Saint Phanourios’s Cake

Saint Phanourios’s cake is a humble Greek nut-and-spice treat that is baked to honor the patron saint of lost things. Whip up this tender orange, walnut, and spice-infused cake, and offer a little orthodox prayer for finding lost things.

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. 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.–Allison Parker

Saint Phanourios’s Cake

A partially cut St. Phanourios cake on a wooden slab on a wooden chair.
Saint Phanourios’s cake is a humble Greek nut-and-spice treat that is baked to honor the patron saint of lost things. Whip up this tender orange, walnut, and spice-infused cake, and offer a little orthodox prayer for finding lost things.
Allison Parker

Prep 25 mins
Cook 45 mins
Total 1 hr 10 mins
Dessert
Greek
16 servings
356 kcal
5 / 5 votes
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Ingredients 

  • 1 cup vegetable oil plus more for greasing
  • 1 cup fresh orange juice (from about 3 oranges)
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour plus more for dusting
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • Confectioners sugar for dusting (optional)

Directions
 

  • Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) and adjust an oven rack to the middle position. 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.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the 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. Tradition dictates that you’re supposed to whisk for 9 minutes by hand.
  • 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 always make the sign of the cross, but the cake won’t suffer if you skip this step.)

    TESTER TIP: The batter will be very thick and slightly gummy—not to worry. And if it seems impossibly thick, you can always splash in another tablespoon of brandy.

  • 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 the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then remove the cake and let it cool completely on a wire rack.
  • Traditionally, the cake is given away whole or cut into 9 pieces and shared with others. If you're serving the cake at home, you may want to sift a little confectioners' sugar over the top before slicing. The cake dries out easily, so if you do cut into it, make sure to wrap any leftovers well, first in plastic wrap and then in foil, or store in an airtight container.
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Show Nutrition

Serving: 1sliceCalories: 356kcal (18%)Carbohydrates: 39g (13%)Protein: 4g (8%)Fat: 19g (29%)Saturated Fat: 3g (19%)Polyunsaturated Fat: 11gMonounsaturated Fat: 4gTrans Fat: 1gSodium: 104mg (5%)Potassium: 136mg (4%)Fiber: 1g (4%)Sugar: 14g (16%)Vitamin A: 33IU (1%)Vitamin C: 8mg (10%)Calcium: 32mg (3%)Iron: 2mg (11%)

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

Hardly anything can go wrong while preparing this cake. The method is very simple, just mix the liquid and solid ingredients separately and then join them together. Although tradition says they should be mixed for 9 minutes, the magic number associated with the preparation of this cake dedicated to Saint Phanourios, my arm couldn’t take that long. But the result was very good: a soft cake with a strong flavor and a balanced sweetness.

Great accompaniment for a cup of coffee for breakfast!

Notes:

1. Makes one 23 cm cake.

2. Hands-on time: 25 min / Total time: 1 h 10 min

3. I used just the amount of brandy on the recipe

4. It took 40 minutes to bake

It may sound strange, but I did not hold out a lot of hope for this recipe. As a result I was very pleasantly surprised.

The recipe is easy to follow and doesn’t even require me to climb up and retrieve the mixer from the cabinet. (I’m short. Most rooms in my house contain at least one step stool.) I did take one liberty with the recipe; whisking the batter for 9 minutes was beyond my inclinations. By the time it was thoroughly mixed, I had been whisking for about 5 minutes, so I said an extra prayer and left it at that. To me, the batter wasn’t particularly either stiff or gummy, but at that point I may have tested the brandy a little more than I should have.

Baking was just under 40 minutes and the result was a cake that was perfect for having with my breakfast coffee the following morning. I made my version in a loaf pan and properly sliced it into 9 slices.

In case anyone is curious, my lost item has yet to appear. I tend to suspect my kleptomaniac cat had a hand (paw?) in its disappearance, in which case it will make a reappearance whenever I find his current stash. Plus I’m not sure how long to give the saint. 24 hours? 48 hours?

At least I got a nice coffee cake recipe out of the experience. And I lose a lot of things, so it may yet provide another bonus.

This cake fits into a comforting tradition of walnut cakes in Greek food, although I was not familiar with this particular Lenten version of cake, nor was I versed in the story of Saint Phanourios (Fanourios). I also liked the simplicity of hand mixing and having a bit to serve with coffee, a tradition of hospitality I love.

I made this cake using a neutral oil (avocado) but absolutely would try it with part or all olive oil the next time I make it, and perhaps a bit less flour to help it stay moist. Also, I would zest the oranges before squeezing for juice, and add them to the batter. The spicing is good but you could easily increase or double the cinnamon, and freshly ground clove is perfect at the amount suggested.

I think greasing the pan might work better with coconut oil (especially if using a Bundt pan with detail design), NOT melted, so no oil would pool at the ridges of the pan and collect too much flour. If you use vegetable oil, do it at the last moment so oil doesn’t start moving before you get the flour dusted.

All said, the flavor of the cake is lovely, simple, and, if wrapped tightly and stored in a closed container, will not change dramatically over several days. I gave away some and divided the remainder, putting some aside in the freezer for when we want a bit of not-too sweet cake to go with coffee or maybe a bit of Metaxa after dinner.

Use the best walnuts you can (I like the blondish Chandlers), make your own wish or prayer, and serve to those you love.

You can divide it into 9 slices, but in truth this serves 12 plus easily.

Even after 5 days (don’t judge me—cake is handy when the power is out) the cake is yummy. I will make it again for my mother, and add the orange zest, use olive oil, a touch less flour, and enjoy it again! Also, while I am at it, I might use Metaxa (which is a blend of brandy and grape juice) in place of the brandy. That will be a 10.

Originally published February 19, 2020

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Comments

  1. Allison, I just saw your article for the first time today. (I followed a Pinterest picture!) We adore Saint Phanourous; in fact, we were behind in baking cakes for him (we still “owed” him for finding my husband’s wedding ring). One morning when my husband desperately needed his wallet, he promised this saint our next child would be named for him. We now have a daughter named Phanouria (the ultimate cake!). What a blessing to find a wonderful recipe on here that is also fasting. I think we also own one of Mother Thecla’s CDs of the cannon! We love it!!!

    1. Anna, wow! What a tribute your daughter’s name is. Thanks for letting us know about your experiences–though maybe I should say “your husband’s” as he’s the one who seems to be losing things. Hope everyone in your family has (or will soon find) everything they’re looking for. Cheers, Allison

  2. Hello Allison – If I wanted to do this recipe as cupcakes, what would I change (if anything) and what would the temp and cooking time be? I’d like to try cupcakes for my mother’s 40-day memorial so it’s earier for people to take one home if they’d prefer… Thanks!

    1. Dear Marilynn,
      Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve been thinking about your question, and while I’ve never tried a substitution in this recipe (I love brandy and other spirits in cakes), I do have a couple of suggestions. First, of course, you have to understand that the taste will be different, perhaps the texture, too, from what’s intended. It’s a sizable quantity of liquid, so not like just swapping or omitting a tablespoon. But if you still wish to skip the brandy, then I think you could try either unsweetened orange juice concentrate, or use heavy syrup from one of the canned fruits that would complement the orange flavor already in the cake (I don’t know that mandarin orange would taste good, but perhaps apricot?). If you give it a try, I’d love to hear about the results. Good luck! ~ Allison

  3. 5 stars
    Allison,

    I found your article in the Best Food Writing 2011 book, and I enjoyed the history behind the cake about as much as the delicious sound of the recipe. I’ve been on the hunt recently for vegan treats, too, as a friend of mine is vegan and says she rarely finds sweet treats she can eat. Most of them contain butter, cream, an egg, or, more than likely, all three. I tried my hand at vegan banana bread last week and it turned out really well! When I saw that your recipe is (unintentionally) vegan I had to give it a try. It was a HUGE hit. I wish I had a more moving story of things lost or found but the truth is it was just a wonderful sweet treat to share with friends. I’m excited to bake it again. I try to bake by-the-book on first go around but I think I’d like to tweak a few things for the next time. Have you ever tried adding fruit? Maybe apples or pears? I think the possibilities are endless. Again, thanks for sharing your story and sweet recipe!

    Elizabeth

    Reader Phanourios Cake

    1. Dear Elizabeth. Thanks so much–for taking the time to make the recipe, for commenting, and even sharing a photo! I’m so glad that the incidentally vegan-ness of the cake meant that your friend got to enjoy it, too. To tell the truth, I think looking for a way to please a friend, bringing a little something sweet into her life, is a very worthwhile search. I’m so glad you found this cake. I’m such a traditionalist when it comes to this particular recipe, that no, I’ve never tried adding anything else to it, but you’re probably right that some fruit would be good. I think I’d do dried fruit pieces, though, which would probably do less to alter the cake’s chemistry than fresh fruit with all its moisture. Still, worth experimenting. I’d love to hear about results. Again, thanks so much for reading my story, making the cake and sharing it. I love hearing that this tradition is still working magic for others, too. Regards, Allison

  4. Dear Allison, I am writing to you from an Orthodox Convent. I really enjoyed reading your article and for the first time in my life am sending a comment via the internet because I felt it would be great to share this with you as well.

    The Patron Saint of our Candleshop is St. Phanurius. Several years ago we printed a booklet–The Life and Miracles of St. Phanurius–which also includes a canon of supplication to him. (We made a humble attempt at a matching CD so that people could learn how to chant it.) Back then we printed 1,000 copies and they sold out very quickly, but for years we were not able to reprint it due to lack of time. Just today, thank God, we were able to send to the typesetters Volume II, which includes the forty accounts of Volume I and over 40 more. These are all true stories, written in the first person, of how St. Phanurius helped various people from all over to find what they had lost or needed to find–and yes, tangibles and non-tangibles alike. We would love to send you a copy as a gift when it comes from the printers, which we are hoping won’t be too far down the road. If you want to let us know how we can do that, that would be great. There is a link to contact us through our website. God be with you and may St. Phanurius always guide you!

    Mother Thecla and Sisters

    1. Dear Mother Thecla,
      I am deeply honored that you would be moved to send a comment via the Internet, for the first time ever, because of my article. And incredibly touched that you’d offer me a copy of your own “True Stories” collected in your new volume. I would love to read these accounts. I will certainly be in touch—not only to arrange that, but to express even more personally to you my gratitude. Thank you for your blessings.

      1. Dear Allison, Thanks for your reply, we were very happy to hear from you and we look forward to that other communication you mentioned. Can you please also tell us where you got that beautiful icon of St. Phanurius? God Bless! Mother Thecla and Sisters

        1. Dear Mother Thecla, you are welcome. For the icon of St. Phanourios, I’ll have to retrace my steps and get back to you on its origin. I’ll be sure to let you know. Blessings back to you and the sisters. ~ Allison

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