AS A CHILD in a Greek family, I knew two Easters: an American one, enjoyed at school with baskets and toy chicks, and "real Easter," celebrated with family and friends amid crimson eggs, endless wine and a fabulous feast.
Those who have put Easter behind them might be surprised to know that for Greeks, among other Orthodox Christians, Easter is observed today. It arrives with great fanfare as the most important holiday of th year, over-shadowing even Christmas in the religious ceremony that surrounds it and the excitement and anticipation which greet its arrival. It ususally falls later than its American counterpart because the Greeks follow a different religious calendar than most other Christmas. I have always found this an advantage in introducing friends to my Easter.
For my family, Greek Easter means a celebration outdoors in my mother's garden where relatives and friends dance, share Easter eggs and enjoy food that is incredible -- made especially for the day, and made in great quantity. My mother, for whom entertaining is a way of life and the ultimate test of her creativity, is the undisputed master chef for the Easter feast. However, the dinner table is always supplemented by dishes made by the rest of the family.
Easter is that much sweeter because it is the holiday that ends Lent. Those preceding 48 days are marked by sobriety and fasting. The observance of Lent is, in the Greek church, a much more proscribed and strict undertaking than in other Christian religions. The dietary rule of Lent is abstinence from any food that comes from an animal. This means avoidance of all meat and dairy products; strict followers also avoid using oil for cooking. aObservers of Lent follow this ritual to varying degrees throughout, but most conform to the restraint of Lent during both its first and its final week.
By the time Good Friday arrives, the mood is quiet and expectant. On Friday evening, my family gathers for a dinner of lentil soup and bread, a common Lenten meal, before going to church.
The phrase Christos anesti (Christ is risen) echoes throughtout Easter Sunday as people greet one another and share Easter eggs. These are dyed deep red to signify the blood of Christ. For Greeks, eggs are a special food to begin the holiday with -- not just breakfast fare. Red and shining, they are beautiful to see in baskets all over our garden on Easter.
In the important tradition of cracking eggs, two people hold their eggs with either the pointed or rounded ends exposed and, saying the Easter greeting, strike them together. Usually only one cracks, while the other stays intact. As people crack their eggs with new partners, a champion egg invariably emerges whose possessor, so it goes, will have luck in the future.
In the pagan spring festival as well as Easter, lamb was the central ingredient of the feast. The pachal lamb carries the symbolism of the Lamb of God, representing humanity, being loved and guided by Christ. The lamb also holds a special place in Greek culture and folklore and is a common Sunday and holiday food.
In Greece it is traditional to roast a whole lamb on a spit for Easter dinner. In my family, we roast several legs to feed about 50 guests. On Easter Sunday, my mother's house is fragrant with lamb and oregano. That herb, stuffed in slits all over each leg, along with cloves of garlic, permeates the meat with its sweet and pungent flavor by the time it is cooked. My mother's recipe calls for cooking the lamb until it smells so good you can't stand it anymore. In tribute to the finished product, the job of carving it is generally fought over, since it allows one to taste as one goes.
The lamb is usually served with roast potatoes. We have recently added pita bread to our table so that guests can make their own pocket sandwiches, filling them with chunks of lamb and tsatziki, a thick, creamy dressing made of yogurt, grated cucumber and lots of garlic. The warm, rich lamb and the cool, refreshing dressing make a beautiful combination.
Surrounding the lamb on the table are other dishes belonging to the day and to my family. We bake a special Easter bread called kouloura, meaning ring, for the shape in which it is made. We press the familar red eggs into the unbaked dough in the form of the cross and glaze the top with egg yolk. Because the shells remain on the eggs, we pull each egg out as we slice the ring. The bright, shiny loaves are dense and have a sweet flavor.
We always make a huge Greek salad using the best produce available, and mound the different vegetables in layers on a large platter. Beginning with a bed of shredded lettuce, we add sliced boiled potatoes, sweet onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, rings of green pepper and crumbled feta cheese. My mother adds mothers salad of her own design. She combines sweet lettuce and tiny beets and then sends my nieces out into the garden to pick violet heads with which she adorns the top. The result is a colorful (and totally edible) tribute to spring.
Our sweet table on Easter has a tremendous array of cakes and pastries, including baklava and other nut and honey cakes familiar to many Americans. In addition, there is a special Easter cookie -- koulourakia -- which is, in appearance, a miniature version of the Easter bread. The sweet, buttery dough is rolled into a thin sausage shape between the hands and then wound into a kind of pretzel. Different cooks have different methods of winding and twisting the roll as a kind of signature to their cookies. We usually loop the roll and cross the ends, pressing them together. We then glaze the cookies with egg yolk and sprinkle them with sesame seeds.
Those who love Greek desserts without feeling the urge to bake their own can find koulourakia and other sweets at Greek and Middle Eastern specialty stores around the Washington area. Among them are Aphrodite Greek Imports at 5886 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church (931-5055); Skenderis Greek Imports at 1612 20th St., NW (265-9664) and 5558 Randolph Rd., Rockville (770-5558).
And if you're interested in dyeing the red eggs, be sure to buy imported Greek dye before you leave the specialty store, to assure producing a deep red color. Once the eggs are dyed (they are hardcooked in their dyeing water) and they have cooled, put a little cooking oil on a cloth or paper towel and run it over each of the eggs to make it shine.
When I was 9, I found in a souvenir shop a wooden egg that happened to be Greek Easter red. I bought it on the spot and hid it until Easter, at which time I fooled several of our more myopic relatives with my egg's ability to vanquish any other egg in town. Then and now, the friends who have shared Easter with us can never help asking "Do you do this every year?"
We could not imagine otherwise. FAKI (LENTIL SOUP) (10 to 12 servings) 1 pound lentils 1 onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 2-pound can Italian tomatoes 1/4 cup vinegar Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and sort the lentils, put them in a medium-sized saucepan and cover with water. Bring them just to a boil, remove from heat, cover them and let them sit for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, saute the onion in half of the oil until transparent; add the parsley and the tomatoes and simmer for about 10 minutes. Set aside.
When the lentils are ready, add them with their liquid to the tomato mixture along with the rest of the oil. Cook for 10 minutes. When ready to serve, add the vinegar, salt and pepper. ROAST LEG OF LAMB
Using a small, sharp knife make 4 or 5 deep cuts all over the leg. Into each of the cuts, push a bruised garlic clove and large pinch of oregano. Then rub the leg all over with salt and pepper and put it into a 350-degree oven for about 2 hours (for an average-size leg -- about six pounds). During the last 10 minutes of cooking, squeeze the juice of 1 lemon all over the leg. By that time, the lamb should smell good enough to be ready. TSATZIKI (CUCUMBER AND YOGURT DRESSING) (Makes 2 cups) 1 cucumber, skinned and grated 1 cup plain yogurt 1/2 cup sour cream 2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
Put the grated cucumber into a colander and press it with your hands until you squeeze out all excess liquid. Then put the cucumber into a bowl and mix in the rest of the ingredients. Koulourakia (EASTER COOKIES) (Makes approximately 5 dozen) 10 cups sifted flour, approximately 1 teaspoon salt 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 pound softened unsalted butter 1 cup sugar 5 egg yolks 1 cup sour cream 2 tablespoons rum, brandy or cognac 1 tablespoon vanilla 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind 1 beaten egg (for brushing tops) Sesame seeds
Sift together 2 cups of the flour with salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a large bowl cream together the butter and sugar and beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the sour cream, rum, vanilla and lemon rind and mix well. Stir in the dry ingredients. Add enough of the rest of the flour, kneading with your hands, until the dough is soft and pliable, but not sticky. Cut off a piece the size of a walnut, roll into a sausage of about a finger's width and form a loop, crossing the ends of the sausage. Put cookies on a greased baking sheet, brush the tops with egg yolk, and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 350 degrees until light golden, about 20 minutes. KOULOURA (GREEK EASTER BREAD) (Makes 1 loaf) 1 cup milk 4 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons butter 1 egg 4 tablespoons orange juice 1 yeast cake 1 cup water 5 cups flour 1 teaspoon vegetable oil 5 red Easter eggs 1 egg yolk 1 teaspoon sugar 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Scald mild and cool slightly in a large bowl. Add 4 tablespoons sugar, salt, butter, egg, orange juice and mix well. Dissolve yeast in water and add to mixture. Add flour and mix to make a stiff dough. Then knead for 10 minutes.
Oil a clean bowl and transfer the dough to it. Knead another 5 minutes. Cover and keep in a warm place for 2 hours.
Grease a round 12-inch pan (3 inches deep) and arrange the dough in a circle inside it. Gently press the red egs into the dough in a cross configuration. Beat the egg yolk with 1 teaspoon sugar and the cinnamon. Brush this mixture over the top of the bread. Set to rise for 1 1/2 hours. After the bread has risen, press the eggs down more firmly in the dough. Then bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.