Easter meal combines traditions

Posted: March 20, 2013

The Winchester Star

Grape leaves are stuffed with rice, dill, spring onions, lemon and pine nuts. The dish is a popular cold appetizer.
Maria Boyer cuts Galaktoboureko, a custard dessert, served at Easter time. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

Winchester — If you asked Angeliki Hutchinson what the best ingredient of a good Easter meal is, she would tell you togetherness.

Hutchinson, of Frederick County, grew up celebrating two Easters — the Western Easter for her German-American mother’s side of the family and the Eastern Easter for her Greek father’s side.

How the two cultures celebrated the holiday differed in many ways in regard to food and traditions, but what was always the same was that it was a time to come together to feast and celebrate with people she cared about.

“When I think of Easter, one way or another, I think of family,” said Hutchinson, a member of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Winchester.

But the tool to prolong that experience is through food, which fuels people as they share the day, said Maria Boyer, who also attends the Greek Orthodox Church.

Food is an important part of Easter, whether because of the sacrifice involved in Lent leading up to it or the enjoyment people find when it is over.

Monday was Kathari Theftera, or Clean Monday, which began the Eastern church’s 40 days of Lent, she said. A special kind of flat bread, lagana, is traditionally made only on that day.

The bread is made with flour, water, yeast and olive oil. It rises, is rolled out into a long rounded shape and left to rise again. Just before baking, sesame seeds are sprinkled on top.

It is good with olive oil mixed with salt, pepper and oregano to dip, Boyer said. It is also served with taramosalata, a dip made with fish roe.

Coming off of 40 days of Lent, people are ready to enjoy meats, cheeses, sweets, and other goodies, she said.

Eastern Easter this year is May 5. The day is a time for mingling, munching, and then much more of both, she said.

“A meal is not like here, where it takes an hour or so. It takes the whole day,” said Boyer, of Round Hill in Loudoun County.

Although she has lived in the United States for three decades, Boyer, who immigrated from Greece, holds fast to the traditional Easter foods she had growing up. Many of her favorite dishes are in the main dinner meal — lamb, potatoes, spring vegetables — but that comes after a long day of eating.

The celebrating starts when the day has barely begun. After a midnight service to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, families return home for a light meal to break the fast, Hutchinson said.

Often at the center of this early morning meal is mayiritsa soup, which was designed to use leftover parts (liver, heart, lungs and other organs) from a lamb that would be eaten later in the day, she said. The meat is ground and combined with lemon juice, dill, onions and other ingredients to make a tasty light soup.

Some of the foods served have symbolism related to the holiday, Boyer said. Tsoureki is a sweet bread that is braided, each strand representing part of the Trinity, and decorated with a red hardboiled egg symbolizing the resurrection. The twice cooked egg is generally not eaten.

After the early morning meal and time spent socializing, people go to sleep and wake up late, she said. In her family, the celebration started in the afternoon with people arriving at “Greek time,” meaning whenever they happened to get there, she said.

To accommodate the varying arrival times, instead of a big lunch, an assortment of cold and hot mezedes, or appetizers, are served with wine to fill the afternoon, she said. “You nibble, you talk, you drink, and then you do it all over again.”

Meatless dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves, are a popular cold appetizer, she said. One variation of the stuffing consists of sautéed onions, rice, dill, salt and pepper, pine nuts, and lemon juice that are combined and partially cooked. The ingredients are tightly rolled in grape leaves, put in the bottom of a pot, and covered with a plate. Add a little water and olive oil and simmer until they are soaked in to finish the dish.

In Hutchison’s family, hot appetizers consist of chicken livers, fried sausage and meatballs. The meatball served as an appetizer has mint rather than parsley, and was a popular meat item to satiate people coming off a fast, she said. “While they are waiting for the lamb, they eat a lot of meatballs.”

Other popular cold appetizers consisted of cheese and olive plates and fresh fruit, she said. It is spring, so people want to celebrate having fresh fruits and vegetables again.

Traditionally, the main attraction of the day is the lamb, which represents the Lamb of God, Hutchinson said. While many people cook it on a spit, she and Boyer both roast their leg of lamb and serve it with salad, a starch (usually oven roasted potatoes), and fresh vegetables. Other favorite additions to the meal are spanakopita (spinach pie) and tiropita (cheese pie), which are both made with phyllo dough.

When Boyer prepares her leg of lamb, she pokes holes in it and adds little slivers of fresh garlic. Then she rubs olive oil into the meat, followed by a rub consisting of oregano, salt and pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice.

The way she makes it, the lamb is cooked about one hour on 400 degrees before quartered white potatoes, which also were tossed in the rub, are added to the pan. The combination cooks for anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes more.

Hutchinson determines when her lamb is done by using a meat thermometer. An internal temperature of 140 degrees is usually still rare, while 170 degrees is well done with a crispy exterior.

The meal doesn’t end there. After dinner comes more visiting over coffee and dessert, she said. A dessert she likes to serve is galaktoboureko, which is a rich custard pie she always makes the day before. If made much earlier than that, the pie’s phyllo dough top starts to get soggy. If made the day before, it shouldn’t be covered when refrigerated as this hastens the sogginess.

A pan is layered on the bottom and up its sides with six to eight sheets of phyllo dough, she said. The custard filling is made separately in a pot from milk, whipping cream, eggs, farina (milled cereal grain), butter, vanilla and orange zest. It is poured in and covered with more sheets of phyllo dough and baked about 35 minutes. A syrup is poured on after the dish is baked.

One trick when making the recipe is to score the top layer of phyllo sheets before baking, she said. Doing it afterward makes it break up as it is cut.

Other popular Easter desserts are melomakarona (small honey cakes), kourabiedes (butter almond cookies), diples (thin fried pastry), and koulourakia (Easter cookies).

Although they won’t be able to partake of them until Eastern Easter, members of the Greek Orthodox Church help mark the end of Western Easter with a bake sale, Hutchinson said. The kourabiedes are always served there as well as the tsoureki (sweet bread).

Other popular pastries are karidopita (walnut cake), baklava, kataifi (shredded wheat like pastry with butter and syrup), and koulourakia.

Bake sale

The church at 1700 Amherst St. will have a bake sale of Easter pastries from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 30. A take-out gyro sale will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 540-667-1416.

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com