I remember Easter when we were kids. Every year my family and I would take a drive north to Syracuse, NY to spend the holiday with my mom’s family. We would run around with our cousins and then eat dinner around my nonna’s dining room table which always extended well into the porch. It was such a fun time with all the cousins and our aunts and uncles and of course, my nonna. I’ll never forget that before we began dinner, she would take the palm from the previous Sunday and dip it into holy water and bless everyone. She always cried as she prayed over us. I’m sure as kids we thought it was a little funny, but mostly I remember feeling loved and cared for. I don’t really remember the food specifically although I know there was lots of it. I just remember the fun and that Nonna gave the kids 7Up with a drop of wine, which would probably be scandalous today. Everything about those memories feels a little surreal now.
With Easter only days away, it is time to recreate the traditional recipes that have been in our family for years. I have a lot of cooking and baking to do. Easter is the first holiday that my mom let me take over so it’s the one I’m most comfortable preparing. Even still, as my mom and I confer on each recipe, we always find ourselves questioning ingredients and quantities. This is because we rarely write down recipes in my family and even if we do, they are usually only a general list of ingredients. That was fine when we were younger but as time goes on, the memory is not quite what it used to be. Over the past couple years, I realized that if I didn’t start writing our recipes down, they would be lost forever.
Over the next few days, we will attempt to capture for you, all of the special dishes that make the Easter magic happen. I’ll do the cooking and baking and Mike will do the recording so that maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a culinary legacy to leave behind some day.
We might as well start with sweets! I think Easter is more sugary than Halloween and Valentine’s Day combined. From jelly beans to giant foil-covered chocolate eggs (that are often times filled with more candy) to the yummy pies and sweet bread, even my salty side can’t resist the many confections that make up this day! It’s hard to pick a favorite so I won’t even try. I give equal billing to my pastiera (rice pie), ricotta pie and Easter bread. All three are sweet and delicious and Easter wouldn’t be the same without them.
Pastiera is a rice pie sweetened by sugar and cinnamon. Not only is it incredibly tasty but it’s also sentimental. This pie was the specialty of my late Zia Agata. My mom’s sister Agata made a pastiera just for me, every single Easter even after I started making it myself. She would keep it in the freezer until we saw each other. Even during her last days, she made a pie specially for me. By the time I enjoyed the last bite of it, she was no longer with us. Now when I make our pastiera, I talk to my aunt as if she was here with me. I think that’s why it always turn out great!
Ricotta pie, the Italian answer to cheese cake is creamy but light and has a textural quality a little less silky than regular cheese cake. The orange zest is the magic ingredient in this dessert. It adds a punch of flavor that brightens each bite.
The last dessert on the menu, Easter Bread, is just as good for breakfast as it is at the end of the meal. Easter bread is sweet and satisfying and the recipe comes from my zia Elsa, my mom’s first cousin. She made the best, most beautiful Easter bread I’ve ever seen. Mom and I do a pretty good job, but my late aunt was the master. You’ll see a pattern forming, but we talk to Zia Elsa when we make this sweet bread just for good measure. You can slice it and eat it plain or toast it and add butter. According to my nonna if you cut the bread before Easter, snakes would come out of it. It was years before I tested that theory, but I can now confidently tell you that if your willpower falters and you sample the bread early, no snakes will come out after you.
In our next post we’ll tell you all about the savory side of Easter dinner. Some dishes like pepper salad are made often throughout the year but others like Easter frittata are only made at Easter. Sure we make frittata throughout the year, but Easter frittata is a whole different story. Stay tuned to see what makes it special and which late relative we talk to as we make it.