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Maria Menounos's Greek Christmas

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“Food was very important,” says Maria Menounos of her family’s Christmas gatherings, which typically began with mass in their hometown of Medford, Mass., the night before. “It didn’t matter where we were financially; the holidays were the holidays. Weeks before, we would start making pastries.”

Along with a younger brother Peter, the Access Hollywood correspondent, 30, grew up helping her Greek immigrant parents, Litsa and Costas, who worked as janitors in a nightclub in Boston. “I remember getting to the nightclub at 5 a.m. on Christmas, so we could clean and get home fast to change,” say Menounos. “If Roy Orbison or the B-52’s performed, it was a mess.”

Litsa, who “knows how to produce huge quantities out of a little stove,” would cook for days to create a Greek feast. “One aunt made an ouzo cake I was obsessed with,” Menounos recalls, “and another aunt was really good at potatoes au gratin, but my mom was the best at everything.” The day after, the expansive family (“40 first cousins”) would go from home to home for leftovers. “Dinner at one house, coffee at another, dessert – baklava, kourabiethes (sugar cookies) and finikia (honey cookies) – at another.”

Now living in Los Angeles, Menounos, who also contributes to the Today show and NBC Nightly News, admits that her celebrations are considerably smaller. Still, she is preparing to carry on the traditions – in a somewhat untraditional manner. “When my mom is making something I don’t know how to make, I film her, step by step. I have these tapes logged, so if I ever want to make these dishes I can play the video.”

She often hosts Thanksgiving or Christmas, both for her parents, who now live in Connecticut, and for friends who can’t make it home. “It’s always nice whether it is big or small,” says Menounos. “The feast is the same because we definitely cook for double the amount. That is the only way we know how to do it.”


Serves 12

Red Sauce:
2 lbs. ground beef
1 large scallion, finely chopped
1 can (32 oz.) tomato sauce
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper

1 lb. of elbow macaroni (Or Greek pastitsio macaroni)
½ cup Romano cheese
½ tsp. pepper

Cream Sauce:
1 stick of butter
5 tbsp. flour
2 ½ cups milk
4 eggs, separated

1. To make the red sauce, in large skillet, sauté onions and ground beef. Add salt and pepper, bay leaf and can of tomato sauce. Cook for 20 minutes. Leave to the side.
2. To cook the pasta, in large pot fill three-quarters of the way with water and boil pasta until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Strain pasta and leave in the pot. Add romano cheese. Add egg whites (beaten) and pepper. Leave to the side.
3. To assemble the dish, get a 12×18 pan and spray bottom with non-stick spray. Add half the pasta mixture and spread well into pan. Take meat sauce and spread over the pasta evenly. Take rest of the pasta mixture and put it on top of the meat mixture.
4. To make the cream sauce, in a medium pot melt butter. Then add flour and whisk for 2-3 minutes. Turn off heat and keep adding milk little by little to the mix. Stir until all lumps are gone. Turn stove back on low and cook until the sauce becomes thick, continuously stirring. Add egg yolks and stir well. Pour mixture on top of the pasta evenly. Bake 35-40 minutes at 375 º or until a nice golden color.

Tips from Litsa Menounos:
1. Put tin foil at the bottom of the oven in case the pastitsio puffs up and spills over the sides. If there is not tin foil at the bottom to catch the spills, then the oven will start to smoke!
2. Cut pastitsio when it is warm (not hot). If you cut it too early then it will not keep its shape and will become mushy and fall apart if cut too soon.

Recipe courtesy Litsa Menounos

Kourambiedes cookies

Makes 5 dozen

1 lb. sweet butter (whipped)
2 egg yolks
2 oz. sugar (¼ cup)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 oz. ouzo (Greek liquor) or anisette
1 tsp. vanilla
4-5 cups flour
1 lb. confectioner’s sugar

1. Mix butter and sugar well. Beat butter in a large bowl until light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add sugar, beat to combine.
2. Add yolks, ouzo and vanilla. Mix until incorporated.
3. In a medium-sized bowl combine flour and baking soda. Add flour little by little until dough is not sticky in hands.
4. Using a tbsp. of dough, form into round shapes.
5. Place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375 º for 15-20 minutes.
6. Once the cookies are taken out of the oven and are still hot, sift the confectioner’s sugar over the top of the cookies. Before serving you can sift more sugar on top of cookies.

Recipe courtesy Litsa Menounos

Spinach Pies

Makes 60

2 cups spinach (frozen), thaw and squeeze dry
½ cup scallions (chopped)
½ cup fennel (chopped)
½ cup parsley (chopped)
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
½ cup ricotta cheese
4 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. black pepper
¼ cup mint (chopped)
1 lb. phyllo dough (thawed to room temperature)
1 lb. butter (melted)
¼ cup olive oil

1. In a medium pan sauté onions with olive oil until soft, about 3 minutes. Add spinach, parsley, mint, anise, cook for 3-4 minutes, then put aside to cool.
2. In a bowl mix feta, ricotta cheese, eggs, pepper and lastly add the spinach mixture and mix well.
3. Open phyllo dough and cut the stack of sheets into 3 long strips. Then pile the strips one on top of the other and lay a damp cloth on top to stay moist (otherwise it will dry and crack).
4. Warm and melt the butter. Take one strip of phyllo dough and butter both sides with a brush. Place one tbsp. of spinach mixture and put at the top corner of the strip. Pull left corner and take it to the right side. Then take right corner and pull it to the left side. Keep folding in a triangle design until the strip is done.
5. Butter the top and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 º for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.
6. You can also freeze these (uncooked) to keep for future if you don’t want to cook all at the same time.

Recipe courtesy Litsa Menounos