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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, as Dad used to say. If you don’t know the second line of that little poem, it’s “I wonder where the flowers is?” My dad was a drummer, and he loved the rhythm of language.
Big news this month is a very late Easter/Passover season. I love the rituals and stories that unfold over this week. Whatever your beliefs or lack thereof, I hope the simple beauty of the ideas finds its way to you in one way or other.
Dad: A Brief Reminiscence
Dad studied Passover in particular. He even wrote his own version of the Haggadah, the story of Moses and his delivery of his people from Egyptian slavery.
He called me and said proudly, “I wrote a rap.” It was about as rappy as Dr. Seuss, and you can make your own determination as to how The Sneetches stacks up against NWA (short) or Will Smith (pretty close). Dad’s Haggadah Rap contained the refrain, “But the children of Israel down in Egypt Land were safe in the palm of God’s mighty hand.” Dad himself had mighty hands; he’d been 6’6″ in his prime, until age shrunk him. But it didn’t shrink his hands. In any event, I loved that he chose that particular metaphor. To this day, I associate the word “safe” with my hand in my dad’s, or with his arms around me.
Right before he died, I was talking to him, and he was holding my hand. He said, “Your hands are small.” I said, “That’s only because yours are so big.” He said, “Too bad you didn’t get big hands like mine. Then you could have played the piano.”
Dad, by the way, used to drive me to my piano lessons. Even with breath and words were at a premium, he made sure I’d smile.
Coming Soon: Spring Festival Party Plan!
Like Thanksgiving, I never enjoyed Easter until I began to cook it myself. And Easter was particularly rough for me because I don’t eat lamb or ham, and they seem to be the Easter requirements, with the former also pretty much de rigeur on the Passover table.
But when I discovered Greek Easter, I perked up. First off, Greek cuisine is the bomb. The palette runs through the spectrum with giddy joy: brilliant tomatoes, fire-colored peppers, brilliant green herbs, ending in deep eggplant. The dairy products conjure up images of adorable lambs and goats frisking around as their moms provide the rich milk for feta, halloumi, and labneh, the ultra-thick, downright decadent cream.
A trip to my local Middle Eastern emporium provided heaps o’ fun, including the above and….what could these be?
They’re fresh almonds! So cool!!
I’ve already dropped the Greek Salad and Spanikopita recipes. I’ll be cranking about 4 more treats in the next few days and putting the final touches on the big plan. The truth is, if there ain’t lamb, it ain’t Greek Easter—all to be explained in yet another upcoming post, courtesy of my good friend Callie Floor, who grew up in the tradition. But a springtime table groaning with Spanikopita, Moussaka, and delectable Greek Easter bread on the side: count me in, and make the festival about whatever you like.
LCF Update April 2019: Watching Recos
Steve and I did a double whammy finish last night of one of our favorite shows and a new favorite. Both were season finales, with, we grant you, very short seasons.
The first, Catastrophe, has been a joy and a wonder—and we wrapped it up last night, watching the fine and lovely finale. True, the language is raunchy as hell; Catastrophe is not for the prim. But it is also one of the best explorations of what it likes to make a relationship work that I’ve ever seen. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan play two characters named Rob and Sharon, who end up in a kind of why-the-hell-not? marriage. Love is not even mentioned for a good while. They fight, they have a lot of sex (the talking is more graphic than the showing), as well as at least one kid, and they are both superbly, supremely hilarious and touching. I’ll miss it. Yet now that it’s over, I have to say it ended in exactly the right way.
Ricky Gervais’ Netflix show, After Life, is equally wonderful, and fortunately coming back next year. Gervais uses his, shall-we-say, “thorny” personality to unexpectedly fine effect as a grieving widower. I’ve seen him snarky, bitter, and pissed off plenty of times, and honestly nearly avoided the show because I’m kind of tired of it. But he adds a layer of grief under everything, along with a struggle to be at least a little bit of a decent person. It results in an honest, raw expression of mourning. And anything with Penelope Wilton is going to be extra special. Caveat: If you are uncomfortable with characters expressing a complete lack of belief in God or in an afterlife, either prepare to be uncomfortable or skip it. But I hope you’ll give it a whirl.
LCF Update April 2019: Reading Recos
On the book front, S and I have been listening to Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. (Helluva subtitle; deeply grateful for cut and paste at the moment.) Pollan reads the book himself, and, as an audiobook, he paces the information, which is pretty dense, in an optimal way. It’s amazing to find out the ways that psychedelic drugs have been used to treat, with great success, conditions from alcoholism to anxiety over terminal diseases. It’s also pretty frustrating to learn about how Timothy Leary basically and almost single-handedly knee-capped a promising area of psychiatric medicine, and did it primarily out of self-interest—at least, that’s my takeaway. Doesn’t narcissism suck?
I crashed through Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, Eliza Griswold’s powerful, closely-observed report over a Pennsylvania family who had the misfortune of being 1500 feet downhill from a fracking pond. Griswold manages to make the arcana of fracking understandable, both from a technical and a deeply personal standpoint. I read the 300-page book in about 4 days; it was that hard to put down. (I’m not a super fast reader.) Fracking, uncomfortably close to home for a while, appears to have slowed in Michigan. If things heat up, I’m much better equipped to fight, thanks to this book.
I also finished two novels this month, and, unusually, I loved them both. Assymetry starts with an Alice in Wonderland riff, and before it gets tiresome and gimmicky—which it could—author Lisa Halliday moves on. Her writing throughout shows remarkable discipline, precision, and a lithe spirit.
Cherry, by Nico Walker, chronicles a descent into what the author describes as “The Great Dope Fiend Romance.” Autobiographical, the protagonist begins as a smart but aimless teen who ends up in the army, unexpectedly gets sent to Iraq, can’t get a whole lot done afterwards due to PTSD, and turns to bank robbery in order to support his habit and his girlfriend’s. There is wonderful spare prose poetry here, unsentimental; he fails to romanticize an iota of his experiences. At one point, the soldier sends his girlfriend a documentary, one of the few he can access in Iraq, that delights him. She hates it. “I thought the world of those penguins,” he says. So many layers of regret in just those few words. Great stuff.
Salad is the first thing I learned to make well. The story of my cooking education begins haphazardly, and in the event of my first husband, Karl, getting sick. The women in his family took for granted that all women could cook. My ineptitude inspired a fair amount of ribbing, some good-natured, some not so much.
But though my confidence faltered when it came to traditional stuff, which I mostly didn’t bother to eat, my status as a native Californian gave me one distinct edge: I knew a good salad. And frankly, torn iceberg lettuce—replete with a tennis ball flavored tomato and Wishbone salad dressing that you added at the table—did not qualify. So I divided and conquered. Soon, I was pretty much smoking them all in the salad department.
I’m not sure when I learned to make Greek salad, but it’s always a hit. If I’ve gotten into some weird funk where I’m too lazy to make salad, it reminds me that they are both easy and delish. The bouquet of dill, mint, and fresh lemon always sings Springtime to me. As part of the upcoming Greek Easter menu (in the works), a Greek salad adds a bunch of raw, crispy, vibrant green that nicely complements the richer items on the menu. It’s also a wonderful light dinner. At one point, I would have thought a crusty baguette on the side was necessary. But now, I’m good with it all by itself. Though the whole wheat naan pictured above served as an excellent scooper, if you like that sort of thing. And spanikopita on the side is yummy, too.
Greek Salad: The Steps
Mince garlic, salt it, and add some lemon juice. The salt and lemon juice help the garlic break down. You can do this any time up to 4 hours but at least 20 minutes before you put the salad together.
Either dice some really fresh tomatoes if great tomatoes are available, or quarter some cherry tomatoes. Of course, all tomatoes are best picked right out of the garden in August and September, but cherries are pretty good year-round. Peel a cucumber, seed, and cube it. Put both together in a colander, sprinkle with salt. Let drain, at least 20 minutes and up to an hour or so.
Depending on how you feel about raw garlic, either remove the garlic pieces from the lemon (you can use them to cook in something else), or leave them in. Add oil so that you have a proportion of maximum one half part lemon juice to one whole part olive oil. Because you’ve got some fat here—from the feta cheese and olives—you can get away with a little more acid. Just be judicious. I don’t like my salad swimming in dressing, so I’m inclined to go lemon juice light—maximum one tablespoon. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together.
Pit some olives. Slice a red onion very thin. Add them to the dressing. If you like, artichoke hearts, sliced cooked or spiralized raw beets, grated carrot, and minced sun dried tomatoes can go in this layer as well.
Crumble on some feta, the best you can find. I like to go to Mediterranean Market in Ann Arbor, the closest Middle Eastern food supplier, and see what’s in the deli counter.
Add the drained tomatoes and cucumbers.
Top with a mix of greens. Romaine is essential, in my mind. Something dark but not too tough, like a baby kale, arugula, or spinach, is also great. Spring mix is a little flimsy given all the hearty components in this, so I recommend you don’t use it here. I do add plenty of herbs, and I keep the leaves whole. They look pretty, and they taste amazing.
Top with pepper to your heart’s content, and chomp away. Play bouzouki and afterward, dance like these guys.