Eugenia Poolos takes command in the kitchen of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation armed with several 5-pound bags of sugar and flour, sticks of butter, dozens of eggs, a bottle of vanilla extract and an even bigger bottle of bourbon.
Waiting to help is a legion of fellow church members, mostly women, who've gathered to blend and shape those ingredients into koulourakia, a traditional Easter cookie.
Poolos, an elderly member of the church on Clairmont Road, in Atlanta, who is recognized as the cookie expert, gets right to work.
It's some three weeks before the holiday, but for the Greek Orthodox, preparations for Easter begin early. It is the most sacred religious event of the year, and the Easter feast is the most anticipated celebration in a culture where religious and food customs are tightly intertwined. The pattern of fasting and feasting goes back centuries in Greece and helps define the religious culture of the country and of Greek communities here.
For Lent, the devout follow strict dietary rules for 40 days - no meat, no fish, no dairy products. And on Easter Saturday, members fast from sunrise until after a midnight Resurrection service. Then, the fast is broken.
First there is the majeiritsa, a hearty lamb soup, rich with lemon egg sauce, that is served about 2 a.m. at the church and in members' homes. The soup merely sets the table for the Easter Sunday feast to come.
After a few hours of rest, family cooks rise and begin preparations for a feast that doesn't end until everyone has had their fill of stuffed grape leaves and spring greens, roasted lamb with potatoes, orzo and pastitsio (a pasta dish) and koulourakia and baklava (a sweet, nutty pastry).
The centerpiece of the Greek Easter Sunday feast is lamb. John and Asiemoula Papadopoulos, owners of Athens Pizza, keep the tradition of roasting a whole lamb on a spit, rising early in the morning to begin the process. The lamb is brushed throughout the day with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, oregano and salt and pepper.
Others say they prefer to roast a leg of lamb in the oven, but the flavors are quite similar. "You won't find the Greek cooking lamb and serving it with mint jelly,'' said John Economy, owner of Economy Auto Sales in Decatur, Ga. "We just don't go in for that. Instead, it's garlic and lots of it.''
While the lamb is cooking, family members are nibbling on Greek olives and cheeses, dips and small pastries of spinach and cheese and drinking wine and beer. "We spend the preparation having a real good time,'' Economy said.
For dessert, some have cakes or pies, but all include the traditional Greek pastries, such as baklava, which is honey and nuts between sheets of phyllo dough, and of course, the koulourakia.
The visiting may go well into the night, Papadopoulos said. It's no wonder the Greek Orthodox observe Easter Monday as well. They need it to recover from the celebration.
(Easter Lamb Soup)
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped; or 6 to 7 green onions, finely chopped
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 pound boneless lamb, trimmed of excess fat and cut in 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
1/3 cup long-grain rice
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a large stockpot over medium heat, add the olive oil. Saute onions until soft, about 5 minutes. Add chicken broth, lamb, parsley and dill. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 1 hour. Add rice and continue simmering until soft, about 20 minutes.
In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks and lemon juice until frothy. Gradually add 1 to 2 cups of hot soup to egg mixture, beating vigorously with a whisk to keep eggs from curdling. Pour the egg mixture back into the pot, stirring well. Simmer for 1 minute; do not boil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Roast Leg of Lamb, Lemon, Oregano and Yukon Gold Potatoes
Makes 12 servings
1 (6- to 9-pound) leg of lamb
8 cloves garlic: 4 slivered and 4 minced, divided
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon dry oregano leaves, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
For the potatoes:
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, washed and halved
1 tablespoon crumbled dry oregano leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups hot water
Lemon wedges for garnish
With a small knife, cut small slits in the leg of lamb. Insert garlic slivers into the slits. In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup oil, lemon juice, oregano, minced garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme. Rub the lamb liberally with the marinade. Place the lamb in a shallow roasting pan. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. Save the remaining marinade, which will be used for basting.
Uncover the lamb and preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large saute pan, heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, sear all sides of the lamb until lightlybrowned. Put the lamb back into the roasting pan and roast for 1 hour. Drain off any fat in the bottom of the pan.
For the potatoes: Toss potatoes with the oregano, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add the potatoes to the lamb roasting pan at the 1-hour mark. Pour the hot water into the roasting pan and return it to the oven. Continue to roast the lamb, basting every 20 minutes, first with the remaining marinade, then with the juices accumulated in the pan. Allow 20 minutes per pound (including the hour the lamb has already cooked), or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the lamb, without touching fat or bone, registers 140 degrees for rare, 160 degrees for medium or 170 degrees for well-done.
Remove lamb from the oven and set aside to rest 20 minutes before carving. The potatoes should be fork tender. If they're not ready, turn them and continue to cook as needed. When the potatoes are done, remove from pan, skim fat from the juices and serve the pan drippings with the lamb. Carve and serve with the potatoes and lemon wedges.