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An occasional series on fresh recipes from faraway lands.
Diane Kochilas has written 18 highly regarded cookbooks on Greek cooking, but the first one I've gotten my hands on so far is her brand-new "The Country Cooking of Greece."
It is a spectacular 384-page book, beautifully laid out and illustrated with photographs from Vassilis Stenos -- the kind of cookbook that invites you to spend some time with it even outside the kitchen.
Ms. Kochilas weaves in stories about ingredients, places and people, illuminating subjects from "The Kalamata Olive Harvest" to "Retsina: Greece's Official Traditional Wine."
Languorously leafing through it, I stopped on a recipe for a New Year's Cake, which I thought would be a fun recipe to make to mark the arrival of 2013.
"New Year's in Greece is always celebrated with vassilopita," writes Ms. Kochilas, and most Greek people know about it, but I'd never encountered it. I was edified by Ms. Kochilas' description of it as a "St. Basil's pie," which can vary by region from a bread to a savory meat pie to a cake, with a coin hidden in it to give the recipient of that piece good luck.
Nick Ambeliotis, who owns Mediterra bakeries in Robinson, Cleveland and, now, Phoenix, makes a bread version this time of year that sells for $8, but "no coin unless you call and order by next Wednesday [Dec. 26] and ask" (412-490-9130 and mediterrabakehouse.com).
To get the mastiha or mastic the cake recipe calls for -- described as crystallized tree resin from, and only from, one small island by Ms. Kochila in a chapterette subtitled "Greece's Most Seductive Spice" -- I went to the newly expanded Salonika Imports retail store on Penn Avenue where the Strip District meets Lawrenceville (salonika.net). This delightful store carries, direct from the island of Chios, mastic crystals and extract and just about every other kind of Greek/Mediterranean ingredient a trip with Ms. Kochilas' book might call for.
But not the Greek coin that Salonika's friendly president Chris T. Balouris grew up hoping he'd find in the cake. He says, "I have fond childhood memories of waiting to see who was lucky enough to get the coin and luck for the New Year." His own kids flip his mom's and wife's cakes to see if they can spy the coin, which he advised me should be something small. So I used a Canadian dime.
I drove my still-hot, very fragrant cake to the office this past Friday to photograph and share with the relatively few colleagues who were working that day, and one was happy to strike the coin with my knife instead of his teeth, saying, "I'm a lucky man!"
With any luck, I'll have time to make several more dishes from this great book.
Toula's New Year's Cake (Vassilopita -- Keik)
Diane Kochilas says this traditional cake "always has a coin, and in rural areas sometimes a piece of hay, baked into it for good luck, which is bestowed upon the person who gets the lucky piece. The most common vassilopitas are the ones that resemble a brioche-puffy, egg-and-milk-laden breads flavored with orange or lemon zest and mastiha (mastic) or mahlepi, the aromatic kernel of a type of cherry. It is usually decorated with numbers indicating the new year and the words chronia polla, which literally means 'many years,' or kaly chronia ('happy new year') sculpted in dough, blocked out with blanched almonds, or stenciled with confectioners' sugar. This recipe for a vassilopita cake is from one of the best home bakers I know, Toula Foukou, who lives in Athens but hails from Naxos and carries on the island's traditional, seasonal baking in her apartment in an Athens suburb."
I made my cake in a 10-inch pan, so it turned out about twice as thick as the cake should, but it still was very good.
1/2 teaspoon mastiha (mastic) crystals
2 cups plus a pinch of sugar
5 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon strained fresh lemon juice
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons brandy
Grated zest and strained juice of 1 large orange
1 1/2 cups ground blanched almonds
2 ounces couverture chocolate, finely chopped, or dark chocolate chips
4 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Chocolate sprinkles or slivered almonds for decorating (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut out a round piece of wax paper or parchment paper to line the bottom of a 12-inch round springform or conventional baking pan. Butter the surface of the paper and the walls of the pan. With a pestle, pound the mastic with the pinch sugar in a mortar. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with a whisk, whisk the egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Add 1/2 cup of the sugar and the lemon juice, increase the speed to medium-high, and whisk the whites until they form a stiff meringue. Remove from the mixer bowl and set aside.
Clean the mixer bowl, attach the paddle, and beat together the butter and remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and whisk in the milk, brandy and orange juice. With a wooden spoon stir in the orange zest, almonds, pounded mastic and chocolate.
Sift together the flour and baking powder. Using a rubber spatula, fold the meringue and flour into the liquid mixture, a little at a time, alternating between them and stirring after each addition.
Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan. Wrap a small coin in aluminum foil and drop it into the batter, submerging it slightly with your finger. Bake the cake for 1 hour or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven, cool in the pan for a few minutes and invert onto a wire rack to cool.
Turn the cake right-side up and sift confectioners' sugar over the surface. If desired, write the number of the new year with chocolate sprinkles.
-- "The Country Cooking of Greece" by Diane Kochilas (Chronicle, 2012, $50)
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1930.