There is no Greek Easter without the hard-boiled red eggs that all Greek housewives will be dyeing on Megali Pempti (Holy Thursday) just before Easter. The supermarkets are full of non-toxic dyes in sachets, in all ranges of colours, although the traditional colour is red, symbolising Christ's blood. It's said that some women who were going to the market to sell their eggs passed by Jesus on the cross and the blood from his pierced hands and feet fell on the eggs, which became stained red. Whatever the symbolism involved, all Greek houses will see red eggs at Easter, whether they are ready-bought dyed, or home-made; we all can't wait to select one from the basket and crack it (tzougkrisma) onto someone else's to see whose egg will dominate throughout the contest.
In the plastic world we live in, the art of dyeing red eggs naturally has nearly become extinct. Here's a way to use natural substances to colour and decorate Easter eggs, and keep them edible after you've had your fun cracking them at the Easter table. We never eat them if they're dyed with unnatural 'non-toxic' chemical substances, so the eggs are pretty much wasted.
My mother used to use shop-bought clothes dye to get her eggs red, but she also created a natural design on the eggs, something not many people will remember or bother with these days, as most dye sachets come with adhesive plastic spring motifs to stick onto the eggs after boiling or dyeing them, depending on the instructions. The practice of decorating them with leaves is also continued in some Eastern European countries, as my Bulgarian students have informed me.
As this is an experimental session two weeks before Holy Thursday, I'm only dyeing four eggs today. The free-range eggs given to me by my uncles are far too precious to throw away afterwards, but because I am using beetroot juice as a natural dye, I won't need to throw them out. No matter what the sachet says about the dye being non-toxic, I still don't believe it; mine will be going into tomorrow's potato salad. Greeks boil the beetroot greens with the beetroot bulb, and eat it as a salad - greens and all - dressed with olive oil, vinegar and salt. And since I'm cooking beetroot today, it's a chance to see if what is written on the internet about beetroot being a natural red dye for eggs is true.
To prepare the motifs on the eggs:
To make these natural decorations, you need some old stockings, parsley leaves or other decorative leaves that are large enough to leave an imprint on the egg shell, and some twist ties or small elastic bands.
Place a parsley leaf on a damp egg and then carefully place it in an old nylon stocking, wrapping the egg tightly with the stocking so that the leaf will not be displaced. Twist the stocking tightly at the top, tying it with a small rubber band, piece of string or twist-tie, anything that will not damage the egg or displace the leaf.
To make the dye:
All factors must be considered when making natural dyes, so I must start off by telling you that the eggs I used were a beige colour, while the beetroot and red onion skins created a rusty brown dye. Yellow (Spanish) onions are the best for a deep red egg dye colour, so save your yellow onion skins over the lent period if you want to use them to make a natural dye. This is a variety of onions we don't commonly find in the places where I shop in Hania (although I did find them in LIDL recently and used them to dye eggs red great success); we use mainly red onions here. In any case, natural dyes and materials are all a matter of experimentation. The red onion skins with the beetroot gave a brown colour, although the dye looked red. The yellow onions skins created the classic red colour of Greek Easter eggs, while the dye itself looked orangey-brown (see top photo; the brown eggs are dyed with beetroot, while the red eggs are dyed with yellow onion skins).
Place the skins of about 15 onions into a pot with 4 cups of strained juice from boiled beetroot and 2 tablespoons of vinegar to make sure the dye 'sets' and does not create a runny effect when the egg is removed from the dye and dried. Let them boil away in the pot for half an hour. Strain the dye into another pot and discard the onion skins. There should be just enough to cover the eggs. The trick is not to add too much water, otherwise, the dye will not be very strong - the more natural ingredients you use, the stronger the colour - naturally!
To dye the eggs:
Some people boil the egg in the dye, while others boil the eggs separately and then add them to the dye. As the dye is made from natural substances, I have no qualms about dyeing the eggs in it. The only problem when boiling and/or dyeing eggs is to take care that they do not crack during any of the stages. They'll be pretty useless for 'tzougrisma'!
Begin by washing the eggs so that they are free of dirt, straw and grease (the dye won't 'take' otherwise). Place the cleaned, pre-decorated eggs in the pot with the prepared dye and begin by boiling them on a high heat - there should only be one layer of eggs in the pot. I added one undecorated egg as a colour control. When the water is boiling and the eggs are starting to rattle in the pot (that's why you should only have one layer!), lower the heat to a minimum and leave them to boil for half an hour. Turn the heat off (your eggs are cooked) and leave the eggs in the dye until they have taken the desired colour. You can check this by lifting the control egg out of the pot with a slotted spoon.
To shine dyed eggs:
Some dyes include a gloss to make the eggs shiny after they have been dyed (more chemicals, if you ask me). The traditional way to do this is by brushing them with olive oil. Pour some olive oil on a tea-towel (paper towels leave too much residue) and lightly rub it all over the egg. Lay them on a plate lined with some paper towels to absorb the excess oil while drying.
Your eggs are now finished - and they're still edible. My eggs didn't turn out like the traditional red eggs for Greek Easter, but don't they look beautiful in the old bird's nest that we found in an orange tree in our village... And the children didn't bat an eyelid on seeing the un-red eggs; they knew what to do with them!
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25 March (Independence Day)