MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: Greek New Year's Bread


On New Year’s Day — sometimes at the stroke of midnight — it is a Greek tradition for the presentation of “Vasilopita,” an aromatic and spiced bread containing a hidden coin for good luck.

Jan. 1 is also the day Greeks commemorate St. Basil the Great, a theologian known for his service to the poor and underprivileged.

The name “Vasilopita” literally means “Basil’s pie.”

Appetizing name!

Vasilopita is a dense loaf divided by the number of family members, with extra pieces symbolically set aside for the house, missing or departed family, or the poor.

After carving a cross into the crust, everyone lays claim to their piece, from youngest to eldest (or vice-versa), all hoping that the gold St. Basil coin is inside.

If so, it brings luck to the recipient for the year, and it is to be returned the following New Year’s Day. (That is why we have three coins: one for the current year, one for the following year, and a third in case my sister Fran loses hers over the course of the year.)

My sister Elaine is the designated baker.

She uses our Mom’s recipe, reproduced below, with Elaine’s interpretive notes (and my sarcastic remarks) in parentheses.

Mom’s notes indicate this makes seven loaves. LOL.

Elaine combines it all into one dense, wonderful heap of deliciousness.

We calculated it to be over 15,000 calories, which means you can celebrate the New Year and break your resolutions, all at the same time!

(Mom’s recipe, with editorial notes as indicated!)

11-12 eggs (Elaine - I use 12. Me – how did Mom decide between 11 or 12?)
3 ½ cups sugar (Elaine - I only use 2 3/4 which is sweet enough for us.)
1 lb. butter - let it sit out to soften
½ cup orange juice
2 cups milk – 1 can evaporated, with about ½ cup additional whole milk to make two total cups
½ cup spiced water (see note below)
4 pkgs powdered yeast
(Elaine - 5 lb. bag Robin Hood flour only. Me - Mom apparently forgot to include the flour in her recipe?!)

1 ½ cups water
3 small cinnamon sticks
6-7 cloves
1 small piece of nutmeg

Let it come to a boil, and after about 2 min. shut the fire and let it sit

You will only use a ½ cup for recipe, and the rest you can freeze for future use. (Me - what, you’re going to freeze spiced water for another year or two? Why not just cut the recipe into thirds, or dump what you don’t need down the sink?)


1. Heat your milk and take some to put your yeast in with a TBS of sugar, and let this sit for about 5 min. until it rises to activate your yeast. (Mom - make sure your milk temperature does not exceed 120 degrees for it will kill the yeast. 110 degrees the safest)

2. Beat your butter well, add sugar and eggs, beat and then add milk and juices. (Me – how did we get to “juices” plural? Unless we’re counting spiced water as juice?)

3. Add your yeast mixture and start to add the flour.  It takes about 5 pounds of flour total. (Me – Ah. Mom remembered the flour after all.) Careful not to add too much as not to make the dough too hard. Let rise.

4. After it rises, shape, and don't forget the coin. Let rise again.

5. Put in 350º oven (Elaine — browned it too quickly; 325º) (Me — Mom also neglected to say how long to bake it. Elaine writes “about 45-60 minutes depending on size.” My note: well I guess that provides some guidance. Insert eye-rolling emoji)

6. Use part of can milk diluted with little water brush the top for color. If you desire you can break an egg in the milk to give it more color. (Mom — I never do, some like it) (Elaine — I don’t do either.) (Me — ditto on that last emoji)

7. This recipe yields about 7 loaves. (Me — perhaps for a family of non-Greeks?)

(Mom notes — The same recipe is used for Easter without the coin, and makes great raised koulourakia.) (Me — those are hard braided cookies with sesame seeds, great for dunking in coffee.)

Vasilopita is delicious as is.

Elaine made French toast with it the next day, prompting my niece Alexa to propose she start a Greek French toast food truck business. (Me — you know the Greeks invented French toast. They fried spiced bread at the Parthenon, defending it from the Turks. Give me a food, any food, and I’ll show you its Greek origin.)

Happy New Year to all! Or as my YiaYia used to say in her accent, “Happy Noo Yiz!”
Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.