THE RED FALLS. In Greek you say Kokkinopefti, and this very literal, symbolic description serves as one popular name for the day, Holy Thursday. The red comes down, washing what it may. In this case, eggs for Easter.
In Greece on Great Thursday—what some call Maundy Thursday in English (and which, when I was little, I heard as “Monday Thursday” and wondered how the adults could have gotten so confused)—Easter preparations get underway in earnest, before the mournful church bells start their incessant toll on Friday to proclaim the death of Jesus on the cross. Thursday is the day you do the traditional baking, making a loaf of sweet, festive Tsoureki (into which you may insert a bright, red egg), and perhaps you also whip up a batch or two of the Greek Easter cookies called Koulouria or Koulourakia.
Koulouria make me think of yiayia and papou, my maternal grandparents, no longer with us. I don’t think a visit ever went by that the aroma of these subtly perfumed biscuits didn’t greet me at her door. My grandfather loved them, made of them a ritual breakfast with coffee, and I know it wasn’t just at Easter. He had exactly the right idea, and I confess that this is how I’ll be greeting the days until my current cookie stash runs out. Koulouria are the ideal dunking cookie: in coffee, in tea, in milk. They also make me think of distant family in Messinia, Greece (in the Peloponnesus). Three years ago, my mother and I visited the town where my grandmother grew up, and we were welcomed with famous hospitality by her cousins. We went to Saturday night Easter services with them, broke the traditional fast at their house past midnight, and as we were leaving, the family matriarch pressed a large bag of Koulouria into my hands. I made them last the best I could, which wasn’t long.
The other ritual we shared with our Greek family was what’s known as Tsougrisma. Heard of it? No? Well, even if the Greek name (pronounced “TSOO-greez-mah,” and meaning “clinking together” or “clashing”) throws you, you may still be familiar with this game played with cooked, dyed Easter eggs.
Two players each take one boiled, red-dyed egg. Holding the eggs end to end, the first person uses his or her egg to tap the opponent’s egg and try to crack it. When one egg is cracked, the winner (the one with the egg still intact) uses the same side to tap the other end of the broken egg, collecting the losing egg to keep if it cracks a second time.
You’re supposed to tap gently, but it’s easy to get carried away. With a fierce sense of competition (usually friendly), some players devise all manner of strategies for ensuring that they’ve got the strongest egg. My son, nervous that he was going to lose the game we played a bit early this year, spent a long time contemplating our bowl of eggs to select a winner. As you can see, he did a good job of it.
Cracking the shells of both my husband’s egg and my own, my son emerged triumphant. According to custom, he can expect good luck during the rest of the year.
[An amusing aside: As he was left with the lone whole egg, he sang a victory song. Are you familiar with Beyoncé's track "All the Single Ladies"? If you are, then sing it to yourself now and you'll understand how my son could have confused the lyrics so easily, mistaking the song's repeated title for the words "I'm a single egg." He chanted this with an imp's grin on his face and—pardon the pun—cracked me up.]
The only other thing I’ll say about the eggs is that my son asked me why I wasn’t painting mine different colors, using the full range of hues supplied by PAAS. Ah, PAAS, that omnipresent kit that has only grown more flashy over the years. It now comes with egg wrappers and stickers—much more than the simple copper-wire dippers and basic color tablets of my own youth.
To children, more is always better: more color, more patterns, more eggs to dye. I was the same way when I was my son’s age. Now, though—maybe a telltale sign of growing older—I want less; I want simple. And I want pure symbols, uncluttered with the commercial paraphernalia of American holidays. In Greece, all the eggs are dyed red. The color represents the blood of Christ, and the egg itself stands for fertility and new life. Leave it to Greeks to stick to the drama, the Passion, the real and unadulterated story.
Simple, yet not. Which brings me back to Koulouria.
Koulouria/Koulourakia (Greek Easter Cookies)
Hard on the outside and slightly soft at their centers, these Greek Easter cookies make a perfect year-round snack. At once simple yet festive, they appeal to kids and grown-ups alike. They are sturdy enough for dunking in coffee, tea, milk, or cocoa. Their dense crumb and slightly rough texture put you in mind of a peasant’s cookie, yet they have a delicate side as well. Almost hidden is the subtle hint of anise—quite mild, considering the strength of the ouzo I put in them. Koulouria keep for quite a while (at least a week in an airtight container), but they’re so good they don’t last long. If you make them for Easter, offer them up with a joyous “Kalo Pasxa!”
Yield: Approximately 3 dozen
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs, beaten well
1/4 cup milk
4 cups (or more) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon ouzo, or 1 teaspoon anise extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 cup milk mixed with 1/4 teaspoon sugar, for glazing (or use 1 egg yolk)
1/4 cup sesame seeds
Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a large bowl, using handheld electric beaters, cream the butter thoroughly, about 3 minutes. Mix in the sugar. Add beaten eggs and the milk, mixing well.
Into the same bowl, gradually sift together 4 cups flour along with the baking powder and salt. Use the beaters as long as possible, then switch to a wooden spoon. Incorporate well. You should have a rather firm dough. Add the ouzo or anise extract, the vanilla, and the orange zest and mix well. If the dough is very sticky, you may add a little more flour, although 4 cups was enough for me. The dough is ready when you can roll a piece of it in the palm of your hand and it forms a ball without sticking to your palms.
Pinching off pieces of dough a bit bigger than a walnut, roll them into strands about 6-8 inches in length, then fold them in the middle and wrap the ends around each other to form a twist. Place Koulouria twists on an ungreased baking sheet, about an inch apart.
Combine milk and sugar to form a glaze, or beat an egg yolk together with a Tablespoon of water if desired. Brush the glaze lightly over the Koulouria, then sprinkle sesame seeds over the tops.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until cookies are nicely browned on top. Cool a few minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to wire racks.