Easter quickly follows Passover this year. These holidays that celebrate rebirth and hope are just what we need after this hand-wringing winter. I suspect that many of us are more than ready for some big gatherings, favorite holiday foods, and regardless of faith or heritage, maybe a few yellow Peeps hidden in the freezer.
My favorite memories of Easter include huge baked hams and sweet egg breads that a Lithuanian aunt would bake in empty Maxwell House Coffee cans. As they baked the dough would rise to spill over the top of the cans' edges making the finished breads into huge, fragrant mushrooms. My aunt would then spread a sweet white icing on top of the still warm breads, causing it to drift past the edges, like snow melting off of an angled rooftop. Then a dusting of colorful nonpareils. The final challenge was to cut the tall, narrow bread so that each piece got its share of the sugared top. I would first eat the top so to maximize the ratio of frosting to bread, leaving a rather large piece of un-sugared bread to become a sandwich with a slice of baked ham. It was a perfect meal.
As with Passover, favorite Easter foods vary according to where your family and its dominant cooks happen to come from. For example, those of us in the northeast aren't very experienced with country hams, which are an Easter staple in the south. As with the frosted egg bread, my childhood Easter foods were ones chosen by my mother's side of the family, filled with Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish and other Eastern European home cooks; my Irish father didn't try to shape the menu but happily filled our Easter baskets with candy.
Besides baked ham, other favorite Easter foods include roast lamb, asparagus, artichokes, scalloped potatoes, and desserts like lemon meringue pie and coconut cake. And of course, eggs, dyed pale pastels or as in my family, deep purple from boiling the eggs with the dark skins taken from beets or red onions.
Tips for Easter Cooking
- If you're planning to roast a leg of lamb, buy the best quality you can and if you haven't yet bought an instant thermometer (they're only about $7), this is the time because there's no way to know without one whether your expensive roast is correctly cooked. To begin with, there's a big variance in cooking time between a boneless and bone-in leg roast. (Make sure you buy the leg, not the shoulder cut, unless you have about 4 to 5 hours to very slow roast a shoulder at 250° F.) Try to buy your lamb from a good butcher (our merchant database has many) and ask him for roasting advice. And buy that thermometer!
Here are your internal temperature targets: 110° F is rare, 130° F is medium rare, 140° F is medium, and 145° F is medium well (I'm not going to give you a temperature for well done because if this is your goal for roast lamb, what's the point?). These temperatures are when you take the roast out of the oven. Then you let it rest for about 30 minutes during which time the roast will continue to cook and the temperature will rise another 5 to 10 degrees.
- Remember as with any meal, but especially big ones with lots of courses, to mix up the food's colors, textures and flavors. Make sure the whole meal isn't one color (this is much more of a risk with Thanksgiving when everything can be white). Have something that's a little sweet, like the glaze on the ham, and something with heat, like a spicy chutney or hot mustard. Include foods that are crunchy, like crisp green beans, and something soft, like gnocchi or potatoes. The old wisdom about eating with our eyes is never more true than when doing a holiday meal menu. And just like with Thanksgiving, do a shopping and cooking plan in advance so you don't get into trouble at the last minute.
- I'll use any excuse to bake a ham. See our article called Ham 101 to help you decide what kind of ham would be best for your Easter dinner.
- If you want a special Easter dessert but don't particularly like to bake, strawberry shortcakes are a good choice. Berries are the first local fruits to come to market and then all you need to do is buy or bake biscuits and whip some cream. Plus if any of your guests don't eat gluten, they can have just the berries and cream. You can also use a mix of berries -- whatever looks best at the time you're buying. See our recipe for plain biscuits. These aren't sweet which to me is a plus given the sweetness of the berries and the cream.
To make the shortcakes, begin by baking the biscuits and let them cool completely. In the meantime wash and slice the strawberries and sprinkle a little sugar to help them get juicy (if you're using blackberries, raspberries or blueberries, there's no need to rinse but pick through for any debris, stems or spoiled berries). Whip the cream, adding a little sugar and/or vanilla, until firm peaks form. Assemble the dessert by splitting a biscuit, placing the bottom half on a small plate. Spoon a generous amount of berries and then whipped cream and top with the other biscuit half. Add a few more berries and cream on top and serve immediately before the biscuit gets soggy. Don't want to bake at all? You can instead buy biscuits or plain scones already made by a favorite bakery.
Our food-centered holidays are a rich opportunity to give one another some of the most powerful memories of our lives. I can still taste that frosted egg bread which lets me almost remember what it was like to be invisible, as only a child in a room full of adults can be. So if you are new to cooking for Easter, give yourself the pleasure of making new traditions. If you already have your favorites, enjoy the annual rituals and remembrances. And if that includes keeping all those frozen yellow Peeps to yourself, no one will ever know.