Saint Phanourios (pronounced “fan-OO-ree-os”) is to the Greek Orthodox what Saint Anthony is to the Catholics: the patron saint of lost things. But here’s the twist: this saint has a sweet tooth. Greeks bake, bless, and give away this humble nut-and-spice cake, also called a phanouropita, in return for the saint’s help to find something that’s missing. During my own year-long quest with the phanouropita, a friend’s grandmother showed me how to make the following version of this traditional Greek cake, which she likes to enjoy with morning coffee. Of the many recipes I’ve tried, it’s my favorite, because it’s so forgiving. The batter is easy to make by hand, and it’s all about proportions, which means you can use any reasonable measure (a coffee cup or drinking glass) in place of a standard cup. To my mind, the recipe’s looseness perfectly captures the spirit of Greek home cooking and offsets the formality suggested by Church and Saint. It also adheres to the traditional nine ingredients. (If you cheat just a little and count the cinnamon and cloves together as spices.) One unbreakable rule: Before you begin, take a moment to think of something you’d like Saint Phanourios to help you find—keep this in mind as you make the cake.–Allison Parker
LC Date with a Saint Note
If you’d like some divine company in the kitchen, print this image of the icon of Saint Phanourios and keep it within sight as you make the cake. Be warned, though—this alone won’t bring you what you seek. Sincerity is everything when conversing with a saint.
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) degrees. Oil the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan (or a Bundt or loaf pan of equal volume). Dust the pan with flour, tap out any excess, and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, orange juice, brandy, and sugar until thoroughly combined. Mix in the chopped walnuts.
Sift together into a medium bowl the 4 cups of flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and cloves. In small batches, add the flour mixture to the brandy mixture, whisking vigorously as you go. Continue whisking until completely combined. The batter will be very thick and slightly gummy—not to worry. (If it seems impossibly thick, you can always do what I do and splash in another tablespoon of brandy.) Tradition dictates that you’re supposed to whisk for 9 minutes by hand. Good luck.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Before putting the cake into the oven, pause to say whatever kind of prayer you feel comfortable with as you focus on the thing you hope to find. (Greek Orthodox women make the sign of the cross, but the cake will not suffer if you skip this step.)
Bake the cake until the top looks hard and golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely on a wire rack.
Traditionally, the cake is now given away whole or cut into nine pieces and shared with others. If you’re serving the cake at home, you may want to sift a little powdered sugar over the top of the cake before slicing. The cake dries out easily, so if you do cut into it, make sure to wrap any leftovers well in plastic and foil, or store in an airtight container.