For Greeks, this Sunday’s Orthodox Easter is the biggest holiday of the year, a time when observant Greek Orthodox families and friends gather to share a bountiful feast after the 40 days of fasting during Lent and Holy Week. In many homes, preparations for the Easter feast will go on all day Saturday, well into the night and even continue most of the day Sunday.
Lamb and eggs are the centerpieces of the Greek Easter feast. The eggs are dyed a vivid red with a special imported coloring available only at Greek markets. The lamb appears in many forms--as appetizer, soup and main course.
Traditionally, it’s the soup, mayeritsa, that is eaten first. It is used to break the fast after the Saturday midnight church service when the faithful leave the church with their lighted candles and the scent of incense and rush home or to their favorite restaurant.
Mayeritsa is only prepared at this time of the year. Authentically, it is made with lamb heart, lungs and other organ meats, though these days adaptations are permissible. After the long fast, this soup is soothing to the stomach and a gentle break from the fast.
At this midnight meal, it is traditional for each person to choose one of the red hard-boiled eggs to crack against someone else’s. The person whose egg doesn’t crack is considered to have good luck for the rest of the year. The egg symbolizes the new life of the Resurrection. The cracking of the egg is symbolic of Christ’s emergence from the tomb.
The next day is the major feast. There will be tsoureki, a yeast bread braided with more of the bright red eggs and flavored with mahlepi (a seasoning made of ground pits of a native Greek variety of cherry). These breads are so beautiful that they can be used as a centerpiece for the table.
The first lamb dish usually served is kokoretsi--skewers of lamb innards that are wrapped in lamb intestines and grilled. These skewers are meant to be eaten as appetizer-like nibbles while the lamb is slowly roasting over the open fire.
The preparation of the lamb is done by the men of the family. The lamb is selected and butchered a few days before Easter. It is then brought home and kept until Easter morning when it is tied to the rotisserie and delicately balanced so it will turn smoothly. It usually takes about four hours for the lamb to cook over the open fire, depending on its size. It is rubbed with olive oil and generously seasoned with Greek oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. An herbal brush is made up of fresh oregano, dill and parsley sprigs, dipped into a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice and brushed on the lamb throughout the cooking.
The lamb is served with Greek roasted potatoes. Spanakopita, a spinach pie, and Greek salad are served along with chunks of feta cheese and kasseri cheese, Greek olives, and tzatziki a yogurt-cucumber sauce. Assorted appetizers (mezedes) are served, including cheese-filled tyropitas made with filo dough, the eggplant dip melitzanosalata, the little meatballs called keftedakia and stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades.
The traditional dessert for this feast--as well as any other festive Greek dinner--is the beloved baklava. There may also be small braided orange-and-sesame cookies called koulourakia, or the custard-filled galaktoboureko filo desserts. There will probably be a platter of fresh fruit and, of course, more of that tsoureki braided bread. It’s not every day you get to eat red eggs.