Easter Treats

Wonderful desserts make a happy ending to the holiday meal

April 11, 2001|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the dinner plates are cleared from the table this Sunday, look for the real Easter parade to begin.

That's when spring's light and luscious cakes, tarts and puddings will make their annual promenade along the festive buffet, and our anticipation matches what we feel upon discovering the season's first robin.

The Easter dinner is the traditional end to the Lenten season, during which many Christians fast from certain foods -- like sweets, particularly chocolate -- as penance and for spiritual discipline.

The holiday holds a wealth of memories of family gatherings, fancy new clothing, elaborate egg hunts and baskets teeming with candy and toys. In the kitchen, the change is equally visible.

This is the time when we migrate toward flavors that complement the season of rejuvenation: fresh fruit, fluffy frostings and light cream fillings. With chocolate bunnies and jelly beans already offering a major sugar high, the task of creating remarkable Easter desserts holds real challenge.

To Greeks, the Easter dessert table wouldn't be complete without a traditional braided sweet bread accented by a red egg baked into its center. Dana L. Matens, a resident of Northeast Baltimore, prefers to make an Easter version of the traditional Boston cream pie -- from a large cake mold shaped like an egg. Matens scoops out the center of the cake center, fills it with custard and then decorates it with ornate buttercream swirls.

For others, the Easter dessert offers a chance to present both light and extravagant creations to complement the customary meal of roasted lamb or baked ham and lightly seasoned vegetables.

"This is a special holiday gathering and, for that, you go the extra mile," says Janet Gaffney, who runs the Art of Cooking, a small cooking school, from her home in Bethesda.

Such effort is evident in the Orange-Almond Cake Gaffney prepares in the course she teaches on Tuscan specialties. The recipe, adapted from chef Giuliano Bugialli, calls for a heavy two-layer cake laced with candy-coated almonds, filled with an orange custard and neatly topped with almond paste that has been flavored with orange juice. It's a treat that takes just over two hours to bake and assemble, but, for Easter guests, will offer a "spectacular" ending to a scrumptious meal, Gaffney says.

For those who desire a less elaborate dessert, Gaffney suggests a fruit tart with a walnut pie pastry or a raspberry sponge pudding, easily made in 45 minutes and served in festive parfait glasses.

"This is a holiday that's all centered around family," says Gaffney, who still recalls her Easter hats, patent-leather shoes and overflowing baskets as a child in Hampton Roads, Va. "It is very comforting -- and holds happy times."

Local bakers Mike Meckel, co-owner of the Fenwick Bakery, and Joseph Poupon, who owns Patisserie Poupon, prepare wonderful Easter treats to help create such happy memories.

Meckel says customers of the 60-plus-year-old Hamilton bakery, an institution on Harford Road, flock each year to buy poundcakes in the shape of eggs, rabbits and lambs that are coated in chocolate or flecked with coconut. In addition, he expects to make nearly 600 dozen small tea cakes in the shape of Easter eggs -- a best seller at 65 cents each.

More elaborate are the offerings of Poupon, whose French bakery at 820 E. Baltimore St. will sell a unique, edible Easter centerpiece of a hollow chocolate toucan bird surrounded by real bamboo shoots and accented with a spray of white chocolate orchids.

"It's a nice holiday, a food holiday," Poupon says of the Easter celebration. "People indulge in chocolate and a nice meal. That's part of the whole Easter -- it has a religious side and a family side."

To John Shields, owner of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art and host of the public television series "Chesapeake Bay Cooking," the Easter dinner is a variation on a Thanksgiving feast -- with lighter fare and flavors.

Shields' Lady Baltimore Cake is a natural for a spring celebration. Punctuated by a filling that holds raisins, walnuts and figs, this cake offers hosts the opportunity to kick off spring with a light sweet that is as pretty as a butterfly. In Shields' 1998 book, "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields," the Lady Baltimore is featured and described as a cake that originated in the late 1800s as a "centerpiece for afternoon teas."

Lately, the book notes, with tea parties on the wane, the Lady Baltimore is served at "first Communions, bridal showers, and upper crust Tupperware parties."

"Growing up, we always had cake for Easter," Shields says. "Usually a coconut cake with a seven-minute frosting that was very light and very white and bright."

Overall, he adds, the tradition of a good dessert is to end the meal on a sweet note. And Easter is no exception. "You want to create a good memory," he says.

Boston Cream Easter Egg Cake

Serves 12

CAKE:

3/4 cup shortening

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 1/4 cups flour, sifted

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

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