The tradition of Easter in the Eastern Orthodox churches (May 4) is so closely linked to cooking that the two are inseparable. Or so it seems to Denise Cassis, reared in a Greek family in Spokane, Wash.
In her home, preparations begin on Holy Thursday when eggs are dyed a deep red. On Holy Saturday the Easter bread, Lambropsomo , is baked, and a lamb, just slaughtered at a friend's farm nearby, is put on a long, wooden spit, ready for roasting whole over red-hot coals.
Celebration continues after worshipers arrive home from a midnight service, carrying Resurrection candles. "You'll have good luck for the year if you can get all the way home with the candle still lit," Cassis said.
Preparing for the Feast
After a few hours of sleep, the cooking begins in earnest as the fire is lit and the lamb takes its first, slow circle on the hand-turned spit. The central point of the Easter feast is, of course, the roasted lamb. And, lacking a whole beast, most families now opt for a leg or saddle, cooked with traditional seasonings of garlic, rosemary and lemon. Cassis' mother adds orzo , small rice-shaped pasta, which she cooks with tomato sauce and the rich juices from the roasting pan.
The rest of the menu combines specific Easter specialties and perennial favorites, all grouped together on the table in happy profusion.
Tiropita cannot be left out--a feta cheese custard baked in buttery layers of filo dough and cut into diamonds. Made year-round, Tiropita is available on street corners in Greece as a mid-morning snack.
More common yet is Greek Salad--appearing in one variation or another every day of the year and, like Tiropita , impossible to omit at Easter. The combination of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, onions, feta cheese and cured black olives, anointed with oregano-laden oil and vinegar, is a refreshing contrast to the richness of the lamb.
There are two baked specialties of the Easter season. Lambropsomo is an egg-rich, sweet bread baked with red eggs nested in the plaits, then cut into hearty wedges. Koulourakia are cookies shaped in braids, circles or loops, equally rich with cream and butter and topped with sesame seeds. "Tiresome things (to make)," warns Cassis as she rolls them into shape, "but you'll understand why they're worth it when you taste them."
To accompany a meal of such strong flavors, a strong drink is needed, and the Greeks have it. Retsina wine, with its strong overtones of pine resin, is a perfect companion to a Greek feast, but you may want to offer another choice as some people find it an acquired taste. Other Greek wines and cold beer are acceptable alternatives.
GREEK EASTER FEAST FOR 12
Roast Leg of Lamb With Orzo
Onion-Skin Easter Eggs
Koulourakia Suggested drink: Greek wine such as Retsina, Hymettus or Demestica, or imported beer
Perfect for a festive occasion, most preparation for this menu can be done ahead with only the lamb to roast at the last minute.
Up to one month ahead, bake the Koulourakia and store in an airtight container.
Up to three days ahead, mix the salad dressing and store in a cool place. Dye eggs with onion skins and leave at room temperature.
Up to one day ahead, season the lamb and store, covered, in refrigerator. Assemble and bake the Tiropita, cover and refrigerate. Bake the bread and store in an airtight container. Chill the wine and beer.
About two hours before serving, assemble the salad without dressing and refrigerate. Set the table, adding bowls of dyed eggs.
About 1 3/4 hours before serving, roast the lamb, basting often.
About 30 minutes before serving, remove the lamb from the oven, cover and keep warm. Add tomato and seasonings to roasting pan. Cook orzo .
About 15 minutes before serving, place Tiropita in oven to reheat. Set plates of cookies on table. Add dressing to salad, then place on table.
About 5 minutes before serving, cut Tiropita and place on serving dish.
Just before serving, set bread on board to be cut at table. Carve lamb and mound on platter. Spoon orzo into serving dish. ROAST LEG OF LAMB WITH ORZO
2 (4- to 5-pound) legs of lamb
3 cloves garlic, peeled and slivered
1 bunch rosemary
1/2 cup white wine
1 (1-pound) can tomato sauce
6 cups water
1 stick cinnamon
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
2 pounds orzo pasta
With point of sharp knife, make deep holes in meat of lamb. Insert garlic slivers. Sprinkle lamb with juice of 1 lemon. Remove 2 tablespoons rosemary leaves from stem. Crush slightly. Rub into surface of meat. Reserve remaining rosemary for decoration. Lamb can be prepared to this point up to 1 day in advance and kept covered in refrigerator.