

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In the meantime the yeast mixture should be ready.

Slowly add the egg/sugar/orange juice mix to the yeast mixture and stir with the wooden spoon. Add the flour one cup at a time and continue to mix with the spoon.

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When mixture become difficult to mix with the spoon, use your hands to knead the batter.

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Continue to add flour until batter is firm and well mixed and not sticky. Usually, between 8 and 9 cups does the trick. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel on top and set aside (in the oven if you like, but turn off the light this time).

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**Since it is downright cold in North Carolina, I had to turn my oven on to 200 degrees for 5 minutes. I then turned off the oven, wrapped my dough in a clean garbage bag (to keep out the air) and covered it with towels to hold in the heat. Without doing this, my dough simply would not rise.

When the batter is double in size (after about 1 hour) it is ready for your to shape it into loaves.

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Take a handful of the dough and dust it with a little flour. (I took the above picture after I had sprinkled flour on the entire bowl of dough). Fold it into a ball for the vasilopita.

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The remainder of the batter can either be braided or simply rolled into an oblong oval and put into loaf pans. After your vasilopita is shaped, wash a quarter, wrap it in a piece of foil and tuck it into the loaf, making sure to cover the spot where it was inserted. I’ll explain this part of the tradition in a bit.

Cover the bread and set aside until they are double in size. Prior to baking, combine your leftover yolk with a tablespoon of milk to make an egg wash. Brush the egg wash over the top of the loaves to add a nice shine to the finished product. Bake in preheated oven at 325 for about 45-50 minutes.

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To finish off the vasilopita, write out the new year (2011) with almonds and sprinkle the bread with powdered sugar.

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At midnight, cut pie-shaped slices out of your vasilopita and designate each slice to a member of the family (starting with the eldest). After you’ve run our of family members, you can assign slices to the house, your career, distant family, etc… until you’ve sliced the entire loaf. Whichever slice ends up with the quarter has good luck and prosperity for the entire year.

Happy New Year everyone! Whether I win the coin or not, I know that 2011 is going to be a wonderful year for us all.

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Revani

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Today, we’re making Revani, which is a simple syrup infused cake and unbelievably simple to make. Let’s get started.
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We need:
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup corn oil
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
1 cup cream of wheat
1/4 cup orange juice
3 teaspoons baking powder
zest of 1 lemon
dash of cinnamon
(for the simple syrup)
1.5 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/4 chunk of lemon
First, separate your eggs.
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(Notice that Parker is mixing his own batch of “cookies”. My mom and I just kept throwing random stuff in there to keep him occupied. We almost died when he tasted it and said, “Mmmmm”!)
Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form and set aside.
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Now, beat your egg yolks with the sugar and slowly add in your other ingredients (wet ingredients first- oil, milk, OJ- and then the flour, baking soda and cream of wheat and dash of cinnamon).
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The final step is gently folding the egg whites in by hand. (I don’t have a picture of this because my mother works crazy fast and keeps forgetting that I’m trying to take pictures of it.)
Once everything is mixed together, pour the batter into a greased 9″ by 13″ pan and bake for 35 minutes in a 350 degree oven. It will be a beautiful dark gold when it’s done.
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Before we make the syrup, we want the cake to cool completely so let it cool for about 30 minutes before you start making the syrup.
To make the syrup, add the sugar water and lemon into a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
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Adjust the temperature so that it maintains a soft rolling boil for about 10 minutes. It will thicken to the consistency of corn syrup.
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Let it cool for about 5 minutes and then drizzle the warm syrup over the cool cake. Now this is the hard part – cover the cake with foil, put it aside and forget about it until the next day. It’s tormenting, I know, but trust me on this. Once the syrup is absorbed by the spongy cake, it becomes absolutely divine.
Fast forward to the next day. You now have my permission to cut into this beauty.
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Simple, sweet, moist, delicious. I hope you enjoy!
**This recipe was first posted in December, 2009.

Melomakarona

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Melomakarona are a delicious little spice cookie that’s dipped in a honey infused simple syrup and topped with chopped walnuts. Like the other recipes I’m posting this week, these are traditionally only made at Christmas. Greeks are quite particular about reserving certain dishes for specific events, which is sometimes quite unfortunate because I’m in love with a sweet dish that’s only made for funerals and memorials and my mother refuses to teach me how to make it when our family gets together during the holidays. Even though she has a Ph.D., the superstitions of her homeland are still alive and well.
Alright, let’s make these little guys. Our ingredients are:
1 cup oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cognac o brandy
1/4 cup orange juice
3.5 cups flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of cloves
Syrup:
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons honey
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts for garnishing
Using a mixer, mix together the oil and sugar. Add in the cognac and the orange juice. In a separate measuring cup, mix together the baking soda,powder, cinnamon and cloves and add it to the mix. Now, slowly add in additional cups of flour until you can roll the dough into a seamless ball (without it cracking). I usually stop using the mixer at this point and start mixing by hand so that I can make sure to get the consistency right. This is the consistency and shape that we’ll be making.
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Truly, you can mold them into whatever shape you’d like, just make sure that they’re all the same size. Of course, this is the traditional shape of the cookies in Greece and, you guessed it, the only shape that we make them here. Once they’re all shaped, lightly score the tops with the flat top of a fork, which both slightly flattens them and makes criss-cross marks across the surface.
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Bake the cookies at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Just like yesterday’s recipe, we’re going to allow the cookies to cool completely before proceeding.
Once they’re cool, let’s put the simple syrup together. In a sauce pan, add in the sugar, water and honey and allow the mixture to softly boil for 10 minutes.
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Turn the heat off of the syrup. Using tongs, we’re going to drop in 5 cookies at a time, allow them to soak in they syrup for about 30 seconds, and then put them back on the cookie sheet.
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After they’ve all been dipped, sprinkle the tops with the chopped walnuts. Using a ladle, spoon the remaining syrup on top of the cookies.
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Like the other cookies, these are meant to get better as time passes so while you’re definitely free to pop a couple into your mouth immediately, they’ll be phenomenal the following day.
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If you’re serving these to others or taking them with you, put each cookie in a muffin liner and put a piece of wax paper in between each layer.
**This recipe was first posted in December, 2009.

Galaktoboureko

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While Baklava is certainly the most famous of Greek desserts, it isn’t necessarily the most beloved in Greece. A lot of my family prefer Galaktoboureko and with good reason. It is a creamy custard filling between butter sheets of flaky phyllo dough that is then doused in a simple syrup. Seriously, what’s not to love?
While it may appear that there are a lot of steps in this recipe, please do not be intimidated by it. It comes together pretty easily and once you’ve done it the first time, it will take you half the time to do it on your second attempt. This dessert will make you look like a culinary pro and it is generally once of the first to go on Greek dessert tables. Did I mention that it’s freaking fantastic? Okay, let’s go for it. I generally have all of my ingredients pre-measured and ready to go before I turn on a single burner. It makes for a smoother process. Here’s what you need:
For Custard:
3 cups milk
3/4 cup Cream of Wheat
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 Tbs. vanilla extract
1 Tbs. butter
To Assemble:
1 package of phyllo (2 packages are in the box)
2 stick melted butter
For Simple Syrup:
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 lemon (kept in a single piece)
1 Tbs. honey
The first thing that I do is to get the simple syrup going. Just add the sugar and water into a saucepan and bring it to a high simmer.
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Add in the chunk of lemon and simmer for 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. After 15 minutes, take it off the heat and stir in the honey until it dissolves.
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Set it aside and allow the syrup to cool.
Next we’re going to make the custard. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar until combined, set aside.
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In a large pan, heat the milk until it just starts to boil.
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Add in the cream of wheat and whisk it together until it’s incorporated. Reduce the heat to medium low.
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Using a spoon or a ladle, add a small amount of the milk mixture to your bowl of egg yolks and whisk vigorously to combine.
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After about 30 seconds, add in a little bit more of the milk mixture. What we’re doing here is tempering the eggs and bringing them up to temperature so that they don’t scramble when you add them to the pan. Keep adding milk to the eggs until you’ve added a cup or so and then add the entire contents of the bowl to the pan, whisking as you go.
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Once it has all come together and thickened, add the vanilla and butter.
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Now we’re ready to assemble the dessert! Butter the bottom and sides of an 8×8 or a 9×9 inch pan. Then, take your entire stack of phyllo dough and cut it in half. With the first half of the dough, put a piece of phyllo into the pan and then brush the phyllo generously with butter (using your fingers to keep the phyllo still).
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Brush each piece of phyllo with butter until you’ve added the entire 1/2 stack to the pan. Then, spoon all of the custard into the pan.
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Finally, start adding the second stack of phyllo piece by piece and brushing each piece with butter until you’ve used up all of the butter.
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Using a sharp knife, score the too half of the phyllo in whatever size squares you’d like (this will make cutting it easier after it’s baked).
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Bake the galaktoboureko in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until the phyllo is a nice golden brown. Once it’s done baking, allow it to cool to room temperature and, using your sharp knife, cut the pastry all the way to the bottom.
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Finally, spoon the syrup over the top (making sure to get around all of the edges and in all of the cracks). Pop it in the fridge for an hour or so to allow for the syrup to be absorbed and to allow the custard to set.
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Then, prepare to have the doors of heavenly Greek desserts opened wide for you because if you’ve made this, you’re officially a Greek cook.

Greek Pastry Week! First Up: Baklava

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I realized a couple of weeks ago that in the 3 years that I’ve been writing this little blog, I had yet to post the recipe and step-by-step instructions for Baklava. I apologize profusely for this oversight and am (finally) ready to remedy that oversight. Since most folks are still in holiday mode this week, I’ve decided to post a different Greek pastry every day.
Baklava, like Spanakopita, is incredibly easy to make. What prevents most people from giving it a go is that you have to work with phyllo, which has a reputation for being difficult to work with. It isn’t, you just need to practice with it and follow some basic rules.
1. Make sure that it is completely thawed. The day before you want to cook with your phyllo, put it in the fridge. Take it out of the fridge about 20 minutes before you’re ready to start baking/cooking.
2. Work quickly. Phyllo dries out if it’s sitting too long, so it’s best to have all of your other ingredients ready to go and you’re ready to start assembling your creation before you take the phyllo out of the package.
3. Move slowly. Phyllo is very delicate, so you need to move kind of slowly once you’re separating the pieces from one another. If it rips, no biggie at all. Just lay it down like you would have otherwise and proceed accordingly. Since it’s flaky by nature, no one will see your goofs.
That’s it! If you follow those 3 simple rules, working with phyllo is a sinch. Okay, now Baklava actually have very few ingredients.
For The Filling:
1/2 lb. chopped nuts (we always use walnuts)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (my grandmother’s secret ingredient)
For the Simple Syrup:
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
lemon wedge
1 Tbs. honey
To Assemble:
1 package of phyllo (2 packages come in a box)
1 stick butter melted
First, get your simple syrup going by adding the sugar, water and lemon wedge in a medium size saucepan.
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Bring it up to a full simmer and stirring occasionally, cook for 15 minutes or so. Take it off of the heat and stir in your honey until it’s dissolved.
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Set aside and allow it to cool completely.
Next, mix together your nuts, spices and breadcrumbs in a bowl.
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We’re going to be dousing the finished Baklava in simple syrup and the breadcrumbs help absorb the syrup and give your dessert more body.
Now let’s assemble it! Cut your stack of phyllo in half. Butter an 8×8 or a 9×9 pan and add one piece of phyllo. Once it’s in the pan, brush on butter generously and add another sheet of phyllo. Repeat this process until you’ve used roughly 1/3 of the phyllo.
Next, add 1/2 of your walnut mixture evenly to the top of the buttered phyllo.
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Once you’ve done that, begin the process of brushing butter on each sheet of phyllo until you’ve used another third of the stack.
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Spread on the last of the walnut mixture and layer the last 1/3 of the phyllo (brushing each sheet with butter). Using a very sharp knife, go ahead and score the top layers of phyllo in whatever shape you’d like to serve the Baklava. We usually do diamonds or triangles.
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**Alternately, you can fold your Baklava into triangles like we do with the Spanakopita. This would probably be the easier (but less traditional) way to go. It’s definitely what I’m going to do next time.
Bake your masterpiece for 40-5o minutes in a 350 degree oven. You want the top of the phyllo to be a nice golden brown.
Once you take the Baklava out of the oven, allow it to cool for 10 minutes and then using the sharp knife again, cut all the way through the Baklava following the score marks that you previously made.
Finally, pour the cool simple syrup over the hot Baklava, making sure to also get it around all of the edges and in all of the cracks.
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Let it to sit for an hour or so to allow the syrup to be absorbed and serve it in muffin tins. And that, folks, is how you make Baklava.
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(This particular batch of Baklava is thinner than usual since I used a large pan, but since it was only for our own consumption, I wasn’t as worried about aesthetics.)
Please, go forth and give this a go as soon as you can. You’ll be impressed at how easily it comes together and finally, you’ll no longer have to wait for the Greek Festival to come around in order to get your fix.

Our White Christmas

Well, it’s certainly been a memorable holiday weekend with the first White Christmas this area has seen in about 20 years. I must admit, we would have been thrilled about the current snowfall if we hadn’t just been snowed in for 5 days less than 2 weeks ago. Regardless, we’re glad that Parker got to experience a White Christmas of his very own. Here’s what was going on outside yesterday:
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And this is what was going on inside after the snowman making fun and snowball fights:
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I’m pretty sure that Parker had a fantastic and memorable day. Thankfully, we have enough toys and books to keep up occupied for the next handful of days as we wait for the sun to come out to thaw our igloo of a house.

Breakfast Casserole: A Christmas Morning Tradition

Since the first year that my husband and I spent as a married couple, I have been making this breakfast casserole on Christmas morning. I recall my mom spending hours in the kitchen on Christmas morning and I vowed to find an easier way to make a memorable meal without missing all of the excitement in the living room. This is a one dish casserole that takes about 40 minutes to bake and it is exceedingly delicious.

Here’s what you need:
1 package of sausage, cooked and crumbled
1 chopped green onion
2 cups shredded cheese (we use cheddar)
6 eggs, beaten
1 cup water
1 packet country gravy mix
1 package hashbrowns
First, put the sausage and onion in the bottom of your casserole dish. Next, spread the cheese over the top. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, water and country gravy mix and pour the combined mixture over the cheese. Finally, add the hashbrowns on top.
Generally, I brown the sausage on Christmas Eve so that the entire recipe comes together in minutes. Bake this hearty casserole at 325 degrees for 40 minutes, which is usually about how long it takes to open presents and clean up the wrapping paper that is strewn all over the floor.
I suppose I could make this at other times of the year, but there’s something special about a recipe that the Irishman is awaiting as eagerly as Parker awaits Santa’s visit.
Merry Christmas and Happy Eatings!
PS – I’ll add a picture tomorrow when it’s actually made.