Eleni and Tasos Letsos’ annual Easter feast started with family. Then, about 10 years ago, their children started bringing along families of their own. Friends joined in. Soon, every Easter Sunday, the Letsos were feeding multitudes. “Slowly, the party gets bigger and bigger,” Tasos Letsos said.
Each Easter, diners by the dozen crowd into their Dunwoody home, fill tables placed on the back deck and, on sunny days, set up in the yard. Last year, the Tasos said, about 85 guest showed up. They’re treated to a Greek holiday dinner: grilled lamb, moussaka, pastitsio, Greek potatoes, stuffed grape leaves. Eleni serves special Easter breads and a kind of cookie called a koulourakia that she says she only makes for the holiday.
“People have no time to cook like this every day,” Tasos Letsos said. “It’s for special days. One of those is Easter.”
Eleni Tassos bakes special Easter bread and holiday cookies, including the koulourakia, a butter-based cookie with an egg white glaze. “If you go in many Greek homes, they make this kind of cookie,” she said.
Holidays connect with special foods. They often are the foods handed down within families that come to embody the spirit of the holiday and make Easter dinner mean more than a slice of ham – that special kind of cookie or cake or deviled egg platter that helps bind a family generation after generation.
For Passover and Easter, we sought out holiday treats served by residents of Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Buckhead and Sandy Springs. Here are some of the special dishes we expect will appear on local plates during the coming holidays.
Eleni Letsos’ koulourakia
3 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, separated
12 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ cup milk
3 ½ cups flour
Sesame seeds, optional
Soften butter in blender. Mix in egg yolks and sugar, blend for 10 minutes. Mix baking powder and baking soda with milk and add to mixture. Add vanilla. Add flour and mix. Whip three egg whites and add to mixture. Drop from a teaspoon onto a cookie sheet. Brush with remaining egg white. Decorate with sesame seeds, if desired. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes or until light brown.
Easter means hunting for Easter Eggs. When Julie Herron Carson was growing up in Buckhead, there were plenty to find, which meant plenty of hard-boiled eggs to deal with, starting with Easter dinner. “The Easter Bunny always brought us a lot of eggs,” she remembers. “There were so many hard-boiled eggs, my mom would make egg salad, deviled eggs, anything to use them up.”
The secret to her mother’s egg salad and deviled eggs, Carson said, was her home-made mayonnaise. It was based on a recipe handed down from her great-grandmother. “That was all we ate growing up,” Carson said. “I never bought a jar of store-bought mayonnaise until I was a college graduate.”
Julie Herron Carson’s mayonnaise and deviled eggs
1 egg, beaten
2 cups vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice
A few dashes of cayenne pepper
Mayonnaise: In a mixer, beat the egg. Add the oil to the beaten egg slowly with the mixer set to high speed. After all of the oil has been added, reduce the speed and add the sugar, salt, mustard and lemon juice. Add a few dashes of cayenne pepper at the very end to taste.
Deviled Eggs: Boil and peel the eggs. Cut them in half length-wise and scoop out the yolks. Mash the yolks with a fork and add mayonnaise until the consistency is soft. Add mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Fill the egg whites with the yolk mixture and top with whatever you like: chopped chives, green or black olives, chopped pimentos, etc. Sprinkle a little paprika on top for color.
Alesa McArthur’s family has served up carrot cakes on Easters as far back as she can remember. What’s the sweet carrot concoction got to do with Easter? Why, carrots, of course. If the Easter Bunny can bring colorful eggs, why not colorful cakes, too? “Bunnies who have the carrots bring it to you,” said McArthur, who lives in the Chastain Park area of Buckhead.
McArthur, who loves to bake and to make desserts, learned to cook in her grandmother’s kitchen. “We baked with her every Wednesday afternoon,” McArthur said. “That’s probably why I like to cook. It came very naturally to me.”
Alesa McArthur’s carrot cake
2 C. sifted flour and a little extra for pans
2 C. sugar
1 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 C. vegetable oil* (not butter or margarine)
2 C. grated carrots and 1/4 C. extra for garnish at end
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease and flour 2 large round cake pans (with extra flour).
Sift dry ingredients together. Do not include carrots.
Blend eggs and oil together. Add dry ingredients and carrots to egg and oil mixture, mixing well.
Bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes.
Icing Ingredients: 8 oz. softened cream cheese; 1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla; 1 box powdered sugar; 1 C. chopped pecans
Cream cheese and margarine together. Add vanilla and powdered sugar.
Blend well. Add pecans. Frost cake, stacking layers. Garnish top with fresh grated carrots.
To Atlanta food blogger Denise Romeo, Easter dinner means lamb. Fire-cooked lamb, to be more specific. “Our favorite thing is to cook it in front of the fireplace,” said Romeo, who attends church at the Christ the King Cathedral in Buckhead. “You have a little loop and you let it turn in front of the fire.” If it’s too hot to have a fire inside, she said, the Romeos cook lamb on the grill.
Why lamb? Romeo, who puts together the WeLike2Cook blog with her husband, Dom, said it may be because she grew up on a farm around sheep. Or, she said, it may simply be that “none of us really like ham.”
Denise Romeo’s mustard –crusted Easter lamb roast
7-8 lb. leg of lamb
2 large cloves of garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon oregano, fresh or dried
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups coarse breadcrumbs, fresh or Panko
1 onion, roughly chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, smashed
1/2 teaspoon sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Puree garlic into a small bowl and mash to a paste with the salt. Whisk in the mustard, soy, herbs (you can also use rosemary or thyme, or a mixture of all three), and lemon juice. Add the oil slowly, still whisking, to make a mayonnaise-like cream. In a dish large enough to accommodate the leg of lamb, coat with the marinade. Let sit at least 2 hours or longer; overnight is optimal.
Remove lamb from marinade and place the lamb fat side up on the rack in a roasting pan. Discard leftover marinade. If the ends of meat overhang the pan, make extensions under them with double folds of aluminum foil. Set on the middle shelf of the preheated oven. After the first 45 minutes, rapidly spread bread crumbs generously over the top and scatter the chopped onion and garlic in the pan, lay herb sprigs on the onions and briefly baste the lamb and onions with the accumulated pan fat.
Roasting should take a total of about 1-1 ½ hours at 350°F. After about an hour, start testing for doneness by taking the meat’s internal temperature. For a rosy rare roast, the temperature should be 125°F on your meat thermometer; for medium-rare it should be 130°F, and for medium doneness it should read 140°F.
Remove the meat from the oven and let it sit 10 to 15 minutes before carving.
For Carol Perry, the preschool director at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Dunwoody, Easter means corn pudding. The recipe for the beloved dish was handed down from her husband’s grandmother.
“As the wife of a gentleman farmer on a tobacco farm in Elm City, NC, she prepared this recipe during my mother-in-law’s childhood, and beyond,” Perry said. “My mother-in-law, who married and moved to the big city of Charlotte, prepared the dish for her four boys during their growing-up years. When I married her son, she gave me this recipe and wrote on the recipe card “one of his favorites.” I have been preparing it for my family ever since, especially at family holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It is especially good with ham, but my mother-in-law prefers to serve it with fried chicken!”
Carol Perry’s corn pudding
3 cups corn, fresh from the farm when available, or frozen
2 eggs, beaten
1 Tablespoon flour
1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons melted butter
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Bake in a well-greased casserole dish at 350 degrees for one hour or until firm.
One of Nechoma Birnbaum’s favorite Passover dishes is her mother in law’s “pizza potato” recipe.
She keeps the recipe in her regular rotation, rather than just with the Passover cookbooks. “yes, a Passover recipe so good, you’ll want to make it the whole year!” Birnbaum said.
The pizzas are made using potatoes as a base rather than dough, because during Passover Jews do not eat any grains.
“Potatoes are a staple on Passover,” Birnbaum said. “We all blame my mother in law for our added 5 pounds at the end of Passover due to these amazing potatoes.”
Birnbaum is a mother, Judaics teacher, graphic designer, and assistant to her husband, the youth director at Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody.
Nechoma Birnbaum’s Pizza Potatoes
6 potatoes, peeled and sliced
1/4 C oil
1 C tomato sauce
1 t oregano
1/4 t pepper
1 1/2C shredded cheese
Coat a 9×13 foil pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. In a bowl, mix the rest of the oil with the tomato sauce and spices. In the pan, layer half of the potatoes, half of the sauce, half of the cheese. Repeat.
Bake for one hour, covered at 350. Uncover and cook for another 20 minutes.