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Greek Easter was extraordinary – in the truest sense of the word – this year. Despite the fantastic weather people had to stay at home to celebrate, quite a lonesome setup compared to the crowded daylong outdoor feast that we are normally used to.

Despite being at home, my 7-year-old son and I did all the same Easter traditions, just in smaller quantities. One of the most fun traditions for children is the “egg breaking” ritual. We dye eggs on Good Thursday; this year, since my son is into space and Star Wars, we used that as inspiration and dyed our eggs like planets – we’ve got plenty of time, so we might as well use it creatively! On Easter day, we each pick an egg and start the breaking contest. The person who manages to keep their own egg intact while breaking all the others’ is the lucky winner.

We generally bake a lot on Easter, braided breads (plain or sweet, and usually decorated with a red egg in the middle), koulourakia (butter cookies), lazarakia (human-shaped buns that represent Lazarus – one of Jesus’ miracles was raising Lazarus from the dead). Tsoureki is among the most popular recipes made this season. A brioche-style bread, it’s sweet but not too sweet, and very aromatic since it’s made with lots spices and zests. There are several variations on this recipe (as far as spices are concerned) but my absolute favorite is the one made with mahlepi, a favorite spice deriving from the seeds of a species of cherry, and mastiha, another favorite of mine that is actually an aromatic resin produced by mastic trees.

The star of the Easter feast is undoubtedly the lamb. Tradition calls for roasting a whole lamb outdoors on a spit, which is why the feast lasts so long – while waiting around for the lamb to cook, we enjoy meze and drinks. The feast usually ends late but a dessert is always welcome at the end. Two of the most traditional desserts for Easter are galaktoboureko and galatopita. “Gala” means milk in Greek, so both of these are milk pies. Traditionally we find several milk- or dairy-based desserts this time of year for two reasons: milk is abundant, and people are craving the dairy and egg products that they gave up for Lent, the 40 days of abstinence leading up to Easter. The two pies are very similar as far as their main ingredients are concerned but galatopita is lighter than galaktoboureko, which is drenched in syrup after it’s baked.

While I love both, I slightly prefer galatopita – I love having it with a cup of coffee at any time of year. There are many variations: Some make it without any phyllo, which results in something like a baked flan, while others add ground nuts, or saffron in the cream. They are all delicious as long as you use high-quality milk and butter.

I’m delighted to share my galatopita recipe with you and give you a taste of my Greece no matter where you are.

Galatopita

A 25 cm (10 inch) round baking pan

For the custard
1 lt (4 cups) fresh full fat milk
2 eggs at room temperature
50 gr (1/4 cup) fine semolina
50 gr (1/3 cup) all purpose flour, sifted
120 gr (2/3 cup) blonde sugar (i.e. unrefined cane sugar, although it can be substituted with white sugar)
1 vanilla pod or 2 tsp vanilla extract
Zest from one lemon
1 tablespoon good quality milk butter + extra for greasing the pan

For the pastry
5 sheets of good quality phyllo pastry
2 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
70 gr (a heaping 1/2 cup) walnuts
70 gr (a heaping 1/3 cup) blond sugar
100 gr (7 tablespoons) good quality milk butter, melted and cooled down a bit

Powdered sugar and cinnamon to garnish and serve

Grease your pan with butter. Pour the milk into a large saucepan with a thick base to prevent the milk from sticking and burning. Slit open the vanilla pod, remove the seeds inside and add them to the milk along with the pod (for extra flavor) and half the sugar (60 gr). Place the saucepan on low heat and give it a stir every now and then. You want to heat it up, but not to boil it, so make sure you keep an eye on it.

Meanwhile, in a bowl beat the eggs, the more you beat them the less eggy the final result will be. Add the rest of the sugar (60 gr) and lemon zest and beat. Add the semolina and mix well. Add the flour and mix until incorporated well. It should have no lumps and should be creamy and silky.

Now just before the milk starts to simmer, take it off the heat. Remove the pod and give it a minute to cool a bit if too hot. Take about ¼ of a cup from the hot milk and slowly add it to the egg mixture while beating vigorously with a whisk. That’s the most challenging part of this recipe, as the eggs need to be brought to a similar temperature as the milk without becoming scrambled! Pour another ¼ cup in there gradually while beating, after which the egg mixture is ready to be added to the warm milk. You do that again slowly, while beating with the whisk.

Put the saucepan back on low heat and keep stirring until it thickens, that will take about a minute or two. Once done, remove from the heat and stir in the butter.

Put the sugar (70 gr), cinnamon and walnuts in a food processor and process them together. Preheat your oven to 170 degrees C (340 degrees F).

Place the phyllo sheets open on your counter. Brush the first with butter, all over. Carefully place it in the greased pan. Sprinkle with the sugar-nut mix. This will keep the phyllo crispy and flavorful. Repeat with the next phyllo sheet and place crosswise on top of the first. Sprinkle with the nut mix. Repeat this process placing each phyllo crosswise until you place all five of them. Sprinkle again with the nut mix and pour your custard. Make sure it’s level on top, and then start twisting the phyllo hanging round the pan, going around to create a twisted rim. Brush the twisted phyllo rim with butter and place it in the oven on the low rack. Bake for about 45-60 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool down. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon and enjoy with a nice cup of coffee.

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