Easter dishes share a heritage with ancient festivals of rebirth, spring

March 30, 1994|By Nick Malgieri | Nick Malgieri,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Though Easter is usually celebrated in the United States with an endless stream of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans, there are many other traditions associated with the holiday. The feast that celebrates Christ's return to life after His crucifixion and death has many ancient antecedents.

Greek and Roman festivals that celebrated the passage of winter into the rebirth of spring have common points with Easter as well as Passover, the Jewish feast celebrating the passage of the Hebrews out of Egypt.

The rebirth of spring and its fertile promise of the long and prosperous season ahead is well-illustrated by the Sicilian Easter wreath. Its round shape signifies the continuous passage of the seasons through the year. The eggs, of course, symbolize fertility and the replenishing of the earth with animals as well as plants after the dreary winter months. The promise of the harvest to come is seen in the Swiss rice tart; throughout Europe, Easter pastries are filled with grains.

In Naples, wheat berries are used for a similar tart, the grain in all of these pastries symbolizing the potential of birth and growth inherent in the seeds.

Though of more recent origin, chocolate is associated with Easter almost as much as it is with Valentine's Day. The association probably came about when chocolate became more available at the end of the 19th century and confectioners vied with each other to produce elaborate molded chocolates in the shape of eggs and rabbits -- more symbols of fertility.

Chocolate souffle roll is based on a famous recipe introduced to the United States by Dione Lucas. Famous as one of the original television cooks in the early '50s, Ms. Lucas introduced many homey French recipes, such as this roll, to her audience. The recipe is equally associated with James Beard, who popularized it.

As the speed of urban life takes us even further from the land and its rebirth at Easter, these recipes help to recall an earlier tradition when the arrival of spring was heralded with greater solemnity and relief.

Both the rice tart and the chocolate roll may be completely prepared the day before serving. Refrigerate the tart wrapped in plastic wrap. Bring it to room temperature before serving. Assemble and fill the chocolate roll and cover it with plastic wrap for up to 24 hours before serving. Serve the roll cold. For the wreath, assemble it completely and refrigerate it for up to one day before baking. Bake the wreath on the day you plan to serve it.

Sicilian Easter wreath

Makes about 8 servings

DOUGH:

3 cups flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon orange zest, finely grated

1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely grated

3/4 cup cool unsalted butter

EGG WASH AND FINISH:

1 egg, well-beaten with -- salt

4 unpeeled hard-cooked eggs

colored sugar sprinkles or chopped almonds

powdered sugar

Set rack in middle level of oven. Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil.

FOR DOUGH: Combine flour, granulated sugar, salt and baking powder in bowl and stir well to mix. In separate bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla and orange and lemon zests.

Cut butter into 1/2 -inch pieces and add to dry ingredients. Using fingertips or pastry blender, rub in butter until mixture is fine and sandy -- cool and powdery, not sticky. Stir in egg mixture with fork and continue stirring until mixture holds together. Remove dough to lightly floured work surface. Knead lightly until smooth, about 15 seconds.

To form wreath, roll 3/4 of dough into 24-inch cylinder. Arrange on prepared pan, making circle about 8 inches in diameter. Press ends together to adhere. Brush surface with egg wash. Position hard-cooked eggs on top, equidistant from each other.

Roll remaining dough into thin cylinder. Cut into 8 pieces. Roll each piece 3 1/2 inches long. Crisscross 2 pieces over each egg, forming an X. Adhere ends of dough to wreath on either side of eggs. Carefully brush crisscross strips with egg wash. Sprinkle entire wreath with colored sugar sprinkles.

Bake at 350 degrees until well-colored and firm, about 30 minutes. Cool wreath on pan.

Before serving, lightly dust top with powdered sugar. Slide wreath onto serving platter to use as Easter centerpiece.

To serve, cut into thin vertical slices. (Eggs will be somewhat overcooked -- they are really decoration and not meant to be eaten.)

Swiss rice tart

Makes about 8 servings

PASTRY DOUGH:

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg yolk

1 1/4 cups cake flour

FILLING:

-- salt

1/3 cup long grain rice

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 cups milk

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

6 egg yolks

1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds

powdered sugar

Set rack in lowest level of oven. Butter 10- or 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom.

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