Rich in religious tradition and ceremony, Greek Easter is also so closely linked to cooking that the two are inseparable. Or so it seems to Denise Cassis, who was brought up in a Greek family in Spokane.
Preparations for the celebration (which this year falls on May 4) began in her family's home on Holy Thursday, when the eggs were dyed a deep red. On Holy Saturday the Easter bread, lambropsomo, was baked and on a nearby friend's farm the pascal lamb was slaughtered and tied on its long wooden spit ready for roasting whole over red-hot coals.
Celebration began when the participants in the midnight service arrived home, carrying their resurrection candles. "You'll have good luck for the year if you can get all the way home with the candle still lit," says Cassis, who now lives here. An egg-cracking contest was launched, eggs clutched in the fist so the smallest amount of shell was exposed to the attacker. "Xristos Anesti! Alithos Anesti! (Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!)," cried the attackers. The bearer of the egg that survived intact was the one in luck.
After a few hours sleep, Cassis' mother, Jacqueline, began cooking in earnest as the fire was lit and the lamb took its first slow circles on the hand-turned spit. The central point of the Easter feast is the roasted lamb and, lacking a whole beast, most families now opt for a leg or saddle, cooked with traditional seasonings of garlic, rosemary and lemon. Cassis' mother added orzo (small rice-shaped pasta), which she cooked with tomato sauce and the rich juices from the roasting pan.
The rest of the menu combined specific Easter specialties and perennial favorites, all grouped together on the table in happy profusion. Tiropita -- a feta cheese custard baked in buttery layers of phyllo dough and cut into diamonds -- cannot be left out. Made year-round, tiropita is available on every street corner in Greece as a mid-morning snack.
More common yet is Greek salad -- appearing in one variation or another every day of the year and, like tiropita, impossible to omit at Easter. The combination of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, onions, feta cheese and cured black olives, anointed with oregano-laden oil and vinegar, is a refreshing contrast to the richness of the lamb.
There are two baked specialties of the Easter season. Lambropsomo is an egg-rich, sweet bread flavored with anise seed. The dough is braided and baked with red eggs nested in the plaits, then cut into hearty wedges. Koulourakia are cookies shaped in braids and topped with sesame seeds. "Tiresome things," warns Cassis of the job of rolling them into shape, "but you'll understand why they're worth it when you taste them."
To accompany a meal of such strong flavors, a strong drink is needed and the Greeks have it. Retsina, with its strong overtones of pine resin, is a perfect companion to a Greek feast, but you may want to offer another choice as some people find it an acquired taste. Other Greek wines such as Cambas or hymettus are an alternative. Just as acceptable, and as traditional, is a glass (or two) of frosted cold beer.
Most preparations for this menu, which is perfect for a festive occasion, can be done ahead, with only the lamb to roast at the last minute.
Up to 1 month ahead: bake koulourakia and store in an airtight container.
Up to 3 days ahead: Mix salad dressing and store, covered, in a cool place. Dye eggs with onion skins and leave at room temperature.
Up to 1 day ahead: Season lamb and store covered, in refrigerator. Assemble and bake tiropita, cover and refrigerate. Bake bread and store in airtight container. Chill wine and beer.
Two hours before serving: Assemble salad without dressing and refrigerate. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Set table, adding bowls of dyed eggs.
One and three-quarters hours before serving: Roast the lamb, basting often.
Thirty minutes before serving: Remove lamb from oven, cover and keep warm. Add tomato and seasonings to roasting pan and cook orzo.
Fifteen minutes before serving: Put tiropita in oven and reheat. Set plates of cookies on the table. Add dressing to salad and set on table.
Five minutes before serving: Cut tiropita and place on serving dish.
Just before serving: Set bread on a board to be cut at the table. Carve lamb and mound on platter; spoon orzo into serving dish.
ROAST LEG OF LAMB WITH ORZO (12 servings)
The smaller the lamb, the more delicate it will be.
2 legs of lamb (4 to 5 pounds each)
3 cloves garlic, cut in slivers
Bunch fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE ORZO:
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups (16-ounce can) tomato sauce
6 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
2 pounds orzo pasta
With the point of a sharp knife, make deep holes in meat of lamb, insert garlic slivers and sprinkle lamb with juice of 1 lemon. Strip 2 tablespoons of rosemary leaves from stem, crush slightly and rub into surface of meat. Reserve remaining rosemary for decoration. Lamb can be prepared up to 1 day in advance at this point and kept covered in the refrigerator.
Put lamb in a 12-by-18-inch roasting pan, season with salt and pepper and roast in a 375-degree oven until meat is still slightly pink in the center, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. A meat thermometer inserted in center of meat should read 160 degrees. Baste often and, halfway through cooking, squeeze remaining lemon juice over meat. Remove lamb to platter, cover loosely with foil and keep warm.
For orzo: Pour off excess fat from pan and deglaze pan with wine, stirring to dissolve pan juices. Add tomato sauce, water, cinnamon stick, cloves and bay leaves to roasting pan, and bake 10 minutes at 375 degrees in oven. Add orzo, cover and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally or until orzo is tender. Taste for seasoning.
To serve: carve lamb and pile orzo in separate bowl or spoon around edge of platter, piling lamb in center. Decorate lamb with remaining rosemary sprigs.
TIROPITA (Makes 12 tiropita)
Tiropita is one reason why Greece has the largest per capita consumption of cheese in the world (39 pounds per year).
1/2 cup milk
1 pound feta cheese, crumbled
1 pound phyllo dough
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted
Beat together eggs and milk, and stir in feta cheese.
Lay phyllo dough out flat on work surface, covering with a damp towel so sheets don't dry out. Butter a 9-by-12-inch baking pan, place 1 sheet phyllo in bottom and brush with melted butter. Note: Let the sheets go up the sides of the pan if they are too large. Repeat 15 times.
Pour cheese mixture onto phyllo sheets and cover with remaining phyllo, brushing each layer with melted butter. With a sharp knife, score phyllo lengthwise into 3-inch rows, cutting right through the top layer.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until top is golden. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Cut through score marks to bottom layer of phyllo, then slice diagonally in 2-inch widths to form diamond shaped pieces. Tiropita can be baked up to 1 day ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator.
Tiropeta are served warm. To reheat them: put them uncovered in a 375-degree oven until very warm, about 15 minutes.
GREEK SALAD (12 servings)
Greek salad comes in many combinations, depending on what's fresh from the garden. Sometimes it may be as simple as tomatoes and onions.
FOR THE DRESSING:
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried oregano
FOR THE SALAD:
6 tomatoes, sliced
2 small bermuda onions, thinly sliced
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced
2 green bell peppers, cored and cut in rings
1 pound feta cheese, sliced
1/2 pound kalamata olives
For the dressing: put vinegar, oil, salt and oregano in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake until oil and vinegar are well mixed. Dressing can be prepared up to a week ahead.
Overlap tomatoes, onions and cucumbers alternately, arranging them in concentric rings on a platter. Top with green pepper, feta cheese slices, and olives. Salad can be prepared up to 3 hours ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator.
Just before serving: shake dressing well to emulsify it and pour over salad, adding it to your taste.
ONION SKIN EASTER EGGS (Makes 12 dyed eggs)
Greek Easter eggs have always been as brilliant a red as possible. Before the days of commercial dyes, eggs were dyed with a quantity of onion skins, like this.
6 quarts water
1/2 cup vinegar
Skin from 2 dozen red onions
1 tablespoon oil
Bring water and vinegar to a boil in a large stainless steel saucepan and add onion skins. Simmer for 30 minutes and let cool slightly.
Add eggs to onion skin mixture, bring to a boil and simmer until eggs are a rich red-brown, about 20 minutes. Remove eggs and cool in cold water. When cold, rub each with a bit of oil.
Eggs can be kept up to 3 days at room temperature. Note: Onion skin water can be reused to dye more eggs if needed.
LAMBROPSOMO (Makes one 12-inch round loaf)
Exchange dyed eggs for a cross fashioned in dough on top of this loaf and you have Vasilopita, New Year's Bread. A coin is always hidden under the cross.
2 ( 1/4-ounce) packages dry yeast or 2 cakes compressed yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
7 cups flour, more if needed
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons crushed anise
4 eggs, beaten to mix
5 dyed eggs
1 egg, beaten to mix with 1/2 teaspoon salt (for glaze)
Sprinkle yeast over water and leave until dissolved, about 5 minutes. In separate pans, scald milk and melt butter and let cool.
Sift flour, salt and sugar onto pastry board and make a well in the center. Add anise, beaten eggs, butter, milk and yeast mixture to well and work the ingredients until mixed. Gradually draw in flour, working until all is incorporated. Press dough into a ball and knead on a floured board until smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes.
Lightly grease a large mixing bowl; place dough in bowl, rotating it until top is oiled, cover with a wet cloth and let rise in draft-free place until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Knead dough lightly to knock out air, transfer it to floured pastry board and divide into 3 equal portions. Roll each section into a rope about 2 inches thick and 20 inches long, then braid together. Bring the ends together and pinch to link them into a round and set on lightly greased baking sheet. Press dyed eggs firmly into hollows in plaits, setting one in the center and the rest around to form a cross. Cover and let rise again until doubled in bulk.
Brush dough with beaten egg and bake in a 425-degree oven for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom and crust is evenly brown, 50 to 60 minutes longer. Note: If bread browns too fast, cover with aluminum foil.
To serve: cut in wedges, cutting through dyed eggs. Bread is best eaten the day it is baked, but it can be stored a day in an airtight container.
KOULOURAKIA (Makes 3 to 4 dozen, depending on shape)
Best made at least a week ahead to allow time for the flavors to blend, the cookies can be stored in an airtight container for a month.
3 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
FOR THE GLAZE:
1 egg, beaten to mix with pinch of salt
2 to 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix vanilla into cream.
Cream butter and sugar until light and soft. Add egg and beat until smooth. Add flour and cream alternately in 3 batches, mixing well after each addition.
To shape braids: roll three 4-inch ropes about 1/2-inch thick on a floured board and braid. For loops: roll 6-inch ropes about 1/2-inch thick, fold in half and twist gently 3 times. For circles: roll 4-inch ropes 1-inch thick and pinch ends together.
Lay cookies on lightly buttered baking sheet, brush with egg beaten with salt and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 350 degrees until light golden and just firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Note: Cookies do not expand so they can be set close together on baking sheet.