History of Greek Food


Throughout Greece, breads and pies with a coin inside, have been established as a custom on the first day of the year, in the memory of the following event: In the 4th century,  Cappadokia,  a Byzantine province in Minor Asia, suffered from famine. Despite the terrible situation the eparch of the province*, demanded to get the taxes, threatening the people with the sack of the area. St. Vasilios (St. Basil), Bishop in Kaisareia of Cappadokia, appealed to each one of the citizens to offer every valuable (rings, bracelets etc) they had to save themselves. Then he intervened, smoothed the anger of the eparch and managed to change his mind. The treasure was given back to the saint, who made a pie for each family, in which a jewel was hidden.

Since 9th century, the vasilopita has been established as a custom in Orhodox tradition. Though the reason for making vasilopita is commonly said to be the commemoration of St. Vasilios, the custom has a complicated history. Vasilopita is also connected to the ancient Greek breads and cakes which were exclusively destined as religious offerings to the gods and the spirits of nature and the Roman cakes which were offered to the double- faced Ianus, the god after whom Ianouarios/ January is named. The custom of hidden coin is connected to the Roman Saturnalia, the festival in honor of Saturnus, god of seed and sowing. Saturnalia is thought of as the Greek equivalent of the Greek Cronia, a festival that was held in honor of Cronos, god of agriculture, harvest, fertility and father of Zeus. During Saturnalia a ‘king’ was selected by lot.

Hence vasilopita has ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine background.

It is generally made in a round shape and can be a common bread, leavened or unleavened or a sweet bread; a sweet or savory pie (pumpkin pie, milk pie, cheese pie, bulgur pie, rice pie, meat pie, fish pie etc.) or something totally different. In Arcadia (Peloponnesos), up until 19th century, the coin was put into a stuffed hen, the vasilokota (kota = hen). While not technically bread or pie, mention should be made of New Year loukoumades (Aegean islands) and halva (regions of Asian Minor) which also contained a coin. In nowadays the sweet pie, which once was mainly made in urban areas, predominates transformed into a big luxurious cake.

From first to last, vasilopita is treated very seriously. In some places the pita is still made by the house mistress, who wears her best clothes and jewelry for the occasion. Having a deep religious and agricultural significance, it is regarded as the bread or pie of fertility and good luck and is accompanied by actions of magic. Until recently Greek peasants made the sign of the cross before baking it. Keys, needles etc. were used for making strange shapes on sweet vasilopites and breads, intending to lock the gossips or to prevent the evil eye from entering houses. The farmers’ wives made trees and animals of dough, the shepherds’ wives made sheeps, dogs and pots of milk, the kinds St. Vasilios should bless. In the savory vasilopita that was made with many phyllo sheets  symbols and signs, aside from the coin, were hidden in the stuffing: a small stick for the shepherd, a straw or a grain of wheat for the farmer, a bean or a nut for the fertility of fields and family. When the pie was cut whoever found the straw or the stick in his piece had good luck for his harvest or his animals and whoever found the coin had good luck for himself.

Traditionally, on the coming of the New Year the father of the family rotates the pie three times in the name of Holy Trinity. Afterwards he makes the shape of cross above the pita with a knife and cuts the pie into pieces naming each of them in an established turn. The first piece is devoted to  Jesus, the second to Virgin Mary, the third to St. Vasilios, the fourth to the house, the fifth to the poor and needy stranger who might knock on the door, and the rest to the members of the family in order of age.

The piece for the poor and the stranger is of special interest because symbolizes our duty to the unfortunates of the world. Since the care for the poor and needy is not only the basis of philoxenia and philanthropy, fundamental values in Greek social ethics, but also a principle of Christianity, the New Year pie is magic both for the unfortunates and for those who offer shelter to them. The Homeric advice ‘The stranger and suppliant are like your brother. And stranger you are welcome. Our house is yours.” (Homer. Odysseus. IX, 546-547) and the Christian ‘I give hospitality to the stranger so that God not become a stranger to me’ have found their echo in a piece of pie.

Vasilopita from Constantinople


480 gr fresh milk

4 eggs + 1

480 gr milk-butter, melted

480 gr sugar

mahlab, crushed

23 gr. vanilla powder

25 gr salt

1282 gr. flour

650 sourdough starter

sesame seeds

Place starter in a large bowl, cover loosely and let stand in a warm place for about 4 hours.

Beat the butter with sugar, add the eggs one by one, milk, vanilla, salt, mahlab and continue beating. In a large bowl shift flour and make a well in the centre. Pour in the starter and the butter mixture and mix well. Knead well, adding flour if it is sticky or warm milk if it is too hard. Cover dough and let it rise for 2 hours. Knead again and place the dough on one or two buttered baking dishes. Cover and let rise for 2 hours. Preheat oven to 180ºC. Beat the egg and glaze the pie. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden brown. Remove from oven, and insert into the cake a well-washed coin, wrapped in aluminum foil.**


Vasilopita with yogurt

½ glass extra virgin olive oil

½ glass milk butter, melted

5 eggs

1 glass sugar (or less, if you like)

zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange

juice of 2 oranges

3 tbs brandy

1 tsp vanilla extract

220 gr drained yogurt

½ k. self -rising flour

Mix sugar with olive oil and butter and beat them until the mixture is creamy and fluffy. Add yogurt and beat again. Beat the eggs. Pour the eggs, orange juice, brandy, zest and vanilla into the mixture of yogurt. Add the flour little by little and mix well. Bake at 200ºC (preheated oven).  After 50-60 minutes  remove from oven, and insert into the cake a well-washed coin, wrapped in aluminum foil.**

Pumpkin pie (Thrace)
1 k. fresh pumpkin, grated coarsely
1 glass of almonds, crushed
½ glass of rusk, crushed
1/3 glass of sesame seeds, browned and crushed

½ glass of raisins

1/4 glass of honey

zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon

1 tsp of ground cinnamon and cloves (or more, if you like)

7 sheets of commercial phyllo dough

olive oil for brushing


½ glass of sugar

½ glass of honey

1 glass of water

1 tbs lemon juice

peel of ½ lemon

Boil the pumpkin in its liquid for 10 minutes.

Let drain for 2-3 hours and press to remove excess liquid before using.

Brush a baking dish with olive oil.

In a bowl mix the almonds, raisins, sesame seeds, rusk, honey, cinnamon, cloves, zest. Add the pumpkin and knead with your fingers to mix well.

Brush 3 sheets with olive oil and put them one on the top of the other. Spring half of filling on phyllo and spread evenly. Lay one olive – oiled phyllo sheet on the top and spread the rest of filling. Brush with olive oil the phyllo that extends out of the sides and turn it over the mixture.

Lay the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing each with olive oil. Trim off the edges that extend out of the pan. Score the top layers with a sharp knife into triangles or squares. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven, set the baking dish on a rack and let it cool completely.

Boil the sugar, honey, water, lemon juice and lemon peel for 5-6 minutes. Discard the lemon peel and and pour the hot syrup over the pie. Insert into it a well-washed small coin, wrapped in aluminum foil.** Cover pie with a towel and let it cool.

Vasilopita with phyllo ( Constantinople)

For the pie:
40 phyllo pastry sheets

For the filling:
100gr. of toasted sesame seeds
1 kgr pounded walnuts
2-3 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
2 ½ tea-cups of sugar

extra sesame seeds to sprinkle (un-toasted) and 3 walnuts cut in half
1 egg
extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180°C and brush well with olive oil the bottom and the sides of an oven pan.

Lay 3 phyllo sheets at the bottom of the pan (brushed with olive oil) allowing some of the edges to hang over the rim. Sprinkle on top with some of the mixture. Lay another sheet and brush it with olive oil, lay another one and brush again, then sprinkle with some of the mixture.
Continue in the same way until the phyllo sheets and the filling are used up. Finish the pie laying on top 3 sheets, without any mixture in between. Don’t forget to brush them with oil. Bring the edges of the pastry inwards twisting all around so to form a border.
Brush the last sheet with beaten egg and decorate with walnuts and sesame seeds.
Put in the oven (180C) and initially bake for 15 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 150°C and continue cooking for another 30-35 minutes or until the pie is nicely golden and the phyllo crunchy.

While the pie is hot cover with a kitchen towel and leave it to rest for a few hours before you serve.**

* Governor of a province of Roman and Byzantine Greece.
**You can also place the coin somewhere in the cake before you bake it.

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  1. Dore (Kalos) danner

    Mariana, I was so excited to see these posts. My grandmother was from Lesvos. The recipe for her layered vasilopita died with her.I have been trying to remember the recipe and would like to make this once again. Would you please let me know where I might find the recipe. I would be so grateful.

  2. Sandra

    Hello! I am looking for a recipe for the version of vasilopita my dad used to make. His one was almost like shortbread, less like a cake/bread. I remember watching him knead the dough (it involved huge amounts of butter!) press it into a tart-dish, and with the back end of a spoon, make a pattern of olive branches around the edges and inscribe St Basil with the New year in the centre. I have searched the internet but can find only recipes for the cake versions. He never wrote the recipe down…can you help? His family came from Salonika – not sure if that could help…Thank you!

  3. Daisy Fernando

    Thank you for the recipe; I am pretty sure my mother used butter instead of olive oil & no nuts except on top for year; I appreciate your reply.

  4. Daisy Fernando

    Looking for the recipe of the Phyllio vasilopita ; my father was from the Island of Marmara & we had this pita each New Year;would love to get a response

  5. Iris Staub

    My parents were from Ayassos, just finishing our 28+ layer vasilopeta. My children in Houston, Atlanta,Cape Cod make it also. Lots of work but the tradition is alive.

  6. admin Post author

    You are so right! Agiasos’ vasilopita is an unusually deep flavoured phyllo new year pie.


    The most tasty vasiklopita I have ever tasted is the one made with lots of layers of hand made doughy phylo, in Agiasos ,on the island of Lesvos.

  8. admin Post author

    Hi Michelle,
    Was your grandfather from Asia Minor or N.Greece? Did his vasilopita remind you of baklavas?

  9. Michelle

    Hi my grandfather used to make vasilopita with several “doughy” layers with sugar, cinnomon and nuts in between each. It was a very defense, heavy cake and not too sweet. I am having trouble finding a recipe that uses lots of layers. Have you heard of any? Thank you.

  10. Karen

    Wow! What a story, Mariana. And some wonderful recipes too. Thank you for all this . . . it is interesting to learn of it! 🙂

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