Let the trumpets blast, let the cymbals crash, let the dancing begin! Jesus is love! Jesus is love!
It’s Easter Sunday, I’m 8 years old, and we are at a church we stumbled upon in Key Largo. We had been spending the holiday weekend camping at Great American Outdoors, a campground that no longer exists, as it is now the home of the luxurious Playa Largo Resort. For most of my childhood and teenage years, this beachside oasis, located at MM 97.5, played a huge role in my family’s life, spending many weekends and summers there.
The church still exists, and while I can’t remember the name, I always spot it when we travel south to the chain of islands that trails off the peninsula like a string of aquamarine jewels.
The Easters of my early childhood were largely spent on or near the water. If we weren’t camping, we were aboard my parent’s J24 sailboat, the Rake-n-Scrape. The vessel’s name came from a popular Bahamian style of music.
The Easter bunny, it seems, knew how to swim quite well. Wherever I woke up on Easter morning, there would be a basket there to greet me. On the boat, it would be waiting behind the sail on the deck, or if we were camping, it would be dangling from a tree.
I went to Catholic school my whole life, and at the beginning of Lent, we always had to write on a piece of paper what we would give up for the holy season. Every year, I gave up rhubarb or sardines. After a couple of years, my teachers realized I didn’t like either. Hey, you can’t blame a chocolate-loving kid for trying.
I also remember the very solemn traditions of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I recall my great-grandmother, Estrella, covering the mirrors in the house, turning off the television or radio, and refraining from using any type of scissors, knife, etc. Those two days were spent in virtually complete silence.
The Greek culture also played a big role in my childhood, as two of my father’s biggest clients became great friends of the family. To date, I only refer to them as my uncles and aunts.
Easter is a very big deal in Greek Orthodox culture, and although we Catholics celebrate it on a different day, through the years we’ve adopted a few Greek Easter traditions. Particularly, tsougrisma, the red Easter egg game. The word tsougrisma means “clinking together.” The cracking tradition symbolizes Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Traditionally, eggs are dyed with a mixture of onion skins, water and vinegar. However, red dye is a much easier way to do it.
To play, each player holds a red egg and begins by tapping the end of his or her egg lightly against the end of the other player’s egg. When one egg’s end is cracked, the person with the unbroken egg uses the same end of the egg to try to crack the other end of another opponent’s egg.
While cracking the eggs, one person says, “Christos Anesti” (Christ has risen!), while the other person says, “Alithos Anesti” (Indeed, he has risen!), symbolizing Christ’s emergence from the tomb.
The player who successfully cracks both ends of their opponent’s egg, while keeping their egg intact, is declared the winner and, it is believed, will have good luck during the year.
One year, my grandmother beat us all, and she could not have been happier.
I was not able to head south and be with my family this year, but when we are all able to get together, our table is a bit of a hodgepodge of cultures. We’ve got the traditional ham, herb-roasted lamb, and I usually make Greek pastries or cookies. My aunt typically brings a flan or an arroz con leche (rice pudding).
In closing, I would be remiss if I did not share one of my favorite Easter stories. A few years ago, we had a huge Easter egg hunt on my family’s farm. My mom hid more than 500 plastic eggs over 10 acres. We had a lot more kids than we expected, and we ran out of baskets to give them. Not knowing what to do, my mom went inside to see what she could give the kids to put their eggs in. She came out with about 20 of the Publix wine bags, held them high up in the air, and loudly exclaimed, “Take these, we’ve got tons of them!” There we were, watching flocks of children place their eggs into wine bags. My family likes wine. A lot.
For this month’s recipes, I’ve decided to share a few of my Easter favorites. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do.
The first one is for a delectable Greek cookie called finikia. It’s traditionally made at Christmas or Easter. It is not a difficult recipe, but it is rather time-consuming. Also, make these when you’re expecting a large crowd or looking to give away cookies as gifts; it makes quite a lot.
Finikia (Greek honey cookies with walnuts)
Ingredients for the cookies:
• 5 cups All-purpose flour
• 1 1/2 cups Raw, uncooked cream of wheat (not instant)
• 2 tsp. Baking powder
• 1 tsp. Baking soda
• Pinch of salt
• 1 Large orange, zested
• 3/4 cup Granulated sugar
• 1 cup Olive oil
• 1 cup Vegetable oil
• 1/4 cup Brandy
Ingredients for the syrup:
• 1 cup Honey
• 1 cup Granulated sugar
• 1 1/2 cups Water
• 1 Cinnamon stick
• 3 to 4 Whole cloves
• 1 (2-inch) Lemon rind
• 1 cup Olive oil
• 1 cup Vegetable oil
• 1 tsp Lemon juice, fresh
• 3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts for garnish
First, make the cookies:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. in a large bowl, sift flour with baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the cream of wheat, and set aside. In a stand mixer, combine the orange zest with 3/4 cup of sugar. At medium speed, add olive oil and vegetable oils to the zest and sugar mixture, and beat until well-combined (about 2-3 minutes).
Add the orange juice and brandy, and mix for another 2-3 minutes. Slowly incorporate the flour/cream-of wheat-mixture, one cup at a time, until a dough forms. It will be dense but should not be sticky. To roll the cookies, pinch a walnut-sized portion of dough, shape it in your palms into a smooth oblong, football-like shape. Place it on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Continue to shape and roll the cookies until the sheet is filled. You may need to make a few batches of these.
Press down lightly to flatten each cookie slightly in the center. The cookies should resemble slightly flattened ovals before they go into the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, until lightly browned. Do not overbake them, the cookies will darken when submerged in the syrup.
Second, make the syrup:
While the cookies are baking, prepare the syrup. In a saucepan, combine the honey, 1 cup sugar, water, cinnamon stick, cloves and lemon rind. Bring mixture to a boil, and quickly lower the heat and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick, cloves and lemon rind, and stir in the lemon juice. Remove from the heat, and set aside. Be very careful, as this syrup will be incredibly hot.
Garnish the cookies:
While the cookies are still very warm, carefully place them on a slotted spoon and float them in the syrup one at a time. Allow each cookie to absorb the syrup on both sides, about 30 seconds. Remove the cookie from the syrup, and place each one on a cupcake liner and then on a platter.
Press ground walnuts lightly into the tops of the cookies; the syrup will help them adhere. Do not refrigerate these cookies, as they will harden. Store them in an airtight container at room temperature for up to five days.
Rosemary Champagne Cocktail
Ingredients for the rosemary syrup:
• 1 cup of sugar
• 1/2 cup of water
• Tiny pinch of salt
• 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
Directions: Boil the water and the sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved, about 5 minutes. As with all hot syrups, be very careful and take care to not let the mixture boil over. Remove from the heat, add the salt, and place the rosemary sprigs in the syrup. Allow to cool completely, and transfer the entire mixture, including the rosemary sprigs, to a glass jar. Place in the fridge, and allow to cool for 3-4 hours; overnight is better.
To serve, place a tablespoon of the rosemary syrup in a champagne coupe or glass, and top with chilled champagne. Garnish with a rosemary sprig across the top or in the glass.
Fresh Fruit Pavlova
Ingredients for the meringue:
• 6 large egg whites
• 1 1/4 cups white sugar
• A pinch of salt
Ingredients to assemble the pavlova:
• 2 cups fresh fruit (pictured here are strawberries and mangoes)
• 3/4 cup heavy cream
• 3/4 cupfat-free plain yogurt
• 2 tbsp powdered sugar
• 1 tsp vanilla
• Fresh mint and/or basil (for garnish)
Directions: Preheat your oven to 300. In a stand mixer, place the egg whites into a clean, dry bowl, and beat them at medium speed until they start to form stiff peaks, about 3-5 minutes or so. With your mixer still running, gradually add the sugar and a pinch of salt. Turn your mixer up to the highest setting, and whisk for 3 to 4 minutes more until the meringue is white, glossy and smooth. Take care to not let the meringue collapse.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide the meringue mixture evenly into three blobs, and shape each blob into a circle about 8 inches in diameter. Put both trays into the oven, and bake for 1 hour, until the meringues look slightly golden and are fluffy in the middle. Remove the trays from the oven, and let them cool completely.
Chop up your fruit of choice, mix it with a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and let it macerate at room temperature for 30-35 minutes. In a stand mixer, gradually whip the cream until it forms soft peaks, add in the powdered sugar and stir in the yogurt. Add the vanilla.
Carefully remove the first disc onto your serving platter or stand, spoon 1/3 of the cream mixture on top of one of the meringue discs, and smooth it out. Sprinkle 1/3 of your fruit evenly around the cream mixture. Place the other meringue on top, and press down very gently to stick them together. Repeat this step one more time to form the second layer. Spread the remaining cream mixture over the top layer, and sprinkle the remaining fruit on top. Pick a few small mint or basil leaves, place them as you see fit, and enjoy!