How to celebrate Easter, Greek Orthodox style

The Papadopoulos clan gathers every spring for a backyard party full of food and dancing
Greek Orthodox Easter
Sandy Papadopoulos’s mom, Asiemoula (in pink), welcomes guests

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Greek Orthodox Easter
In 2015, Orthodox Easter is May 1, while Western Easter is March 27.

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

I swear that the minute I was hired as entertaining editor for Atlanta Magazine’s HOME, the first sentence I uttered was, “We’ve got to cover my friends Niki and Sandy Papadopoulos’s Greek Easter celebration!”

To say it’s my favorite party of the year would be an understatement—no offense to other parties. The raucous, authentic, and culturally rich occasion has been a family tradition for 15 years, held every Orthodox Easter Sunday. I was first invited five years ago by Niki, one of Atlanta’s most talented interior designers. Her husband, Sandy, owner of Decatur’s Athens Pizza, oversees the festivities held in their spacious northeast Atlanta backyard.

Greek Orthodox Easter
Sandy bastes meats roasting over the open flame.

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Greek Orthodox Easter
Tassos Dimoglou plays bouzouki

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Every year more than 100 family members and friends gather around the terraced gardens, pool, and tents filled with tables holding baskets of eggs. Live Greek music permeates the air, skillfully performed by longtime friends Theofilos Kouremetis (on guitar) and Tassos Dimoglou (on bouzouki). Honored guests include His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of the Southeast, who blesses the meal.

There is dancing and general revelry, but eating is the core activity. The parade of meats roasting over open flames is impressive: a whole lamb on a spit, kondosouvli (rotisserie pork, Sandy’s specialty), lamb chops, and lamb fricassee (lamb with endives and an egg-lemon sauce). Greek dishes like spanakopita and dolmathes, plus an entire room of desserts, round out the feast. For the adults, there is ouzo, an anise-flavored liqueur, and for the kids, an Easter egg hunt.

Greek Orthodox Easter
Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Hard-boiled eggs dyed red are one unique tradition of Greek Easter. The eggs represent the empty tomb, and the color red symbolizes Christ’s blood. Party guests play a game where two partners each hold an egg and smash them end to end. The person whose egg doesn’t crack is supposed to have good luck in the coming year.

Another custom is singing “Xristos Anesti” (“Christ has risen”), a joyous refrain that marks the climax of the previous evening’s Easter service.

As a restaurateur, Sandy is adept at feeding large crowds. The meats are savory and delicious. The laughing, singing, dancing, and children running around everywhere are chaotic and lovely at the same time. It’s like a scene out of a movie (perhaps My Big Fat Greek Wedding?), and I feel lucky to be part of the cast

Greek Orthodox Easter
Niki Papadopoulos and Annette Joseph

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

The Menu

Aperitif
Ouzo

Meats
Whole lamb on a spit, kondosouvli, lamb
chops, lamb fricassee

Other traditional dishes
Spanakopita, dolmathes, tsoureki (Easter sweet bread), touloumbes (little fried cakes), baklava

Extras
Lobster tails, sausages, potluck dessert buffet

Recipes

Greek Orthodox Easter
Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Mama’s Spanakopita
• ½ cup chopped white onion
• 3 Tbsp. olive oil
• 2 lbs. fresh spinach
• 1 cup feta
• 2 eggs
• ¼ cup grated Parmesan or Mizithra (Greek cheese)
• ¼ cup ricotta or Manouri (Greek cheese)
• ¼ cup chopped green onion
• 2 cloves finely chopped garlic
• ¼ cup finely chopped dill
• ½ tsp. black pepper
• 2 sticks melted butter
• 2 16-ounce boxes phyllo dough

In a small frying pan, saute white onions in olive oil until onions are transparent but not brown. In a bowl, mix spinach, feta, eggs, cheeses, green onion, garlic, dill, pepper, and sauteed onions and set aside.

Coat a 12” x 18” x 2 ¼” pan with melted butter. Remove phyllo dough from the packaging and cover it with a damp towel to keep it from drying out while you are layering it. Place 2 sheets of the phyllo in the bottom of the pan, making sure to cut the excess. Brush generously with melted butter, then add 2 more sheets of phyllo. Repeat, stacking 2 sheets at a time and brushing each top sheet with butter, until you have a base of 8 sheets. After you have built the base, add the spinach/cheese mixture. Place another 2 sheets of phyllo on top of the spinach/cheese mixture and brush generously with melted butter. Repeat, stacking 2 sheets at a time and brushing each top sheet with butter, until you have a total of 8 sheets of phyllo on top. Refrigerate the spanakopita for at least a half hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375°. Before baking, gently score the top of the phyllo with a knife into 1” x 2” servings and sprinkle the top with water. Bake until the phyllo is golden brown, about an hour. Let the spanakopita cool before cutting and serving.

Greek Orthodox Easter
Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Tsoureki (Easter Sweet Bread)
Makes 4 loaves

Dough:
• 3 quick-rise yeast packets
• ½ cup warm water
• 7 cups flour
• 1¾ cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon lemon zest
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 tablespoon mahlepi (Greek spice)
• 1 teaspoon mastic (Greek spice)
• ½ cup hot milk
• 5 eggs (room temperature)
• 1 cup melted butter
Note: All ingredients should be warm or at least room temperature to help the dough rise faster. This bread also makes amazing French toast!

Egg Wash:
• 1 egg
• A few drops of vanilla extract
• 1 tablespoon water

For Serving:
• 1 hardboiled egg, dyed red
• ½ cup sliced almonds

Mix warm water and yeast; set aside. Put flour in a large bowl and make a hole in the center with your hands. Fill the hole with sugar, zest, vanilla, salt, and spices, and mix the ingredients with your hands. Add hot milk and mix again with your hands. Once the dough is incorporated, add eggs, one at a time, and mix well. Then add yeast mixture. Dough should be stringy when pulled apart.

Pour melted butter into the bowl about ¼ cup at a time and fold into the dough (do not knead). Repeat until you’ve used all the butter. Don’t worry if you see butter puddle around the edges; it will be absorbed as the dough rises.

Wrap the dough with plastic wrap, tucking the wrap inside the bowl so it touches the dough. Then wrap the entire bowl in towels and put in a warm place for the dough to rise, about 2 hours. Once dough has risen, separate into 4 equal parts. Then separate each of the 4 parts into 3 pieces. Roll each piece with your hands until it’s approximately 14 inches long and about a finger’s-width thick. Braid each set of 3 pieces together, just like you would braid hair, to create 4 braids.

Place each braid in a 12-inch round pan that has been lined with parchment paper. Cover with a towel and place in a warm spot for 30 to 45 minutes for dough to rise again.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Once each of the braids has risen, prepare the egg wash by beating the egg with water and vanilla. Brush each of the braids with the wash; this will give the bread a beautiful shine.

Place pans in oven and bake for 30 minutes. If the dough gets too brown, cover with foil until baked through. Once bread has cooled, remove the center using a knife and replace with a hardboiled egg that has been dyed red. Sprinkle with sliced almonds.

Greek Orthodox Easter
Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Greek Spice Rub for Meat
Enough for 2 pounds of meat

Basic Rub:
• 3 tablespoons granulated garlic
• 1 tablespoon salt
• ½ tablespoon black pepper
• 1 tablespoon oregano

Note: It is always good to coat the meat with a little olive oil before covering it with the rub.

For pork variation: To the basic rub add 1 tablespoon ground mustard and 1 tablespoon paprika.

For chicken variation: To the basic rub add 1 tablespoon lemon zest and 1 tablespoon ground mustard. You can also replace mustard with 1 teaspoon dried oregano or dried thyme.

For lamb variation: To the basic rub add 1 tablespoon dried rosemary and 1 tablespoon cumin. For lamb chops, use this mix and add 1 cup olive oil and 1 cup fresh lemon juice. Add meat and marinate from 1 to 2 days in refrigerator.

Editor’s note: Soon you too can experience the flavors of Greek Easter with the Papadopoulos clan. Sandy is opening a new restaurant, Karv, this fall. The casual concept will include meats cooked on a spit (chicken, lamb, and pork) or on a stick (souvlaki style)—all of which you can put on a salad, grain bowl, or pita wrap.

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2016 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.