New Year’s Dishes Conjure Prosperity From Humble Ingredients

  • Vasilopita, a Greek dessert cake to celebrate the new year. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Hoppin' John, (or black-eyed peas) a Southern dish to celebrate the new year. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The first time my parents left my brother and me alone overnight, it was New Year’s Eve. Being the wild-eyed, raucous partiers that we were, we celebrated our freedom by watching one of those countdown shows on television, popping a batch of popcorn and drinking Dr Pepper.

And thus was a tradition born. For the next several years, we observed New Year’s Eve, separately or together, with popcorn and Dr Pepper.

The point is that New Year’s Eve traditions are easy to make. But around the world, they seem to share a couple of themes.

Many cultures look to New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day as a time to hope for prosperity. That is why many cultures celebrate with a pot of beans or lentils, which, because there are so many of them in a serving, represent abundance.

Other cultures focus on the end-of-year, beginning-of-year theme of continuity, by specifically serving foods that are round.

And some cultures combine these two ideas by placing a prize — often a coin — inside a round cake or bread. Whoever gets the piece with the prize or coin is said to be assured of wealth and good luck in the coming year.

That’s the case with the Greek tradition of serving Vasilopita.

Vasilopita is named for St. Basil, whose feast day is Jan. 1 for the Eastern church and Jan. 2 for the Western. Practically every family in Greece has its own recipe for Vasilopita, but the one I baked from Food from Many Greek Kitchens is truly stunning.

This elegant cake is dense and not too sweet. It is flavored with the zest of orange and lemons, scented with vanilla and brandy and graced with a hint of almonds. It can also be beautiful; it is traditionally decorated with sliced almonds in a pretty pattern or with powdered sugar sifted over a doily.

I chose to decorate mine in another traditional method for the New Year, cutting out the numbers of the year 2018 to use as a stencil, with powdered sugar flurried over the cake. When I removed the numbers, their crisp image was clear in the sugar, reminding all of the reason for the celebration.

For my next New Year’s inspiration, I looked to the American South, where I can attest that Hoppin’ John is indeed a staple of the holiday. Hoppin’ John is nothing less than black-eyed peas cooked with a ham hock, and yet it is also, somehow, so much more.

Perhaps it is the fact that this simple dish of ham-and-beans is made with 16 ingredients, proof of the extra care that is taken for the New Year’s celebrations. Even so, it is just beans cooked with ham and mirepoix (onion, carrot and celery), spiced with a hot pepper and flavored with a bay leaf and thyme, served on basmati rice.

Typically, Hoppin’ John is served on plain white rice, but the recipe I used gets great mileage out of the basmati substitution. Even better is this brilliant idea: It uses the flavored water that the beans were cooked in to also cook the rice. These simple tricks elevate an everyday dish to a comforting treat worthy of the new year.


Makes 12 servings

1 coin, such as a quarter

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 heaping tablespoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

14 tablespoons (1¾ sticks) butter, room temperature

1½ cups granulated sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon grated orange zest (1 large orange)

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (2 lemons)

¼ cup brandy

¾ cup milk

cup blanched almonds, finely chopped

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 11¾-inch springform cake pan. Thoroughly wash the coin with soap and water until it is impeccably clean. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a bowl.

Whip the butter and sugar together with handheld beaters in a large bowl until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each one. Beat in the vanilla and the orange and lemon zests. In turn, fold in one-third of the dry ingredients, the brandy, another third of the dry ingredients, the milk and the remaining dry ingredients. Fold in the almonds. Scrape into the springform pan. Drop in the coin, trying to keep it upright, not flat.

Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire cake rack to cool completely.

Put a doily on top of the cake and dust with powdered sugar before removing it to reveal a lacy pattern. You can also cut a stencil of the numbers of the new year and dust that.

Per serving: 402 calories; 18 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 99 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 52 g carbohydrate; 27 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 168 mg sodium; 115 mg calcium

Recipe from Food from Many Greek Kitchens, by Tessa Kiros

Hoppin’ John

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight or boiled 2 minutes and kept in the hot water for 1 hour

7 cups water

1 medium onion, cut into quarters

1 carrot, peeled and cut into quarters

1 celery rib, cut into quarters

1 smoked ham hock or ¼ pound slab bacon

1 dried hot chili

1 bay leaf

1 thyme sprig

Large pinch of kosher salt

2 cups basmati rice

3 scallions, chopped

2 tomatoes, halved, seeded and chopped

Several basil leaves, chopped or torn

Extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup tomato chutney or your favorite hot sauce

Wash and pick over the peas, removing any misshapen ones or pebbles. Place the peas in a large saucepan, add the water and bring to a simmer. Add the onion, carrot, celery, ham hock, chili pepper, bay leaf, thyme sprig and salt, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes.

Drain the peas reserving the broth. Remove bay leaf, onion, carrot, thyme, pepper and celery. Remove meat from ham hock and chop into bite-sized pieces. Return peas and chopped meat to the pan, along with a little broth to keep them moist.

Transfer 3½ cups of the reserved broth to a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the rice and cook until it is fluffy and tender and has absorbed almost all of the liquid, 16 to 18 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the rice continue to steam, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes while you reheat the peas. Add the remaining broth to the peas and reheat gently. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Transfer the rice to a serving bowl and spoon the warm peas and broth on top. Scatter the chopped scallions, tomatoes and basil over the peas. Drizzle everything with a little extra virgin olive oil and finish with a large dollop of the chutney.

Per serving (based on 6): 342 calories; 10 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 13 g protein; 49 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 541 mg sodium; 43 mg calcium

Adapted from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, by Frank Stitt.