Greek Easter Food: Bourekas, Mahlepi, Pascha, more

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greek easter bread

The Greek Orthodox Church’s canon is to bless, praise and glorify God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Greek Orthodox Divine Liturgy midnight service commemorating Pascha or Easter is the embodiment of the expression of those principles. It is full of awe and pageantry; the highlight is when the church is completely shrouded in darkness and then the priest appears standing at the alter with his arm raised holding a single, white candle, aglow with the flame of the resurrection chanting; “Come; Receive the Light, the Light of the Resurrection.” And from that single flame, all of the parishioners light their candles enveloping the church with a joyful light. Red Eggs are distributed to the faithful at the conclusion of the Easter service which are taken home to eat at the Pascha meal or meals.

Traditionally, families go home and eat right after the service. And yes, by then it is well after midnight, well into the very early hours of Easter Sunday morning, when the family finally sits down together to eat their festive meal. The meal typically begins with sweet Easter bread known as “tsureki” and concludes with the family members playing a game called “tsougrisma” using the Red Eggs.

This year I planned a traditional Greek Easter meal for my best friend. He brought a young cousin along and our trusty camera man was on hand too for the festivities. I prepared several days in advance by purchasing a few special ingredients including paper thin sheets of filo dough, imported Greek feta cheese, imported Greek Kalamata olives and a spice called Mahlepi. Mahlepi is the nut found inside of the pit of cherries. I decided not to use it after all the hard work it took to find because one guest has a nut allergy and no one knew if this would or would not have an adverse effect on him. Also, Greek custom is that the Red Eggs are dyed on Holy Thursday and in keeping with this tradition, I dutifully dyed one dozen eggs red for our Easter celebration.

A holiday meal at my home usually begins with a few words about the essence of the holiday. Also, I stress the importance tradition plays in all of our lives by providing us with a time to be together not just to eat but to create new memories with our beloved family and friends. So, I took that opportunity to welcome my guests and impart my small bit of wisdom with them and what followed was a great deal of eating, lively conversation, laughter and sharing a memorable afternoon.

A small digression with a bit of historical context: I tried my hand at baking bread only once when I was young and it was not a pleasant experience for me or the bread. In fact, the bread became somewhat of a joke because it was not edible; rather, it was a perfect door-stopper! I would shudder at the thought of baking bread for years to come. But, when I extended the invitation to my friend to celebrate Easter it was clear that only one thing was expected and that was I would have to bake tsureki, the sweet Greek Easter Bread. So, I put my fear behind me and did my best. When the time was right, just before the appetizers were about to be served, I offered the honor of cutting the tsureki to my best friend. Instead he passed the task to me. Honestly, I held my breath and waited while he tasted it. He smiled and bestowed his approval beginning our meal!

greek easter2

Crimson and glittery gold Thai silk placemats, napkins and coasters adorned our festive dinner table. Our centerpiece was home baked traditional sweet Greek Easter bread, Tsureki braided into a ring and red eggs were placed in the center. The table was set with Royal Worcester’s Evesham Gold china and each place setting was marked with a red egg held in place by a Fostoria, Dolly Madison cordial glass.

Tiropita cheese pita

We began our feast with appetizers: Individual Greek cheese triangles packaged in a flaky filo crust called Tiropita (Pita); Bourekas made with the same Greek cheese filling but with puff pastry dough, stuffed grape leaves with lemon wedges, Kalamata olives, marinated artichoke hearts, cucumber spears, tomato halves, and slices of Greek feta cheese drizzled with olive oil.


We needed a bit of a break after all of the appetizers which offered us a chance to relax and chat. I served a simple, sublime carrot soup to enjoy while conversing.

The next course was salad. Since we were having a food extravaganza, I kept the salad somewhat uncomplicated but quite colorful. The salad was comprised of chopped red, yellow, orange and green peppers dressed with salt, pepper and olive oil.

The main course was lamb with orzo. This is a hearty, flavorful dish which is a labor of love. The lamb cooks very slowly for hours until it gently falls off the bone and then it continues baking and marinating in orzo, tomatoes, onions and spices until the smell overwhelms the kitchen and it is almost impossible not to take a fork and begin eating it before serving it to your guests. It was cooked to perfection and tasted divine!

There was still more to come… I made Greek rice pudding for dessert and served it in optic, hand-etched, Depression champagne glasses. In this case the presentation was better than the finished product. As my friends said, “It was the thought and effort that counts.” The pudding was fairly dry but the taste was just right.

A sweet dessert tray was set up and waiting for us to pick and choose or favorite treats. There were apple puffs, deep chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, chocolate chip cookies, orange-ginger shortbread cookies, gingerbread cookies decorated with Easter bunnies and chicks, bright yellow Peeps and Cadbury chocolate eggs to bring the meal to a close. That should have been the end of our banquet but we were not quite finished yet.

greek easter dessert tray

We had one more thing to do. We had to play a game before our meal concluded. The game is called “tsougrisma” which roughly translated means “clinking together” and uses the Red Eggs.

There was a discussion about the interpretation of what the Red Eggs represent. By and large the Red Eggs are symbolic of the resurrection. The red represents the blood of Christ, shed on the Cross and the shell represents the sealed Tomb of Christ, the cracking of the eggs is symbolic of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Another explanation is Mary Magdalene brought hard cooked eggs to share with the women at the tomb of Christ and the eggs in her basket miraculously turned red when she saw the risen Christ. The egg in this case represents the boulder of the tomb of Christ. Another explanation is, after the Ascension of Christ, Mary went to the Emperor of Rome and greeted him with, “Christ has risen.” He pointed to an egg and stated, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” It is said that the egg immediately turned blood red.

Now, on to the game!

The rules: Each player holds a red egg in his/her hand. There is a pointy side and a round side to each egg. The player chosen to go first decides which side he/she will use to try and crack his/her opponent’s egg by tapping his egg against the other player’s pointy end to pointy end or round side to round side. The object is to keep your egg intact. The players take turns trying to crack their opponent’s egg until one player is left with an intact egg and is declared the winner. It is believed that the winner will have good luck during the upcoming year.

Each of us had at least one side of our eggs crack during the game. After a few times going around in a circle, our eggs broke one by one leaving only one person who had one side of his egg left intact so it was determined that he was the winner. To ensure that the luck in the upcoming year is real, we played one more round and the same person won again with only one side of his egg remaining intact, thus it was decided by the group that two eggs with one side remaining intact equaled one whole egg ensuring a year of good luck.

Apple Puffs
Makes 36 puffs
Preheat the oven to 350°F

1 Package frozen mini puff pastry squares
1 Granny smith apple – chopped in small pieces
2 Red delicious apples – chopped in small pieces
¼ Cup sugar
1 TBS flour
2 TBS cinnamon
Egg wash – 1 egg beaten with 1TBS water
Cinnamon sugar for dusting the tops of the puffs

Grease two baking sheets with butter or non-stick spray and set aside.

Take the frozen puff pastry out of the freezer and let it thaw while you chop the apples and prepare the filling.

In a medium sized bowl combine the chopped apples, sugar, flour and cinnamon.

Peel off one piece of puff pastry and place it on your work surface. Put one tablespoon of the apple mixture in one corner of the pastry; fold the side over and seal with your finger tips (It will look like a triangle.) then press the tines of a fork along the edge to make a pretty design. Place the filled pastry on the prepared baking sheet. Continue until all of the squares are filled. Brush the tops with the egg wash and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350°F for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

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