The Spring Feast Planner

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spring feast planner

Through my childhood, we had a lot of big holidays. The holidays were fun, but I never liked the food. For one thing, my mom was a classic Mom-of-Baby-Boomers cook, wedded to the Glamor with a Can Opener approach. For another, at our house, holiday tables groaned with a big old slab of meat: ham, roast beef, turkey. The sides weren’t particularly interesting or important.

Well, when I began to cook it myself, I realized I could change all that. And, in April 2004, Bon Appetit, the magazine that was one of my primary cooking teachers and which I continue to love, featured a Greek Easter feast. I loved everything in it—except for the lamb. So I skipped that, and decided I was doing my own Greek Easter.

Well—not by a long shot. I recently spoke with my friend Callie Floor, of 100% Greek descent. “Easter is THE most imporant holiday of the year for Greek families,” she told me.

“What are the essentials?”

“Lamb and red eggs. And the bread with the red eggs.”

“What about spanikopita? Pastitsio? Baklava?”

Nope, it turned out. The lamb, representing Christ, and the eggs dyed red to represent his blood, are the two essentials. “And we’d usually eat it at, like, 3 in the morning,” she told me, due to a midnight mass the day before.

OK. So I wasn’t doing Greek Easter. But….I was (and still am) doing some sort of spring feast. Hence the title of my new party planner, which I’ve been working like mad on. It’s late for western Easter—as I write this, it’s April 18, 2019, and the holiday falls on Sunday, April 21. But I’m pretty much on time for eastern Easter, on the 28th this year. And, since a lot of folks like lamb for Easter, the planner easily allows you to add it in. It’s got all the recipes, with links to the related web posts if you want more pix (and, in the case of Spanakopita and Greek Easter Bread, video). There’s a scheduler so you can make about 80% of the meal ahead of time, something I always dig if I’m having some big celebration.

And seriously, Greek food is superb for parties. Vibrant, veggie-centric, sunshine-y, and comforting. So you can pretty much bust this one out any time you want a good party.

The Menu

Appetizers/Noshables: If you want, create a mezze platter with olives, cheese, dip like hummus, taramasalata, skordalia, or tzatziki, and/or a mix of marinated and fresh veggies. I don’t include this in the planner, because honestly, there’s already a ton of food. But it’s certainly easy if you want to throw one together. Here’s a lovely example.

Greek Salad

Moussaka or Pastitsio

Roast Lamb with Steamed Green Beans (if you like lamb, I’m assuming you know how to either roast it or google a recipe)

Greek Easter Bread

Dessert: Spiced Lemon Walnut Rosemary Cake, which you can supplement with Baklava, as well as lemon sorbet or vanilla ice cream

spring feast planner dessert

If you’ve subscribed, you’ve already received the Planning Guide, which includes a shopping list and timetable. If you’d like that, well, my friend, please consider subscribing. (Once again, it’s easy; fill in the form in the green square on the right side of the page.)

And whatever you do, may your springtime be filled with joy.

Spiced Lemon Walnut Rosemary Cake

Jump straight to the Spiced Lemon Walnut Rosemary Cake recipe or tips.

lemon walnut rosemary cake

I’ve never understood why the phrase is “easy as pie” as opposed to “easy as cake.” Pie, in my mind, equals not so easy. Getting a crust right is a tricky thing; at least, it can be for me, though at this point I sort of get how to do it. Mind you, I worked in a pastry shop for a summer and took a Zingerman’s pie making class; a magazine I was working for paid for it, which helped. Then there’s the filling, involving cutting fruit up, no big deal with bananas, a 2nd circle of hell thing with cherries.

Cake, on the other hand, is easy peasy lemon squeezy—in this case, literally, because of, well, the lemon. True, a sponge cake can be a little gnarly, given the whole separated egg thing, but we’ll save that for another day. This Spiced Lemon Walnut Rosemary Cake, on the other hand, couldn’t be simpler. It’s really lovely for springtime. I split this recent one between two good friends, Steve, and my son, and they all made kind of a big deal about it. The kid had to pick out the walnuts, but liked the rest so much he didn’t mind.

Baking Tips

Note that exact ingredients are below, as is required for baking. Baking is not an improv thing unless you’re some sort of baking genius. Which I am certainly not.

  • You can make this in a Bundt pan, which I like because 1) they’re pretty in a frumpy way, and 2) I also like the way they portion out. But you can also use a flat glass pan, like a casserole dish. Should you use the Bundt pan, you MUST apply first a generous layer of fat—coconut oil, butter, or non-stick spray—followed by a good dusting of flour, which you then tamp out so there’s no excess. I skipped the flour and you can see the result below. The top of the cake decided to stay in the pan. As long as the cake is still hot, this isn’t a complete disaster; you can just scoop it out and press it back in place. Still, if you’re trying to impress someone, and just to circumvent a case of severe kitchen frustration, do the flour.
lemon walnut rosemary cake with mangled top
  • Use a whisk to combine dry ingredients. A great trick I learned during that summer in the pastry shop.
  • If you have leftover buttermilk, freeze it in little muffin cups. It’s super handy, I always have to buy more than I can use, and voila, no waste. You can always sub it for milk in any baking recipe; it has more body and flavor.
buttermilk for the freezer
  • This is an oil-based cake rather than a buttery one. Use what’s known as “tasteless” oil. This doesn’t mean oil used by fans of Baywatch. Snort! This means oil without a taste, so olive is out. But sunflower, grapeseed, canola, even avocado work fine.
lemon walnut rosemary cake
  • For this type of cake, add the dry ingredients and buttermilk in layers. Start by putting a third of the dry ingredients into the oil/sugar mix, then add half the buttermilk. Etc, until both are used up. You want to start and end with dry ingredients, so that’s why they’re in thirds and the buttermilk in halves. Why? I don’t know!
  • Fold in the walnuts at the very end. The walnuts are finely chopped, so distribute fine. If you have a walnut hater, wait til the cake is in the pan. Gently add the walnuts to the pan, leaving them out of however much of it the walnut hater will eat.
lemon walnut rosemary cake folding in walnuts
  • Make the syrup ahead—even a day or three if you’re serving the cake as part of big do and you want to advance prep. You want to pour/brush cold syrup on the hot cake, the better to infuse the cake with the flavor. Do this with the cake on a rack over a plate after you’ve poked a bunch of wholes in the cake with a skewer; I reuse my cake tester to dandy effect. You’ll end up with syrup on the plate, which you then add to the cake, getting as much of the syrup in there as you can.
  • Serve with lemon sorbet for a little lemon madness or really good vanilla ice cream to counter the lemon. Or raspberry or strawberry sorbet for crazy color contrasts. And of course, since it’s a coffee cake, coffee.

Spiced Lemon Walnut Rosemary Cake: The Recipe

Greek Easter Bread

Jump straight to the Greek Easter Bread recipe or some baking tips.

greek easter bread

Look, even if you’re intimidated by bread, Greek Easter Bread is crazy easy and crazy delish.

I do get that bread can intimidate. There’s the rising, and the fact that yeast is a little temperamental. There’s the kneading, which needs to be done enough, and yet not too much. In this case, there’s the braiding, but that’s kinda fun.

In fact, it’s all pretty fun. This particular recipe hails from the April 2004 issue of Bon Appetit, and was part of a big Greek Easter feast. Without the red eggs, you just have a spectacularly yummy bread braid. You could also do any color eggs you want. Whatever way you bake it, you will end up with a fragrant, barely sweet, buttery puffy loaf. You don’t need more butter, but you can add some if you’re feeling especially decadent.

greek easter bread with labneh and coffee

My son, who likes few things better than ripping a piece of bread off a freshly-baked loaf, couldn’t quite get over this one. “What’s in this, Mom?”

The grated citrus peel, both lemon and orange, adds a lot of flavor. But the true secret of a wonderfully enigmatic Greek Easter Bread is mahlepi, or mahleb, aka ground dried cherry pits. You will have to venture to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean market to find it, but you can substitute a teaspoon for 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract in any baked good. While you’re there—if you’re there in the spring—look for the special red Easter egg dye. It’s stronger than the mix of beet juice, turmeric, and red food coloring that I used.

Greek Easter Bread: A Few Tips

  • 2-3 days ahead, dye hard-boiled eggs in deep red dye. Let them sit in the dye until you’re ready to bake the bread. I use 3 eggs in the bread, but to have some extra deep red eggs on hand is cool. They are really beautiful and unusual.
  • Whisk a package of yeast into 1/4 cup of warm (about 100-110º) water. Let it rest undisturbed until it gets thick and a little bubbly. If this doesn’t happen, your yeast done bit the dust. Do not proceed until you find some working yeast.
  • Exact proportions are listed in the recipe. Get out your hand held electric mixer to cream soft butter and sugar together. You’ll then beat in an egg, the citrus peel and mahleb or vanilla, warm milk, and flour. Once you get the egg in and as you add the milk, the mixture may look “broken.” In other words, the butter won’t be so smooth any more. Don’t worry; as you add the flour, first with the mixer, then with a spatula, it will all come back together in a lovely soft dough.
  • You need the dough til it’s smooth and satiny, then let it rest to rise. In theory, this should take about 1 and 1/2 to 1:45. Mine took closer to 2 1/2 hours. Don’t despair; if your yeast is live, the bread will rise. Just give it time, and keep it in a warmish place (but not the oven).
  • Gently knead the risen bread down, then separate it into 3 pieces. To make the bread into ropes, you kind of roll and pinch until you have a 24-inch rope, three times.
greek easter bread separated into ropes
  • Braiding the braid is a little more like a French braid; the video shows how I got to kind of a false start, and frankly the end is a little messy. So tweak that to your hearts content.
  • Then make the indentations for the eggs. Blot the eggs like crazy; they’ll still bleed a little, but don’t worry. Press them into the little dents you’ve made in the bread. Let rise a second time, till lovely and puffy.
greek easter bread after the second rise
  • Bake at 350º for 20 minutes, then turn the bread and bake another 10. The finished bread should be golden and make a nice hollow sound when you tap the bottom.
  • You can definitely eat this bread all by itself, but a little butter, jam, honey, quark, or labneh is also lovely. And Greek coffee on the side makes it even better. Here, it’s part of a table of Greek appetizers including Greek salad and spanikopita.

Greek Easter Bread: The Recipe

Moussaka/Pastitsio

Jump to the Moussaka Pastitsio recipe or to the steps.

moussaka eggplant
Which is which? That’s the beauty of these two dishes; from the pan, you really can’t tell.

Two big grand dishes of immense comfort, moussaka and pastitsio or basically the same: a kind of Greek lasagna, where spiced ground meat (or lentils, if you want to go vegetarian) is/are layered with either eggplant or pasta, then topped with a fluffy béchamel sauce that puffs up in the oven.

Of the 2, moussaka is closer to lasagna, given that it boasts 2 layers of eggplant. Patitsio is kinda like a heartier version of macaroni and cheese. You could even do a weird, unholy but tasty hybrid, having both eggplant and pasta layers, because…why not?

And while the steps look long, it’s pretty straightforward. Both the meat sauce and the Béchamel can be made in advance, and you can assemble either casserole in about 5 minutes, once you’ve either fried the eggplant or boiled the pasta.

I decided to deliver them both to you in the same post to demo how similar they are, and how you can kind of game day your decision, depending on what you like and/or are in the mood for—as well as if you happen to have eggplant on hand. Note the bold type at the beginning of each step to indicate if the step is for one or both dishes.

Moussaka Pastitsio: A Note on the Cheese

If you’re up for doing a little bit of extra work—namely, heading to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean market—I highly recommend you track down kefalotiri cheese. It has a bunch of names that variations on the spelling, but man, it is awesome. Similar taste and texture-wise to halloumi, it makes this Béchamel and the rest of either taste taste rich and perfectly salty. Plus: Every Middle Eastern/Mediterranean market I’ve ever been to is staffed by delightful folks who are very happy to help you discover a lot of wonderful foods. Think about getting a jar of red pepper paste to sub for tomato paste.

moussaka pastitsio kefalotiri cheese

The Steps

  • Moussaka Pastitsio: meat or lentil sauce: Heat a big pan. Pour in some oil when the pan is hot. When the oil is hot, brown chopped onion and minced garlic, a good amount either way. Add half pound of ground meat (or raw lentils in half the amount), and stir til meat is brown or lentils are fully incorporated with the onions. Add dried oregano, a good hit of salt, pepper, a can of crushed tomatoes, a healthy spoon of tomato paste, and about a quarter cup of broth. Let simmer about 20 minutes. Season with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and cook one more minute, then check to see if it needs more salt an pepper. Cool to room temp; you can make this a day ahead if you like. When the mix is at room temp, add in one beaten egg.
  • Moussaka Pastitsio: Béchamel: For each 1/2 pound of meat or lentils you used, you want to whisk 2 tablespoons of whole milk with 1 egg yolk. Then melt 2 tablespoons of butter and whisk in flour until it’s smooth and bubbly. Gradually whisk in just under 1 cup of milk (the recipe uses one cup, so less 2 tablespoons), 1/4 teaspoon of salt, a pinch each of nutmeg and allspice, and then simmer it. Take the heat back down to low, and simmer while whisking until the sauce is nice and thick. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the egg yolk and 1/3 cup grated kefalotiri or Parmesan. You can now put it back very low heat, whisking for another couple of minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt and pepper, and set it aside. You can also make this a day ahead.
  • Pastitsio: Boil some pasta in salted water until al dente. Once again, you can do this a day ahead. Keep pasta covered and toss with a little oil before you store it.
  • Moussaka: slice your peeled eggplant into half-inch crosswise slices. Sprinkle with salt. Line a cookie sheet with towels (paper or otherwise), lay the slices on top, and then weight them down with something heavy and flat, maybe a platter or big casserole. Let them sit like that for 20 minutes.
  • Moussaka: Clean out your pan, or use a new one. Put some flour on a plate—gluten free is fine, especially chickpea flour. Season with salt and pepper. Pat the pressed eggplant slices dry, then dip them in the flour, shaking off any excess. Heat the pan, then heat a good 1/2 inch of oil. Make sure the oil is hot before you add the eggplant slices one at a time. You want them to brown up, but watch them carefully. A minute on each side should do the trick. Remove to drain on paper towels.
sauteed eggplant for moussaka
  • Moussaka assembly: Heat your oven to 325º. Put down a layer of half the eggplant, sprinkle with more grated cheese, add the filling. Top with the rest of the eggplant and more cheese. Pour on the bechamel, and sprinkle with a little more cheese. Bake 30 minutes, then increase heat to 400º and bake 15 minutes longer, for a golden brown top. Moussaka should rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.
  • Pastitsio assembly: Heat your oven to 325º. Place pasta in bottom of casserole. Add meat on top. Sprinkle on grated cheese, then pour on béchamel and sprinkle with additional cheese. Bake 30 minutes, then increase heat to 400º and bake 15 minutes longer, for a golden brown top. Pastitsio should rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with steamed green beans on the side. Greek Salad and Spanikopita are great go-withs.
moussaka eggplant
A steamed green veggie on the side, like these beans, perfectly complements either moussaka or pastitsio.

Moussaka Pastitsio: The Recipe

spanikopita triangles

Spanikopita

Jump straight to the spanikopita recipe or the steps.

spanikopita

When I was a kid growing up in Monte Sereno, California, we had Greek neighbors. Let’s call them the Constantines. All the Constantines had dark brown eyes and black hair, which, in my world of blond-blue-eyedness, I found beautiful.

At Easter, the family dyed all their Easter eggs red, to signify “God’s blood,” Greg’s older sister Andi told me. Eastern Christian, or Eastern Orthodox Easter does indeed opt for bright red eggs as opposed to the pastel rainbow favored by Western Easter, both secular and religious.

However, in my over-romanticized child’s view of the world, I was sure she said, “the gods’ blood.” I managed to convince myself that the family worshiped all the Greek gods—and since my Greek mythology book was one of my favorites, I thought that was very cool indeed. Those red eggs surely symbolized some exotic ritual that had something to do with pomegranates. It was wildly exciting.

Eating Spanikopita

I didn’t try Greek food until years later, when I lived in Ithaca, NY, for an interesting experiment of a year at Cornell. (I was in the MFA acting program and it didn’t really take, particularly since I got a chance to move to New York City and live in a downtown apartment for $265 a month.) The Greek restaurants—really diners—in Ithaca are wonderful. It was there that I ate spanikopita for the first time.

Between fall of 1983 and the following spring, many a helping of spanikopita was had by me in this very location.

Greek diner spanikopita tends to come in a big pan, kind of like lasagna with filo. Fun fact: Filo (or phyllo, depending on which box you buy) and strudel are basically the same thing. Why?, you may ask. Well, think about geography. The Austrian-Hungarian empire went pretty far east; Turkey and Greece, as you can see, are not that far to the south.

Those inventive cooks and bakers who transformed a handful of flour, water, and fat into a Nerf-ball-sized lump of dough, which they then rolled out to about the size of a bed sheet, inspired and probably taught the Magyars, Serbs, Croats, and Bulgarians how to make the same stuff. Next time you tuck into a crispy, shattery apple strudel, realize it could just as well be spinach and feta cheese, or honey and pistachio nuts between those layers.

By the way, you can use this same recipe to make the lasagna-esque version of spanikopita. Still, I prefer these little triangles, which are only a little time consuming, and otherwise easy. And while it helps to have a decent size counter to work on, I have made these in tiny NYC kitchens. So it can be done.

Here’s how.

Making Spanikopita

  • Take a package of frozen spinach, thaw it, and squeeze the hell out of it, until it’s as dry as possible. I always use thawed frozen spinach. The volume of raw spinach necessary to cook down to 10 ounces takes up a ton of room in the fridge.
spanikopita-squeeze
  • Chop scallions, dill, and parsley. Add to a bowl with the squeezed-dry spinach. Mix in one egg, a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of nutmeg, and 4-6 ounces of crumbled feta. Naturally, the better quality the feta, the yummier this will be.
spanikopita mix
  • Melt about a stick of butter and have a pastry brush ready. (If you use coconut oil instead, you will have a cracklier spanikopita, which may be fine for you.) Line a counter-top the size of a cookie sheet with parchment. You can work directly on your baking sheet if you want, but it will have some butter on it afterward, and that could smoke up your oven.
  • As lightly as possible, brush the sheet with butter, then lay down your first sheet of filo. Brush that lightly with butter, lay down another sheet, until you have 3 sheets.
  • Put a heaping tablespoon of filling at the top of the sheet. Then repeat so you have four tablespoons going across the sheet.
spanikopita
  • Take a sharp paring knife and cut rows down the length of the sheet.
a
  • Fold one corner of the sheet over in a triangle, the way you’re supposed to fold a flag. Just keep flipping, until….voila.
This format was an experiment; next time, I won’t be shooting in portrait.
  • Repeat, then repeat the whole exercise until you run out of filling.
  • When you’re done, brush the tops of completed triangles with butter. You can either freeze them in layers. Or you can bake the spanikopita in a preheated 350º oven for about 12-15 minutes. They should be nicely golden.

Spanikopita are, to my mind, the absolutely perfect Easter meal appetizer. But they are really pretty darn wonderful any time of year. Just hunker down, do the work, and feel safe and secure that you have a store of yum in your freezer for the next 6 months. You probably won’t need a reminder to eat them.

The Recipe