Μy hairdresser, Vagia, asked me last year if had a good recipe for fanouropita. I had known about St. Fanourios since childhood and his feast day, August 27, the day specially baked cakes were brought to the church. I thought the tradition was long forgotten.
"Oh. You cannot believe how many cakes are brought to the church each year." Vagia said, filled with pride for her own special fanouropita. She then leaned over and whispered that she did cheat slightly by using real butter instead of olive oil which the tradition called for. The tradition also mandated that the fenouropita be made with either seven or nine ingredients.
Intrigued by her enthusiasm, I decided to bake my own cake and join the other Keans for the evening Mass.
Fanourios was a later Greek Orthodox saint. His name comes from the verb fanerono which means ‘to reveal’. Anthropologists link the cake blessing to ancient rituals and offerings to the dead. In the Orthodox tradition the celebration of the day is thought to bring good health or help people find lost objects. It is also thought to reveal to unmarried women their future husbands (!) This is one of many picturesque pagan rituals incorporated into our official church traditions.
When I arrived at the church for the celebration I was surprised at the number of cakes laid out on the tables and floor at the front of the sanctuary. Most were covered with cling film or aluminum foil, protection from the tall thin candles burning in each of them.
At seven the bells rang, summoning the worshippers. The service lasted over an hour during which Keans continued to bring their cakes. First the priests blessed the prosfora, special breads flavored with aniseeds and sugar, baked by the local bakery. Father Dionysios read the names of the attendees as well as those lost family members and friends, exactly like in the memorial services. During this reading the prosfora were sliced and offered to the worshippers. Throughout the atmosphere was festive, more like a social gathering than an austere religious ceremony.
I was walking back and forth taking pictures and was concerned that maybe the old lady with the black scarf who was sitting in the front murmuring the words of all the psalms would be annoyed. But at the end, as we were cutting and tasting each other’s cakes, she said to me: "Bravo, bravo! How good of you to take pictures…"
FANOUROPITA –Spicy Olive Oil Cake
My version of the traditional cake based on a recipe from the island of Skopelos.
For a 9-inch square cake
Beat together the olive oil and sugar with a hand-held mixer.
In a large bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, spices, raisins and nuts. Add the oil mixture, the liqueur and orange juice and mix with a spatula.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Line a 9 inch square or equivalent round pan with parchment paper, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sesame seeds and pour in the batter and sprinkle the top with one more tablespoon sesame seeds.
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cool on a rack and unmold.
Aglaia Kremezi is a journalist, food historian, and author whose books include The Foods of the Greek Islands: Cooking and Culture at the Crossroads of the Mediterranean; The Foods of Greece (which won a Julia Child award);and Mediterranean Hot and Spicy. With her husband and some friends, she created www.Keartisanal.com, a company that leads small groups on trips of Island Cooking and Culture in Kea. (Kea, Greece).
Her books are also available on the Phantis: Greek Collection online store, through Amazon.com.