My Greek family didn’t really celebrate Christmas. If it was our turn to spend the holidays with them, my grandparents would let us get on with our English Christmas stuff around them, but it was New Year’s Day – Saint Basil’s Day – that they were waiting for. The Catholic Church split from the Orthodox Church in 1054, a disaster known as the Great Schism which sentenced the Byzantine Empire to a slow death. Every year we would cross this vast cultural divide which, in our case, existed as a hairline crack along the M4 motorway somewhere between Bristol and Ealing. Saint Nicholas on one side, Saint Basil on the other. What it meant to us children was more presents and the chance to stay up incredibly late on New Year’s Eve. We would drive in my uncle’s tiny Morris 1100 across London to the Greek Cathedral on Moscow Road in Bayswater and I would find myself jammed into a pew, surrounded by older Greek ladies in fur coats. I would stroke the furs – no-one seemed to mind – and listen to the chanting, which I didn’t understand. The touch of fur, the smells of mothballs and heavy French perfume from the coats, frankincense and myrrh from the priest’s censer, candlelight winking off gilding and cut glass… It was strange and magical. Then we would stuff ourselves back into the less than magical Morris and head back to Ealing, where a meal would be waiting for us, long past midnight. My grandmother would have been cooking all day: stuffed cabbage leaves, baked lamb, and the essential dish: vasilopita. Saint Basil’s pie.
My grandmother’s vasilopita was essentially a rice pudding heavy with cinnamon, baked inside a filo shell. A silver sixpence would be hidden inside, just like in a Christmas pudding. It would be cut with great ceremony while my mother and her brothers sang the New Year carol, Agios Vasilis Erhetai. By that time, my sister and I would be ready to pass out with tiredness.
Looking back over forty years, I can see that there were other schisms at work. Our family version of the carol has a different tune and many different words to the usual one. And the vasilopita eaten in most Greek households is a sort of sweet bread. Our versions must be particular to where my grandparents came from: the lake town of Kastoria and the long-extinct Greek communities of Bitola. There’s a sense that it’s all long-lost, that perhaps my mother is the only one in the world who remembers any of this. She’s passed it on to my sister and me, but so far from the source, what we’re dealing with are essentially Chinese whispers dredged in nostalgia for things, places and people long gone.
Last year I decided – as you do – that I wanted a Kazan vasilopita instead of a birthday cake. Handily, my wonderful wife is a professional cook, and I shall let her complete the story:
A few years ago, Philip asked me to make this for his birthday, instead of the usual layer cake. I asked my mother-in-law for the recipe, and she said she didn’t have one written down, but she was sure I could find a version somewhere. I searched the internet and came up with…nothing! It seems this dish is very particular to the Kazan family, so I had to quiz Philip and his mum about what, exactly, was in it. And if my memory is correct, this is the version I more or less came up with.
1.5 cups pudding rice
3 cups milk
1/3 cup white sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
5 or so scrapes of fresh nutmeg
1 pack phyllo pastry
150g melted butter
Mix the rice, milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, not boiling, until the rice is al dente.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together and add a bit of the rice mixture to temper the eggs. When the eggs have come up to a warm temperature, add to the pot of rice, stirring all the while so the eggs mix in thoroughly and don’t curdle. Remove from heat and stir in the nutmeg and cinnamon. Taste and adjust flavours if necessary. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 170C.
Brush an ovenproof dish with butter, and then lay one sheet of phyllo in the dish (don’t worry if the edges overhang). Brush the phyllo with butter, and set another sheet on top, at a slight angle if necessary to get even coverage of the pastry. Brush with butter, and continue layering the phyllo until you have about 6 -8 layers, depending on the overlap of layers.
Tip the rice mixture into the dish, and then add another layer of phyllo, again building up the layers so that you get complete coverage. Brush the top layer with butter, then trim all the edges around the dish with a sharp knife or pair of scissors. (If you would like a more lively and interesting appearance for the finished dish, the final two layers of phyllo can be brushed with butter before you put them on and then crinkled on top of the dish if you like – this will look fantastic when cooked and will result in some lovely golden brown variations in the pastry.)
Cook in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the top is a beautiful golden brown. Let cool slightly before cutting. If desired, you can also dust the top with icing sugar before serving.