NATASHA RUDRA April 04, 2012
Greek Easter bread with red dyed eggs, from Lyndey Milan. Photo: Taste of Greece
For the Greek community, it's feasting at all hours Natasha Rudra reports
For Aleka Yianoulakis, the best dish of Easter is the traditional offal soup, a rich concoction of finely chopped lamb's liver, spleen and heart, made creamy with beaten egg. It's part of a late-night feast eaten on Easter Saturday after midnight mass. ''On Saturday night, everyone comes to my place after the church,'' the Canberran says with a smile.
The table is filled with special dishes. There are plates of crispy fried pork flavoured with lemon and oregano. For those, especially the young, too squeamish to eat the offal soup, Yianoulakis makes a pot of more orthodox lamb, an osso bucco. She puts out the buttery Easter bread known as tsoureki, which is festooned with flaked almonds and hard-boiled eggs which have been dyed a deep red.
''We stay until 3am, 3.30am and then everyone goes to sleep and I have to clean up everything,'' she says laughing. Luckily, she's got family to lend a hand - her three sons stay up and help her wash dishes and empty the table.
The next day, everyone comes back for Easter Sunday lunch, which features a whole lamb or a goat on a spit.
The Greek Easter isn't for the faint of heart. There are community rituals. There is fasting. And there is food - a lot of it. Yianoulakis says the preparation takes at least a week. ''On Friday it's like a funeral, you can't do anything, you go to church in the morning, you go to church at night. The next day you start preparing the food for Sunday,'' she says.
For Yianoulakis, who runs the trattoria at the Hellenic Club, Easter also means cooking for the wider Greek community, so in the lead-up to Easter, she and her chefs bake trays full of plaited Easter bread, sweet Greek pastries with honey and nuts and soft shortbread biscuits.
The most work goes into the lamb soup. ''We use the liver, the spleen, the heart, all the insides, we wash it really well and cut it very fine,'' Yianoulakis says. She cooks it with plenty of shallots and dill. After the soup boils, she beats eggs and slowly adds the soup, being careful not to split the eggs. This makes it creamy. Then it's ready for the night of Christ's resurrection.
On that Saturday night, the community gathers at the Orthodox churches in Kingston and in Queanbeyan. The lights are put out and at the stroke of midnight, the priest takes a lit candle and brings warmth and brightness to the congregation. Each family takes a candle home, shielding the flame from wind, careful not to let it go out. When they get home, they use the candle to smoke a cross on the front door for good luck. Then they gather for a very late meal to break their Lenten fast.
Tsoureki, the braided Easter bread, is a cornerstone of the meal. Like brioche, the loaf is made sweet and rich with butter, eggs and milk. Yianoulakis says her mother always used the zest of a lemon and a special spice, mahlepi, which is made from the pits of cherries, to give the bread a beautiful aroma. It is decorated with dyed red eggs to symbolise the blood of Christ.
She remembers Easter in Greece as a beautiful time, falling in spring. Yianoulakis grew up in Patras, the capital of the southern Greek peninsula of Peloponnesus, home of Sparta. As a child, Easter reminds her of the family going to church and afterwards to a cafe where she got to eat a scoop of granita and share in little desserts to break the fast.
She also remembers being fascinated by Australia - so much so that she won an essay competition at school with a treatise on the land downunder. When she met her husband and married, they honeymooned in Australia. ''I said I don't want to go back,'' she says laughing. So the young couple went back to Greece only long enough to arrange their emigration visas. They've been here ever since.
At the Hellenic Club, her family traditions are firmly upheld. ''If someone comes, even to the restaurant, you give them [a dyed red] egg for Easter,'' she says.
Television cook Lyndey Milan says there's nothing quite like a Greek celebration. ''There's no mistaking it for any other culture at all,'' she says. ''There's a whole lead-up to it, there are certain traditions they have to follow and that's why there's such a celebration on Easter Sunday. I think they are uniquely Hellenic.''
In 2010, Milan and her actor son Blair spent time travelling through the Peloponnese - the region from which Yianoulakis hails - eating, cooking and collecting recipes.
The trip was made into a SBS television series, Lyndey and Blair's Taste of Greece, but personal tragedy struck when Blair was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia a year ago, before the series went to air. The 29-year-old died on April 17 last year, just three days after his diagnosis. Milan's cookbook from the TV series, also called Lyndey and Blair's Taste of Greece and out last month, is a tribute to her son, whose love of life and vitality made their Greek journey a joy.
Milan concludes her introduction to the book with this poignant tribute to her son: ''When we have reached perfection we can end this life'', expressing the hope her book will help readers remember her son, and also rediscover the vibrancy of Greek food.
The book includes a selection of Easter recipes, including the braided tsoureki bread and the golden shortbread crescents known as kourambiedes.
The highlight of any Greek Easter feast is the roast - a whole lamb or goat on a spit. Lyndey Milan calls it ''amazing and unbelievable'' and it's her favourite part of a paschal feast.
''It is just so delicious, they baste it as they cook, they use Greek wild oregano, dried, and they use a mixture of olive oil and lemon,'' she says. ''So it becomes really, really crisp and delicious.''
Aleka Yianoulakis also starts with the traditional ingredients - lemon, salt, pepper and oregano. Then she says the preparation is all in the hands.
''You have to massage the lamb so all the ingredients get in,'' she says. Once the lamb is properly massaged, it can be seasoned from inside with more lemon and garlic. Or it can be filled with another separate dish entirely.
''You can stuff the tummy with pinenuts, rice and liver. You cook them before, fill it up and stitch the lamb shut,'' Yianoulakis says. When the lamb is done cooking over the spit, she serves the meat on a bed of fragrant, lamby rice.
Milan believes the fact of the lamb being on the spit contributes to the overall experience.
''There's just something wonderful about having a whole animal there,'' she says.
Milan once hosted a Greek-themed New Year's party, somehow cramming a spit roast on to the balcony of her Potts Point apartment. But for those who don't have much space and still want to partake of Greek Easter traditions, she recommends a more portable, slowroasted lamb recipe with a traditional black-eyed pea salad.
So come April 15, Yianoulakis - like most of Canberra's Greek community - will be sitting down to a table filled with special treats and big festive dishes.
These days, she spends much of her time at the restaurant but the family all come down to her. She'll hand out bright red eggs, serve out lamb, cut a sign of the cross into the Easter loaf before slicing it. And she'll be surrounded by people - her sons, her husband, all her friends.
Milan puts it aptly: ''They are great ones for celebrating with their family. There's so much joy.''
Red eggs - kokina paschalina avga
Measure one cup of warm water and half a cup of white vinegar in a glass jug, addone sachet Greek red food dye (see note) and mix well. Fill a large saucepan with 1.75 litres of warm water, add the dye mix, stir well. Gently place 12 eggs in a single layer into the saucepan. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Gently remove the eggs and cool. Polish the eggs with a lightly oiled cloth before using.
Note: one sachet of Greek red food dye will colour one dozen eggs. It is available from Greek delicatessens and some supermarket deli counters. Take care as the dye is strong and will stain. A strong gel or powdered food colour can also be used, but liquid food colours don't give an intense colour. Make sure the eggs are not crowded in the pan as they cook, or they will not colour evenly.
Easter bread - tsoureki
Makes one loaf
Place one cup of milk in a bowl, sprinkle in two teaspoons (7 grams) of dried yeast and one teaspoon caster sugar and whisk until the yeast is dissolved. Stir in half a cup of sifted flour, cover and stand in a warm place for 30 minutes, or until the mixture has doubled.
Stir in 150 grams melted butter, two lightly beaten eggs, the finely grated zest of one orange, two teaspoons of aniseed (or two teaspoons mahlepi and half a teaspoon of masticha), half a teaspoon of salt and a further one-third cup of caster sugar, then gradually stir in a further three cups sifted plain flour to form a dough. Gently knead the dough on a floured surface for about 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl, cover and stand in a warm place until doubled in size (about one-and-a-half hours).
Turn out and knead for one to two minutes. Cut the dough into three even pieces and roll each piece into a 40 centimetre long cylinder, plait the lengths together, then shape into a wreath, pinching the ends to join. Place on a lined baking tray. Press three red eggs firmly into the wreath. Stand in a warm place until well risen (about 45 minutes).
Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Brush the bread with a combined egg yolk and two tablespoons milk, then bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 180C (160C fan-forced) and bake for a further 30 minutes, or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped.
Note: This bread is part of the traditional midnight supper early on Easter Sunday morning after the Resurrection Service. The three dough ropes plaited together symbolise the Holy Trinity; the red eggs symbolise the blood shed by Christ. It is best made on the day of serving. It is delicious toasted after that.
Barbecued squid filled with spinach and feta
Every Mediterranean cuisine has its own recipe for stuffed squid - this is the Greek version.
8 small calamari (about 80g each)
lemon juice to serve
extra-virgin olive oil
feta and spring onion stuffing
2 cups (about 100g) baby spinach leaves
250g feta, crumbled
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp oregano leaves, finely chopped
½ cup dill, chopped
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
To clean each calamari, gently pull on the tentacles to remove them. Cut the tentacles off below the head and discard the head. Remove the clear quill from the body and any dark membrane and discard. Salt your fingers to remove the skin. Cut off the side flaps and finely chop with the tentacles. Reserve. Rinse the calamari well and pat dry with paper towels.
To make the stuffing, blanch the spinach leaves and squeeze dry. Crumble the feta into a small bowl and mash with a fork. Add the spinach, pine nuts, garlic, spring onions, oregano, dill, lemon zest and reserved chopped calamari, season well with freshly ground black pepper and stir to mix thoroughly.
Use a piping bag or teaspoon to fill the calamari with the stuffing, taking care not to overstuff the hoods. Use a toothpick on each calamari hood to secure the opening and prevent the filling from escaping.
Preheat a barbecue flat plate or non-stick frying pan to hot. Brush the calamari with a little of the oil and cook the calamari for about three minutes on each side, turning them so all sides are browned and the filling is heated through. Drizzle with a little lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil to serve.
Slow-roasted lamb with salad of black-eyed peas and herbs
Ask the butcher to leave the shank bone attached.
1.5 kg lamb leg, shank bone attached (or shoulder)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp rigani
1 tbsp fennel seeds
2 tsp sea salt flakes
6 thyme sprigs
Salad of black-eyed peas
1 cup dried black-eyed peas (or use a can of rinsed butter beans or chickpeas)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 bay leaf
½ cup sliced sundried tomatoes
2 tbsp capers, roughly chopped
½ cup pitted kalamata olives, cut into halves
1 cup flat-leaf parsley
2 tbsp wine vinegar
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
100g feta, crumbled (optional)
Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan-forced). Place the lamb in a roasting tin. Combine the oil, vinegar, rigani and fennel. Rub the mixture over the lamb, then sprinkle the lamb with the salt and thyme sprigs and season well with freshly ground black pepper.
Roast the lamb, uncovered, for three hours (it will be meltingly tender) or for four hours if you want the meat to fall from the bone.
Meanwhile, cook the black-eyed peas for the salad. Place them in a medium saucepan with the garlic and bay leaf. Cover with cold water, place over a medium-low heat and simmer for 50-60 minutes, or until the peas are soft and tender. Drain.
To serve, remove the lamb from the oven, cover loosely with foil and stand for 10 minutes. Toss all of the salad ingredients together and season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Use a carving fork and knife to slice or pull the lamb from the bone and serve with the salad.
Recipes and images from Lyndey and Blair's Taste of Greece, by Lyndey Milan (Hardie Grant, March 2011, $39.95).
Natasha Rudra is a staff reporter.