“You could smell tsourekia, you could smell koulouria baking, the aromas of cinnamon and orange and mahlepi, and then the dyeing of the red eggs on Megali Pempti (Holy Thursday). It’s just wonderful.”
These are the memories Kathy Tsaples holds dear from her childhood during Easter, memories that so many around the world share and which she sets out to recreate each year.
“The most beautiful week in the Greek Orthodox Calendar is our Holy Week, where for me, ever since I was a little girl, I could visualise all households around the world baking at the same time,” the author and Sweet Greek stallholder tells Neos Kosmos.
Each year she hosts family and friends to celebrating Palm Sunday during the 40-day Lenten fast, and on Easter Sunday for the anastasi of Christ, during which she welcomes the opportunity to reconnect spiritually, and with family and friends.
“It’s nice to be here; I like my home to be the base to come to and to do the cooking. Now I get a bit of help as well, because as you get older you get tired. But the happiness takes away some of the tiredness admittedly,” she says, which she luckily has in spades.
For Kathy it’s a particularly busy time, as she sets out cooking not just for those closest to her, but for her stall, which is a one-stop-shop for Easter.
Freshly baked tsourekia, kourabiedes, koulouria and melomakarona, along with other popular Greek sweet and savoury options are available to be ordered until Tuesday 11 April. In store you’ll also find top quality spices for making your own Easter treats, such as mahlepi, mastiha, and yeast, dye for eggs, beautiful white lambades (candles), and alternative chocolate Easter eggs coated red and sold in egg cartons fit for the occasion.
Anyone who has seen Kathy in action will know that the things that set her apart are her passion and sincerity, which is why her many achievements since opening Sweet Greek just five years ago come as little surprise. The former investment banker has added two must-have cookbooks to her name, the second of which Sweet Greek Life was released last year.
Through the pages of the beautiful hardback she shares 116 recipes, that are easy to understand and execute, while also showing her progression in the kitchen in which she gives herself the freedom to express herself without boundaries.
“There’s elements of tradition in it, but it’s also about me allowing myself to express myself. Whilst I’m using Greek flavours and elements – everything has something Greek about it – for example I have a panacotta in there. Now someone might argue that that’s not a traditional Greek sweet; it may not be, but we’re also living in Australia and we’re global; we all take from each other. But what I’ve done is taken the panacotta and added the honey, the mastiha, so it is panacotta using our ingredients,” she explains.
Two years in the making, she admits to having her sights set on completing the book earlier, but a family crisis saw her put the project on the backburner.
“My mum fell ill … I started it, but unfortunately I was not in the mental frame of mind to continue because it was very difficult for me to cope with everything that was happening given that she was such an important part of my cooking journey. But early last year I felt that I owed it to her to get back into it, and I did,” she shares.
Launched in October, Kathy says the month was chosen for a number of reasons, the main one being the very personal and significant milestone of being cancer-free for five years, which is where the book’s name – Sweet Greek Life – stems from.
“It’s a celebration of life; it’s about feasting with family and friends, having fun, cooking together, laughing together, eating together, and enjoying every moment of life because we just don’t know what’s around the corner. Life is short and life is sweet, you just have to enjoy it,” she says – an approach to life, which she admits to embracing after falling ill.
“Before that I was just like any other person. I was a professional in investment banking, I was working long hours, raising a family, educating my sons, having a mortgage, we lived through the recession, looking after elderly parents, so there was never any time to really sit down and smell the roses,” Kathy recalls.
“In a strange sort of way, I’m pretty similar at the moment. I really don’t have much time to celebrate and smell the roses either; I’m constantly on the go. The difference now is that I’m cooking and feeding people and that way I express my love and that’s rewarding for me, so there’s a difference.”
With the book dedicated to her mum, who she refers to lovingly as manoula, its not surprising her personal favourite of the chapters is Semitses, in reference to her Greek-born mother’s interpretation of the humble sandwich.
“I tell the story of how I grew up with an Australian family and they would take me to the Salvation Army every Tuesday and I would have afternoon tea. I never understood what afternoon tea was as a Greek girl, and there would be sandwiches and lamingtons. So when I asked mum to make me a sandwich she said ‘Semitsa, what’s that?’ So these are Greek semitses with all these beautiful fillings such as kasseri cheese.”
It is narratives like this that she shares with each new chapter that led Kathy to make food her life, and continue to inspire her work and make it so popular with others.
“I think all of us remember food from the significant moments of our lives. When I think of my childhood I think about what I would do with my mum and my dad, and the way we would celebrate Easter and Christmas. We look at a dish and it reminds us of an event.”
With such fond memories especially of Easter, it’s fair to hold the Sweet Greek as an authority on anything culinary, and that goes for aesthetics too. So when it comes to creating a memorable Easter spread, what are her secrets?
“You must have a beautiful ornamental display of your red eggs; it’s very important that they’re on your table. You must have a bowl or a platter of your koulourakia and you must have tsoureki – they’re fundamental to your Easter table. Eggs especially, so that when you sit down and before you start eating, everyone takes their egg in that wonderful tradition where we all break each other’s egg and see who has the strongest. In my family we have a little prize that we give for the person who has the strongest egg.”
A prize? Looks like I’ll be inviting myself over for Easter with the Sweet Greek.
To purchase a copy of Sweet Greek, Sweet Greek Life or to place food orders visit The Sweet Greek stall at the Prahran Market, or call (03) 9826 0608. You can visit sweetgreek.com.au/home/
This Easter try your hand at these delicious and easy-to-follow recipes supplied by Kathy Tsaples from her cookbook, Sweet Greek Life:
Easy Chicken Gyro (Gyro apo Kota sto Fourno)
“For big get-togethers at home we always organise a barbecue, and wouldn’t be a barbecue without a traditional chicken gyro, rotating for hours before guests arrive. This easy recipe will make you feel like you are eating authentic chicken gyro, but it’s as simple as marinating a chicken overnight and cooking it in the oven. This is also a great chicken dish on its own, served with some rice pilaf and salad,” says Kathy.
8 chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
1 cup chicken stock
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
3 garlic cloves, grated or crushed
1 tsp dried Greek oregano
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp honey
Tip: Start this recipe a day ahead.
· Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl big enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken and toss well. Cover and refrigerate over night.
· The next day, preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C fan-forced)
· Place a non-stick baking tray in the oven. When the tray is very hot, remove from the oven and place the chicken thighs on it using tongs. The tray should be hot enough for the chicken to sear. Pour the marinade and stock over the chicken.
· Bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 200°C (180°C fan-forced). Turn the chicken to ensure it is well-coated with the marinade, and continue to cook until golden and crispy. The marinade should reduce to a delicious syrup and the chicken should be falling off the bone.
· When ready, shred the chicken and arrange on a warm platter. Serve with warm pita breads with tzatziki and salad.
Tsoureki with Chocolate (Tsoureki Yemisto me Sokolata)
“Without the traditional spices of Masticha Chios and mahlepi this bread wouldn’t be the same. Masticha Chios is a brittle resin from the island of Chios. Its scent takes me back to Greece every time I use it. Mahlepi is a powder made from sour cherry pips. Both these aromatics are earthy and fragrant,” Kathy says.
3g Masticha Chios, ground with 1 tsp of sugar in a mortar and pestle
1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 x 7g sachet dry yeast
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange
4 cups strong white flour
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup flaked almonds
1/2 cup cocoa
3/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp instant coffee powder
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g chocolate (60 per cent cocoa), melted
100g chocolate (60 per cent cocoa), melted, to serve
· To make the dough, use an electric stand mixer with the dough hook attachment and slowly mix the milk, sugar and yeast together. Add the Masticha Chios, eggs, melted butter, salt, mahlepi, vanilla and orange zest. Mix until incorporated, then add the flour, one cup at a time. Continue mixing to form a soft, pliable dough, around eight minutes in the machine. Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rest for 30-40 minutes, or until doubled in size.
· To make the ganache, mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl, gradually adding the softened butter and chocolate to form a smooth paste. Set aside, but don’t chill as it needs to be able to be spread over the dough.
· To make the tsoureki, once it has risen, divide the dough into two equal portions. It will be really sticky, but it’s very important not to add extra flour. Rub the workbench, rolling pin, and your hands with a little olive oil.
· Roll each portion of dough out into a square of roughly 30 x 30 centimetres. Spread each square generously with half of the ganache and roll into a sausage shape. Use an oiled pastry scraper to help lift the dough off the oiled bench while rolling.
· Once both portions of dough have been rolled up, lay each roll side by side, with the seam on the bottom. Place the top ends on top of each other and gently squeeze together.
· Using a sharp knife, start about four centimetres from the top of each roll and cut right through the dough, down the centre, to the bottom. This will expose the layers of the dough and chocolate. Braid the four strands to form a lovely twisted chocolate and dough loaf. Place this log into the baking tray lined with baking paper.
· Allow to rest for a second time, about 30-40 minutes.
· Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan-forced). Brush the top of the tsoureki with a beaten egg, and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Once cooked through, allow the bread to cool. Use a fork or spoon to drizzle melted chocolate over the bread.
* Recipes from ‘Sweet Greek Life, My Shared Table’ by Kathy Tsaples.