COUNTDOWN OVER! TONIGHT IS ANASTASIA – GREEK EASTER – RECIPE FOR KOULOURAKIA

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The day has finally come! Tonight is Anastasi—the night Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection. After forty days of lent and another week for Holy Week, the wait is finally over. In between our normal daily routines, we’ve spent each evening this week attending solemn church services, as well as cooking and baking for the Easter celebration.

Tonight we shed our sadness of the crucifixion and rejoice, and no one does it better than the Greeks! Thousands will be out in the streets holding candles while the priest shouts out to the masses, “Christos Anesti – Christ has risen!

Afterward, the celebration will continue by consuming all the food that was prepared all week. It doesn’t matter that it’s two in the morning, or that some people may have lost a few inches of hair to the flaming candle behind them, they will eat until the wee hours of the morning.

Mayaritsa (traditional Easter soup), an array of cheeses, dolmathes, spanakopita, pastitsio – too much food to name. And each region of Greece has its own specialties.

After a few hours of sleep, family and friends gather the next day on Easter Sunday to continue the celebration. From the reverence for the holy days to the celebration after, the Greek spirit is evident. There is a joy and passion we call Kefi. It’s a love and appreciation for life.

Koulourakia

 

Pre-heat oven to 350º

Ingredients

9 cups flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

Juice and zest from 1 large orange

1 dozen large eggs

4 cups sugar

1 pound unsalted butter, softened

1 additional egg

Sesame seeds

In a bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder. Set aside. In a separate bowl, mix together eggs, sugar, orange juice and zest. In a large bowl, cream butter. Add the egg mixture to the butter, blending well. Mix in the flour. Form into a dough that can be worked without sticking to your hands. If necessary, add more flour. Form into small braid-like twists, circles, and S’s. Lightly beat an egg with 1 teaspoon of water. Brush the egg mixture onto each cookie and sprinkle sesame seeds. Bake for approx. 20 minutes. Yields approximately 120 cookies.

COUNTDOWN TO GREEK EASTER – TIROPITA AND AN EXCERPT FROM EVANTHIA’S GIFT

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Today is Good Friday. In between church, which Orthodox Christians attend three times on this solemn day, a lot of preparation needs to be done for the Easter celebration. And that involves mostly food, as you can tell from my posts this week.

The Greeks are people seeped in tradition, and our recipes are handed down from generation to generation. All week I’ve seen posts of the most beautiful tsourekia, and koulourakia—each person putting their own artistic spin on the designs.

I lost my mother almost four years ago and Easter was her favorite holiday. She would prepare for weeks, cooking and baking. Having her entire family around, gave her so much pleasure. I just had a phone conversation with my sister and she said that since our mother died, it is hard for her to feel anything for the holidays and she simply goes through the motions. I told her that she needs to try to look at it a different way. Our mother passed down these traditions, which were passed to her by her parents. Nothing would make her happier than to know that we carried on her legacy through her food and her customs. We should rejoice in all that she gave us and make sure our children pass it on to their children.

These emotions that I carry in my heart and the love for my heritage and my parents customs and traditions carried though in my novel, Evanthia’s Gift. Here is an excerpt:

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On Holy Thursday, Sophia spent the day dyeing red Easter eggs and making dough for the tsourekia, a traditional braided bread similar to challah, but sweeter. The baton was being passed, so to speak, as she was instructing Evanthia on the proper way to braid the bread.

“Now we will cover them with towels and keep them in a warm place. When they rise, we can bake them.”

“I’ll get the towels, Mom.”

“While we are waiting, we can dye the eggs.”

“Are we taking these to Yiayiá’s house?”

“Yes. I told her we would bring them.”

Making the bread was a long process, and took the bulk of the day. After the bread rose, they placed a red egg at the end of each braid, washed the surface with egg whites and sprinkled them with sesame seeds, once again letting them rise before baking the breads in the oven. The Church service of the Passion was at seven o’clock, and she needed to time the entire procedure perfectly or she would be late.

“While the bread is in the oven I will show you how to make tiropita.” Sophia instructed her daughter on forming perfect triangles of phyllo dough stuffed with a feta cheese mixture.

“Can I do the next one by myself?”

“Sure.” Sophia watched her daughter as she placed a dollop of cheese mixture onto a strip of phyllo and folded it just as she showed her. “That’s it. I couldn’t have done it better myself. My yiayiá in Greece taught Yiayiá how to cook. Yiayiá taught me and now I am teaching you. Someday you will teach your children to cook these foods and pass on the traditions of our family.”

Tiropita

 2 pounds Feta

2 egg yolks

Nutmeg

Parsley or dill (optional)

Phyllo

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

Cut the phyllo into 2 – 3 inch wide strips.

Mix feta, egg yolks, nutmeg and herbs in a bowl until smooth. Using 3 sheets of filo strips, place 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture at one end and fold into triangles. Brush the triangles with butter using a pastry brush and place on a parchment-lined baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

* To freeze for future use, store before brushing with butter. There is no need to thaw, simply place them in the oven as directed.

 

COUNTDOWN TO GREEK EASTER – TSOUREKI

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I have been trying, for years, to master baking tsoureki—traditional Greek Easter Bread. I’d watched my mother make it since I was a child, and as an adult I’d followed her recipe. But as delicious as hers were, they didn’t have the light, fluffy texture of the tsourekia at the Greek bakery. Mom’s was sweet and tasty, but dense. I made it my mission to create a recipe that balanced between the delicious sweet taste of my mother’s and the airiness of the bakery’s.

During my period of experimentation, I tried to crack the code — discover the secret — find the perfect recipe. What I’d learned was that there wasn’t anything wrong with Mom’s recipe. The problem was in the execution, and my nemesis was the yeast. Apparently, I didn’t understand the meaning of lukewarm, and this had been my biggest mistake. I now know that for the best results, the water must be the same temperature as your finger, otherwise the yeast will not rise to its full potential, if at all.

Last year, I was determined to make the best batch of tsourekia, so I consulted a panel of experts — avid bakers on a Greek Facebook page. After taking the advice from several women, I decided to keep my mother’s measurements but alter her method a bit. And I am very satisfied with the result. I got to keep my mom’s recipe in the family, yet at the same time, used it in a way that worked for me. With my newfound discoveries, I posted the recipe onto this blog site, but I foolishly threw away my mother’s original.

This year, when my yeast began to rise, I was so pleased. It had never risen so high. I was thrilled and thought, ‘this will be the fluffiest bread yet.’ I formed the braids and let them rise again, and when I removed the dishtowels covering the dough, the braids had flattened and spread throughout the pan. I’d spent all day making a double batch of tsourekia and they were completely ruined. I had no idea what I’d done wrong. I called my sister. I knew that I must have copied something wrong onto the blog post. And boy did I ever. Instead of 2 packets of yeast, I wrote down 5 packets of yeast. That certainly explains a lot. I won’t be making that mistake again.

PS – Just to be clear. The picture is last years beautiful tsourekia

Kali Anastasi! (Have a good resurrection)

Tsoureki

 2 packets rapid rise yeast (1/4 ounce each)

4 ounces lukewarm water

Dash of sugar

1 cup whole milk

1 ½ cup sugar

1 ½ cup unsalted butter (3 sticks)

5 eggs, room temperature

Juice and zest from 1 orange

1 teaspoon powdered mahlepi

½ teaspoon powdered mastiha

1 teaspoon salt

9-10 cups bread flour

1-2 egg yolk for brushing top of bread

Sesame seeds or almond slices for garnishing

 

In a bowl add the lukewarm water to the yeast along with the dash of sugar. The temperature of the water will decide if your bread will be a success or an epic fail. I have had both. The water should be the same temperature as your finger. Any warmer and it will kill the yeast. Place saran wrap over the bowl and set aside for about 10 minutes.

In a saucepan, add the butter, milk and sugar. Stir until the butter has melted. Do this over a low temperature. Remove from the pan and pour into a large bowl. Allow the mixture to cool to lukewarm.

Whisk in the eggs. Add the orange juice, zest, mahlepi and mastiha. Add the yeast mixture and whisk to combine.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, add the four and salt. Add the wet ingredients. Attach the dough hook to the mixer and mix on low speed for 1 minute. You may need to shut the mixer off and scrape the sides with a spatula. Mix at medium/high speed for 15 minutes. The dough will be a little sticky, but will begin to pull away from the bowl.

Transfer to a separate bowl, cover with a linen cloth and keep in a warm place for 2-3 hours. If you can’t find a warm enough place, I suggest you preheat your oven to 200 degrees and then shut it off. Place the bowl in the oven. When the dough has risen, gently deflate the dough with your fists and divide into 3 or 4 equal balls, depending on how large you want to make your breads and how many.

Each ball will then be divided into three equal sections and stretched long enough to form a braid. Form each braid on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Place a linen cloth over them and let them rise in a warm place for 1 hour.

In a small bowl, add 1 tablespoon of water to the egg yolks and whisk. Carefully, place a red Easter egg at the large end of the braid. With a pastry brush, gently coat the top of the bread with the egg and then sprinkle with sesame seeds or almond slices.

Bake in preheated oven set at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

 

 

COUNTDOWN TO GREEK EASTER – PASTITSIO

IMG_2490“Make the pastitsio exactly like yiayiá did,” my children and nieces tell me each year since my mother passed away. I use her recipe, but I pull out a little bit of the butter. Believe me! There is still plenty, and the little I omit will not be missed. But according to the younger generation in my family, who miss my mother terribly, everything must remain the same.

I’d like to share an excerpt from Evanthia’s Gift with you in this post since it directly relates to Easter. Although, just reading again it has me choking up, as it had each time I wrote and revised this section of the book. My mother was the inspiration for Ana, and both women’s Easters and the months that followed were similar in many ways. But I know my mother is looking down on us and is joyful that we’ve carried on the traditions she treasured and looked forward to each year.

The foods we cook, especially the recipes handed down to us, are not simply meals. They are the legacies of our ancestors and what ties us to our past.

Excerpt

     Ana spent hours in her kitchen, cooking and freezing trays of pastitsio, moussaka, spanakopita and tiropita. She prepared these foods for Easter, but also for a future occasion, one where she may no longer be with them. In the evenings, she sat by the fire snuggled into her husband’s arms, where she always felt safe, and they reminisced about the wonderful years they’d spent together. She spent time with the twins separately, giving them each her undivided attention, and schooled them with all the wisdom she would have bestowed upon them during their most impressionable years. She wanted her words to follow them through their joys and their heartaches, leaving them with invaluable life lessons, “Yiayiá style.”

She presented Nicky with a beautiful rose gold and diamond bracelet, one that her father had given her. “This is for you to give your wife one day — not your girlfriend.” She shook her finger at him. “Your wife. My father gave it to me and I am passing it to you. I will give it to Mommy to hold for you. You will know who to give this to. She will be the person you can’t live without.”

“I don’t want your things, Yiayiá. I want you,” Nicky told her.

“You will always have me, only not in the way you are used to.”

~ Pastitsio ~

Meat

2 pounds chopped meat                                                    ½ cup water

½ stick of unsalted butter                                                   ½ cup breadcrumbs

1 chopped onion                                                               ½ cup grated cheese

1 cup white wine                                                               Salt and pepper to taste

1 – 4 ounce can tomato paste

Dash of nutmeg

2-3 cinnamon sticks

Melt butter in a large skillet. Add meat and onion. Cook until meat is brown. Add wine, water and tomato paste. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add breadcrumbs and grated cheese.

*While preparing meat mixture, boil water for 2 pounds of pastitsio pasta. It looks like ziti noodles the length of spaghetti. You can find it in specialty stores and many Italian and Greek groceries. The pasta should be very al dente when you take it out of the pot and drain it.

Béchamel sauce

1½ sticks unsalted butter

1 cup flour

4 cups warm milk

Salt to taste

Dash of nutmeg

4 egg yolks

1 cup grated cheese

Make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan and whisking in the flour. Stir for 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Add the warm milk while continuously whisking until the sauce thickens. Add the salt and nutmeg. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Add the grated cheese. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the sauce while whisking, so not to cook the eggs in the sauce. The sauce should be smooth and pale yellow in color.

To assemble – Add some butter and grated cheese to the pasta to give them flavor and coat well. Layer the bottom of a deep baking dish with half the pasta. Distribute the meat mixture on top of the pasta and layer the rest of the pasta on top of the meat. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top layer of pasta. Sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350° until the top is golden brown, about 25-35 minutes. Let it set and cool a bit before cutting into squares.

 

 

Countdown to Greek Easter – Spanakopita

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Yes! I said Easter. Orthodox Easter arrives much later this year, May 1, and today begins Holy Week. For those of us who will be doing the cooking, this week’s fasting restrictions present a challenge. Tasting your food to make sure the seasoning is correct is vital, but since our diet is restricted this is impossible. No meat, dairy or olive oil is to be consumed. The experienced cook, and that includes most Greek moms and yiayiás, have learned to cook tradition recipes without sampling.

In honor of Greek Easter, this week’s posts will include the delicious foods being prepared for Easter, and some recipes to try while holding the fast. Of course, if you are not restricted this week, feel free to try these healthy recipes, as well as the foods you probably have only tried at Greek festivals.

I’ll start with an easy one. Spanakopita. Don’t get intimidated by the phyllo. It’s easier to work with than you think. Make a few trays and freeze them. It’s a crowd pleaser and having them already prepared saves last minute work.

I remember “the making of the spanakopita” as the laborious main even of the day. The spinach would have to be washed and rinsed from the sand at least two or three times, and then dried. Then my mother would sauté the spinach and press out all the excess liquid through a fine strainer.

I have so many good memories of watching my mother bake and cook, and learning all that I know from her, but this was not something that looked like fun to me. For years, I never made spanakopita. I made little triangles of tiropita, but never trays of spanakopita. I let my sister slave in the kitchen over that one.

I had this idea. What if I didn’t sauté the spinach? How would it come out? Well, I got my answer. Delicious. And the best part? I didn’t slave for hours.

I forgot to tell you about my second cheat. Now anyone that is acquainted with me, knows I’m not one to cut corners, or use ready-made products, but for this recipe, I only use baby spinach that has been triple washed! A little more expensive, but worth it!

 Spanakopita

 2 pounds fresh spinach

1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 finely sliced scallions

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup loosely packed fresh parsley and mint combination, chopped

¼ cup fresh dill, chopped

1½ pounds imported feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup breadcrumbs

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Pepper to taste

1 pound packaged phyllo

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350°

Sauté the scallions until tender. Normally, what most people do, and what I watched my mother do, was to sauté the spinach also, and then drain all the liquid out. This is where I decided to cheat. I saved myself the aggravation of all that pressing and draining, and…it paid off. It was a risk, but it was worth the try. In a huge bowl, I toss the spinach, sautéed scallions, parsley and mint, dill, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, eggs and the feta together. The spinach is going to melt down when it cooks in the oven, and by not sautéing it, it seems to have a fresher taste.

Grease a large baking pan and lay 8-10 phyllo leaves down, brushing each layer with butter. Spread the filling over the buttered pastry leaves. Lay another 8-10 leaves on top, brushing each leaf with butter. Tuck in any overhanging phyllo edges. Score the spanakopita with a sharp knife into square pieces. Pour any remaining butter evenly over the top. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes until golden.

 

 

 

 

 

Belgium Liege Waffles

IMG_4601Belgium Liege Waffles

 When we think of Belgium waffles, we envision the large fluffy, waffle made from batter similar to pancakes. But the waffles sold on the streets of Belgium are crispy treats wrapped in paper. There’s no need for whipped cream or fruit topping. They are sweet enough just as they are.

What makes them unique? The batter is actually dough, made with yeast and when you place the dough in the waffle iron, it’s much thicker than a runny pancake batter. The other secret ingredient, and the one that makes all the difference, is pearl sugar. Mixed into the dough, the sugar pebbles caramelize, giving the waffle its crispness.

After the first time I made the Liege waffle, I never again made the kind more familiar to Americans. I don’t make them often, but when I do, it’s a “look forwarded to” treat. Yesterday was my daughter’s thirtieth birthday and I invited our family for a birthday brunch. I made scones, home fries, eggs, French toast, avocado toasts, brown sugar glazed bacon, and Liege waffles. Below is the recipe. I encourage you to try these. It’s my favorite breakfast food. I’ll warn you, they are not low fat, but indulging occasionally is one of life’s pleasures.

Liege Waffles

1 package (¼ ounce) of self-rising yeast

1/3 cup lukewarm water

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar

2 cups flour

3 eggs

1 stick of melted butter (8 tablespoons)

2 teaspoons vanilla

¾ cup of pearl sugar

Mix the yeast, salt, sugar and water in a small bowl and let it sit for 15 minutes in a warm spot.

Place the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour the yeast mixture in the middle and mix on medium speed until blended. Do not over mix.

Add the eggs while mixing, and then slowly add the melted butter and vanilla. The batter should be thick and sticky.

Let the batter rest in a warm spot until it doubles. Fold in the pearl sugar and let the dough rest for 15 minutes.

Heat the waffle iron and spray with vegetable oil. Spoon the dough in the center of each waffle iron section until the light indicates they are done. (Approx. 3 minutes)