Easter is the most important celebration for my Greek family. It just inches ahead of Christmas and it holds a very special place in my heart. I love the traditions of colourful dyed eggs, tsoureki, the Easter biscuits - Koulourakia, spit-roast of lamb and the "lambathes" decorated candles. The Easter rituals of the Orthodox Church are rich and spiritual. Even though it falls during the start of Autumn in Australia, there is still that feeling of energy and renewal that often comes with the start of spring.
As in years past, since I married Mr K, Holy Thursday marked the start of my Easter preparations. Traditionally it is the day when the eggs are dyed red and the day when the Easter bread, called tsoureki and Easter biscuits, called Koulourakia are made. This year I made two Tsoureki - one modern version which is filled with plenty of orange zest, dark chocolate and almond (find the recipe here) that has become a favourite in our house and a more traditional version scented with the traditional spices of mahlepi and mastiha. These two aromatics are very unique. Mastiha are like little dusty pieces of crystal - which come from mastic-tree resin and are only found on the Greek island of Chios (I long to visit Chios one day - hopefully soon!) Mahlepi is a highly aromatic spice made from the seeds of wild cherry trees - a little goes along way!
Traditional Tsoureki (Τσουρέκι)
500 gm plain flour
3/4 cup milk, warmed
2 eggs, lightly beaten, plus extra for brushing
1/2 cup caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 2 unsprayed oranges
1 tsp ground mahlepi
1/2 tsp Mastiha (ground in a mortar and pestle with a little sugar)
75 gm cow's milk butter, melted
For the glaze: 1 egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons of milk or water
For decoration: flaked blanched almonds & Greek anise seeds
1. Combine flour, yeast and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, form a well in the centre, set aside.
2. Add the warm milk, eggs, sugar, orange zest, mahlepi, Mastiha and 100ml lukewarm water and mix until a soft dough forms.
3. Gradually pour in the melted butter, a little at a time, mixing until a smooth soft dough forms.
4. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and place in a clean, lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until doubled in size (this usually takes at least an hour).
5. Knock back dough and then divide into 3 pieces. Roll each piece into a long cylinder, plait pieces together. Squeeze the ends of the plait to make sure the braid won't come undone. Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper and set aside to prove slightly (40 minutes).
6. Preheat oven to 180C. Brush wreath with glaze and sprinkle with almonds and anise seeds. Bake in the oven until golden, around 25-30 minutes.
Note: you can buy Mastiha and mahlepi from Greek deli's and grocers. Check my list of places here, for Sydney and Melbourne.
In making the traditional Easter biscuits, the Koulourakia - I made a small change to the usual recipe I use. Lots of traditional recipes call for the use of 'baker's ammonia' and I managed to track some down this year - again at my local Greek deli.
Paschalina Koulourakia (Πασχαλινά κουλουράκια)
125g butter (at room temperature and chopped into cubes)
1/2 cup organic golden caster sugar
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon of powdered baking ammonia
1/4 cup lukewarm milk
2 medium eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1/2kg plain all-purpose flour
For the glaze: 1 egg yolks and 1 tbsp water beaten
1. Using an electric mixer, add the sugar and butter and mix for about 10-15 minutes, until the butter is creamy and fluffy.
2. In the meantime warm the milk (until lukewarm only) and remove the pot from the heat. Add the ammonia and blend until dissolved. Set aside.
3. Add the eggs to the butter mixture one at a time, keep mixing and allow each egg to be absorbed, before adding another. Pour in the the vanilla extract, the orange and lemon zest and milk (with the ammonia) and mix to combine.
4. Add the flour, a little bit at a time, whilst mixing, until the ingredients are combined and the dough is soft.
5. Cover the dough with some plastic wrap and set aside in the fridge to rest for about 30 minutes.
6. On a clean work surface, take a small piece of dough and form long cords and then shape the koulourakia. Traditionally an "x" is made first to symbolise "Xhristos" or Christ and the final shape made is an "A" to symoblise "anesti" meaning risen.
7. Line a large baking tray with baking paper and place the koulourakia, leaving some space between them.
8. For the glaze, beat the egg yolk and 1 tbsp water. Brush the top of the koulourakia and bake in preheated oven at 200C until golden - about 15 minutes. Let the kolourakia cool down on a baking rack and then store in airtight containers.
But back to Easter! On Saturday evening, just after the midnight mass, we retuned to my parents in law's to break our Lenten fast with a very special soup called mayiritsa. 'Nose to tail' eating is certainly not something new when it comes to Greek food and the soup is made with inner parts of lamb including the lungs, heart, liver, kidneys and sweetbreads - the rest of the lamb itself is the centrepiece for Easter Sunday lunch, after being roasted with plenty of lemon, garlic and rigani.
The Mayiritsa itself is also very aromatic, my mother in law's version uses plenty of lemon, dill and lots of spring onions - along with a little rice and finished with an egg-lemon sauce. It reminds me a lot of her delicious fricasse. Making this soup is a huge amount of work - and although Ma is in her early 80s, she is dedicated to making this soup for the family each year. Hopefully I will be able to learn the recipe from her one day, as it is one of Mr K's favourite dishes, but it will probably require a 4am start!
Returning to my in law's for Easter Sunday lunch, we enjoyed the traditional roasted lamb and tender lemon roasted potatoes, along with plenty of zesty salads. There was a traditional tomato-cucumber salad and I also made my roasted beetroot and yoghurt salad - Patzarosaláta (παντζάροσαλάτα) (you can find the recipe here) - substituting roasted almonds and pine nuts and a little chopped chervil instead of the roasted walnuts and oregano that I usually use. In additional, I also made one of my favourite Greek salads - a maroulosalata (μαρουλοσαλάτα) which translates to 'lettuce' salad - but it is more than just lettuce. There is plenty of crunch and texture, with very finely chopped spring onions and cabbage - and lots of aromatics with dill and a zesty lemon-oil dressing.
2 baby gem Cos (Romaine) lettuce, finely shredded
1/4 small cabbage, finely shredded
8-10 spring onions, cleaned and finely chopped (bulb and stalk)
1/3 cup of fresh dill, finely chopped (or 2 tablespoons of dried)
3/4 cup of extra virgin Greek olive oil
1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice
pinch of freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon of sea salt
1 clove of garlic
1. Clean the lettuce and cabbage, removing the stem and discarding any damaged leaves. Separate and rinse leaves individually to remove any dirt or sand. Pat dry with paper towels. Shred the lettuce and cabbage as thinly as possible.
2. Take the salad bowl and rub the peeled garlic clove around the bowl. Then place the lettuce, cabbage, dill and spring onion in the bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
3. To make the dressing, whisk together the oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper (or use a jar with a lid and shake it all together). Toss the salad with the dressing and serve cold or at room temperature. The amount of dressing needed will depend on the size of the lettuce - so to keep the salad crunchy, add half the dressing and taste - add more as needed. This salad is perfect with roasted meats.
After lunch, we enjoyed galaktobourkeo that my sister in law had bought along to share, along with Tsoureki and lots of kolourakia. Ma, my sister in and law and I had all made a batch of Easter biscuits and we all tasted each one to compare, I think my mother in law's were definitely the winner!! We also played the traditional game with our coloured eggs: each person picks one egg and whilst exchanging traditional wishes tries to crack the other person's egg. The winner is the one with the hardest boiled that has not cracked.
All in all, our Easter menu looked a little something like this:
Magiritsa - traditional easter soup
Roasted baby lamb
Lemon roasted potatoes
Greek easter eggs &