While it might not be obvious to anyone else, the chipped molar on the left side of my jaw will always remind me of a particularly painful New Year’s day over three decades ago. It involved a giant slice of cake and an unforgiving silver coin.
For you see, my late Anglo-Indian grandmother had an interesting New Year’s baking tradition, that, in hindsight, was a potentially dangerous and problematic one. She said she picked this one up from her British mother. One that always started a few Sundays before New Year’s day, that my Nan dubbed ‘Stir Up Sunday’.
It was on this last Sunday before Advent, that she began preparing her New Year cake. She did this by making every member of the family stir the cake mixture, reminding us all to make a wish as we did so. The number of ingredients always precisely 13. Each for Jesus Christ and his dozen disciples. These would get stirred from East to West, for the route the three Holy Magi took to pay obeisance to the infant Jesus. Nan would then place a well-cleaned coin into the batter. This, she said, was to bring good fortune to the finder at the final cake reveal on New Year’s day. And yes, it was the “good fortune” of finding that silver coin after biting into it that caused me the aforementioned molar chipping.
But over the years, I learnt that just like my grandmother’s coin in a cake tradition, there are several cultures around the world that do the same while baking their iterations of the New Year’s cake. Some even placing figurines of the Baby Jesus in the cake batter for bringing on the same good luck to its finder. Well, hopefully not the same luck as mine all those years ago.
One such example is the Greek vasilopita that is a New Year’s day cake made of a variety of dough, depending on regional and family tradition, including tsoureki. The latter being a sweet festive bread batter made with flour, milk, butter, eggs and sugar and commonly seasoned with orange zest, and mastic resin that is the unique flavouring agent of the Greek isles.
A coin is hidden in the cake batter before baking. Traditionally, on New Year’s Day families cut the vasilopita by making the sign of the cross with a knife to bless the house and bring good luck for the new year. This is usually done at the midnight of New Year’s Eve. A piece of cake is sliced for each member of the family and any visitors present at the time, by order of age from eldest to youngest. It gets its name of ‘Basil pie' or 'Vassilis pie', as in Greece, St. Basil’s day also falls on January 1.
In Mexico the Rosca de Reyes, or Three Kings Cake, is eaten a few days later on January 6; but it is still considered a New Year’s cake. It’s traditionally made to celebrate the Christian feast day of Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, on January 6, when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem to visit the Baby Jesus and present him with gifts.
Basically, it is an ornate sweet bread that’s soft, buttery, and has a hint of orange flavour. It’s often round, oval or wreathe-like in shape and decorated with red and green candied cherries, strips of guava or quince paste, and a sweet streusel-like topping. And it has around one to three tiny figurines of the Baby Jesus baked into it. Thus, allowing for multiple winners.
Similarly, also for Epiphany, the French have the gateau des rois that always has a figurine of the Baby Jesus called a fève baked into it. The pie-like cake is usually filled with frangipane, which is a cream made from sweet almonds, butter, eggs and sugar.
The Scandinavian tradition of a New Year’s cake is best highlighted by one such confection that is very different from the others featured here. Shared by both, Denmark and Norway, the kransekage, which literally means a wreath cake is as visually appealing as it is scrumptious. Resembling a sort of modernists Christmas tree, it is basically a cake tower composed of many concentric rings of cake layered atop one another. The rings are each topped with marzipan frosting and the tower often has a bottle of wine or Aquavit at its center. And like a Christmas tree, the kransekage is decorated with ornaments, flags of Denmark or Norway and crackers.
Known multifariously as a Scottish bun and black bun cake, the Hogmanay cake—Hogmanay is another name of New Year in Scotland—is a sweet-and-spicy treat. Similar to a traditional Christmas pudding, it’s jazzed up with raisins, almond, cinnamon, citrus peel and candied ginger.
While not a cake per se, doughnuts are a must-have on New Year’s eve in the Netherlands. Called oliebollen, the fried “oil balls”are sold by street carts, oliebollenkraams, on New Year’s Eve and at special celebratory fairs. They are doughnut-like dumplings made by dropping a scoop of dough, containing currants or raisins, into a deep fryer and then dusted with powdered sugar. Dunk them in brandy-laced hot chocolate and it’ll surely be a spirited beginning to a new year.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.