For Orthodox Christians, the biggest holiday of the year, hands-down, is Easter. Orthodox Easter is a highly religious holiday, befitting the solemnity of the miracle it commemorates. No bunnies, no baskets of candy, no pastels: it’s an all-hands-on-deck, church-going, late-night affair. Luckily there’s delicious food to keep everyone going.
The Saturday night of Easter weekend is the climactic symbolic moment of the whole month: at the end of a standing-room-only church service, the priests light candles in the hands of congregants, who pass the light back until the whole congregation—which spills out into the streets—holds lighted candles. Then everyone travels to the homes of family and friends for a midnight feast, drawing the sign of the cross on the lintel with the Easter flame.
Another Greek Easter tradition is tsougrisma, a game with hard-boiled eggs, dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ: going around the table, people take turns tapping each other’s eggs, one end at a time, until only one unbroken end is left; that person is crowned the winner and receives a year’s worth of good fortune.
Greek Meatballs (Keftedakia)
These crispy, mediterranean style meatballs make a great appetizer or could be served as a main course with tzatziki, warm pita bread and a salad. They also make excellent picnic fare.
1 lb ground lamb
½ cup grated onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup day old white bread, cubed and soaked in milk
1 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
½ tsp cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
Flour for dredging
Lemon wedges and mint leaves for garnish
Cook the onion and garlic in a tbsp of olive oil for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Squeeze the excess milk out of the bread, tear into small pieces and place in a large mixing bowl. Then combine all the ingredients (except the flour) into the bowl with the bread. Mix together thoroughly by hand. At this point, you may refrigerate the mixture for several hours or overnight.
Next, roll the meat mixture into 1-inch balls. Dredge the meatballs in the flour until evenly covered. Heat about ¼ inch of olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add the meatballs in a single layer and cook, turning occasionally so they brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.
Remove meatballs and drain on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Serve warm with tzatziki, lemon wedges and torn mint leaves.
Makes about 24 meatballs
1 cup greek yogurt
½ cup grated cucumber, preferably seedless
1 tsp lemon zest
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp salt
Combine all ingredients in bowl. Serve as dipping sauce with greek meatballs.
The traditional Greek Easter soup is mageritsa, made with all the oddball parts of lamb that are readily available to anyone roasting a whole animal on a spit but a little harder to come by otherwise (maybe next year we’ll dig a fire-pit and try it!) . This tangy, nourishing egg-and-lemon soup is simpler to make, and one of our family favorites on any day of the year. Homemade stock improves the flavor immeasurably.
One 3 to 4 lb chicken, preferably organic
2-2 ½ quarts of water
1 small carrot, washed
1 onion, peeled
1 stalk celery, washed
1 cup long-grain rice, uncooked
Juice of two or three lemons to taste (we like more rather than less)
In a large stockpot, place chicken with water to cover. Stick the cloves into the onion, and add to pot along with carrot, celery and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, skim froth, then lower heat and simmer, covered, for two hours. Add salt to taste during last hour of cooking. Remove chicken and keep warm. Strain the broth, removing as much fat as possible. (If making stock in advance, you can refrigerate it, covered, and skim fat off top once cooled. Reheat stock in pot again before proceeding.)
Add the rice to the hot, strained stock and cook until tender (10-20 minutes depending on your rice). Meanwhile, slice or shred chicken meat. Once rice is cooked, beat the eggs well in a large heat-proof bowl, and slowly whisk in the lemon juice. Very slowly, add two cups of hot broth while constantly whisking–this will prevent the eggs from cooking. Carefully whisk egg mixture back into remaining stock. After liquid is combined, taste for salt and add sliced or shredded chicken if you like. Serve hot.
We amped up the flavor on this spinach pie with the addition of ramps. It’s purely optional, but we can’t pass up the opportunity to use these tender wild baby leeks when they make their all too brief appearance at our local farmers market.
2 lbs fresh spinach, washed, trimmed and coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped scallions, white and light green part only
1 cup chopped ramps
2 cups crumbled feta cheese
⅓ cup grated greek kefalotyri cheese http://www.cheese.com/kefalotyri/ or parmigiano-reggiano
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
⅓ cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp nutmeg
Fresh ground pepper
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
⅓ cup olive oil, plus more for cooking
1 lb of frozen phyllo dough http://www.fillofactory.com/fillo-dough.html thawed at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375.
For the filling:
Coat a large sauté pan or wok with a thin layer of olive oil and cook the spinach in two batches, turning gently with tongs until wilted and bright green, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a colander to let excess liquid drain out.
Heat a thin layer of oil over medium high heat in the same pan and cook the scallions and ramps until fragrant, about 3 minutes. In a large bowl combine the spinach, scallions, ramps, cheeses, eggs, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
Assemble the pie:
Unroll thawed phyllo dough and keep covered with plastic wrap when not using or it will dry out quickly and become hard to work with.
Combine melted butter with ⅓ cup of olive oil. With a pastry brush, lightly coat the bottom of a 9” x 13” baking pan with some of the butter/oil mixture. Next, lightly coat one side of a phyllo sheet with the butter mixutre and carefully lay it in the pan, butter side up, leaving about one inch of overhang along the sides of the pan. Repeat this with another 9 sheets of phyllo.
Next, using a slotted spoon, spread the filling evenly in the pan over the phyllo, leaving any excess liquid behind in the bowl. Repeat the brushing and layering of the phyllo dough over the filling with 10 sheets of phyllo. When complete, push down the edges of the phyllo with the pastry brush to enclose the filling.
Bake spanakopita in the oven until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Karidopita, or Greek Walnut Cake
There are many versions of this cake, some without eggs to make it suitable for Lent, during which observant Greeks follow an essentially vegan diet (Zanthe tried this once for a week and barely survived). This toothsome, syrupy cake is the house dessert served after meals in many estiatoria, or restaurants, in Greece.
4 cups walnuts
180g melba toast, zwieback or fine white breadcrumbs (6.5 oz)
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp powdered nutmeg
2 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
15 tbsp butter, at room temperature
¾ cup sugar
7 eggs, separated, at room temperature
finely grated zest of 1 orange
⅓ cup cognac
For the syrup:
½ cup sugar
1 cup honey
2 cups water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp orange juice
¼ cup cognac
Butter a 9” x 13” baking pan and line with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350℉.
In a food processor, finely grind walnuts, stopping before they become powdered. Pour into a large bowl. Next, grind the melba toast or zwieback until powdered, and add to walnuts, along with baking powder and spices. Mix well.
In an electric mixer, preferably fitted with paddle, cream butter and sugar on medium high speed for at least five minutes. Add egg yolks one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add cognac and orange zest and mix until combined.
Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and on low speed, mix until just combined. Scrape into a large bowl and clean mixing bowl (and whisk, if you used that) very thoroughly
Once bowl and whisk are very clean and dry, place egg whites in bowl with a pinch of salt and whisk until thick and glossy. Using a spatula, carefully fold egg whites into batter, then scrape into prepared pan.
Bake for 35 minutes, or until browned and a cake tester in center comes out clean.
Once cake has cooled, prepare the syrup: in a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved.
With a sharp knife, score the cake into rectangles or diamonds, then pour hot syrup over cooled cake one ladleful at a time, waiting for syrup to soak in before adding the next spoonful. Let cool completely.
Cake will keep in refrigerator, covered, for several days, and is lovely served with some crème fraîche to cut the sweetness.