Easter in Greece
LAMB on spits sizzling over a charcoal fire, children cracking together bright red eggs, and huge braided rounds of golden bread propped up in bake shop windows are signs that it is Easter in Greece.
This is the time when Greek cooking and hospitality are most abundant and at their best.
Feasting and celebration are in full swing everywhere, from Athens to the smallest mountain village.
Even the preparations for Easter dinner are interesting to follow, and during the preceding days you are likely to see women carrying great pans of bread to be placed in the communal ovens for baking the special holiday loaves.
Traditionally, it is the men who supervise roasting the lamb, which is marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and oregano before being placed on an outdoor spit early Sunday morning.
The women use liver and tripe for a sausage called kokoretsi, and they make the Easter soup called mageritsa. The soup is seasoned with scallions and fresh dill and an egg and lemon sauce is beaten in before serving.
The mageritsa is served the midnight before during a quiet family supper, along with the braided Easter bread baked with red-dyed eggs entwined in the dough.
When Easter Sunday dawned last year, a small group of traveling companions and I were in the town of Metsovon, high in the Pindus Mountains.
We watched a colorful procession leaving the old stone church in the main square. Its participants were wearing the traditional dress of the town and carrying beribboned candles.
Later, walking down a cobbled street, we saw a family roasting a lamb over a spit in their yard. We must have looked interested and no doubt hungry, for we were immediately invited to taste the meat along with red eggs and lambropsomo.
Farther down the road we saw a bakery, its counter laden with huge round pans of roasted lamb and cut potatoes.
Our last stop was at the home of Elena Averoff, who had invited us to join her family and friends for Easter dinner.
As we entered the stone courtyard behind her house, she came to greet us wearing the traditional holiday dress of Metsovon, a long, empire-waisted red velvet gown with a beautifully embroidered black satin apron.
Her long table was just as festively adorned, with its centerpiece of red-dyed eggs resting in a special black iron holder.
As the meat cooked over the charcoal spit, her two sons brought huge pans of potatoes that had been roasted in the baker's oven. These were placed on the hot coals so the meat juices would give extra crispness and flavor.
Soon one of the men brought around a plate of kokoretsi, the lamb sausage that had been cooking over the coals of the fire.
Then the meat was carved, and guests lined up buffet-style to fill their plates with lamb, potatoes, green salad, and cold lentils dressed with oil, vinegar, tomato, and herbs.
Crisp on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside, the lamb had a flavor that no indoor method of cooking it could have matched.
The sweets that followed included plates of Greek holiday cookies: kourambiethes, rich butter cookies studded with cloves and covered with powdered sugar; and the traditional Easter sweet, koulourakia, crisp anise-flavored rounds covered in sesame seeds.
Delicious as the food was, we were even more impressed by the way Mrs. Averoff graciously welcomed the dozens of guests, some of whom she didn't even know, who dropped by for Easter dinner. How, we wondered, had she known how many to plan for?
When asked, she shrugged, ''It was just an inspiration. In Greece we always cook for more people than we invite.''
That kind of sentiment seemed to define what Easter dining in Greece is all about. The following recipes may bring that touch to your own table.
The recipe koulourakia is from ''Greek Cooking for the Gods,'' by Eva Zane ( 101 Productions). Koulourakia (Greek Easter Cookies) 1 cup butter 2 cups sugar 6 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup milk 8 to 9 cups sifted flour 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 teaspoons anise extract 2 egg yolks, beaten 1/3 cup sesame seeds
Cream butter until soft; add sugar and mix thoroughly. Add beaten whole eggs and then add milk.
Combine 8 cups flour with baking powder and gradually sift into batter; add cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, and anise extract.
Knead dough, adding more flour as needed to form a smooth and firm dough. (Test dough by rolling in your hand; if it is firm and does not stick, it is the right consistency.)
Roll dough in palms of your hands into cylinders, about 3-inches long and 1/2 -inch thick; then shape into small doughnuts, pressing ends together with your fingers to form circle.
Brush with egg yolks and dip in sesame seeds. Place on cookie sheets, and bake at 350 degrees F. for 15 minutes until lightly brown. Makes about 5 dozen. Kourambiethes (Greek Butter Cookies) 1 cup unsalted butter 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted 1 egg yolk 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon almond extract 1/2 cup finely chopped toasted almonds, optional 2 1/2 cups flour, sifted twice Whole cloves
Cream butter in a mixer until thick and lemon-colored. Add sugar gradually to butter, beat until fluffy.
Add egg yolk, creaming well. Add vanilla extracts, almond extract and almonds.
Gradually work in flour to make a soft dough that you can roll in the palm of your hand without sticking.
Pat and shape dough into walnut-sized balls.
Place on ungreased cookie sheet and stud each cookie with a clove.
Bake at 350 degrees F. 15 minutes or until golden.
Cool; generously sift powdered sugar over cookies. Makes about 3 dozen.