Representing as it does the breaking of the Lenten fast, Easter is far and away the most important feast day on the church calendar, with most Orthodox and Catholic ethnic communities having their own particular specialty dishes. This is especially pronounced among the Central European nationalities so, without further ado, I present my family’s typical Easter meal.
Most Catholic parishes conduct Holy Saturday service where they bless the Easter baskets. My parents’ is no exception, so my mother prepared their basket for the mid-afternoon sojourn to church.
Easter basket, along with kulich bread and spinach pie.
Contents of the basket were ham, sausage, salt, cheese, red and white wine, small loaf of kulich bread, lamb-shaped butter and hard boiled eggs.
Wines were a Riesling and a French red (Côtes du Roussillon Villages). Kulich bread is a Central European specialty bread, similar to the Italian panettone, seasoned with cardamom and brandy-soaked raisins, the entire thing baked vertically inside some sort of coffee or Number 10 can then covered with a white frosting; according to some accounts the appearance of the finished loaf is said to mimic the dome of the traditional Orthodox church. Traditionally it is only served between Easter and Pentecost; even more traditionally it is eaten with breakfast daily during that time.
The spinach pie is of a standard fare: pie crust, spinach, blend of white cheeses with some browned ground lamb added. Consistent with the traditional Easter practice, it is decorated with a cross.
Easter table setting
Ham is the centerpiece to nearly every Easter dinner. In this case it’s accompanied by sausage (a nonsmoked Polish variety), potato salad, the spinach pie and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus.
As with many Christmas traditions (decorated pine trees, Yule logs, Santa Claus), ham as the traditional Easter meal is Germanic/Northern European in origin. Its use in spring feasts predates Christian times, pigs typically slaughtered in late-autumn, fattened and tasty after spending the months of late-summer/early-autumn feeding on fallen fruit and acorns. Given several months to cure, hams and pork sausages would be ready to eat in time for the spring feast which, in pre-Christian times, was a feast in celebration of the ancient Germanic fertility goddess Eostre, serving as both the origin for the word ‘Easter’ as well as the source for the rabbit symbology (Good background here and here).
At any rate, the choice of ham is a good one; if there is any meat that is suitable for the extended week-long leftover eating that follows a holiday feast, to my palate it’s ham.
Being especially fond of spinach pie, I passed on the asparagus and settled for a sparing helping of potato salad (which is really just as good as leftovers with sandwiches anyway). I went with the red wine – the only way I can tolerate the sweet German whites is cut down sangria-style with club soda – and this particular bottle was excellent. The hard-boiled egg I set aside and ate the following morning on an English muffin with a slice of ham.
Of course, no feast is complete without dessert and this meal would be no exception, featuring three items (four, if one chooses to count the kulich bread).
Easter desserts: Raspberry Dacquoise (bottom), munavalgekook (top left), chocolate pistachio torte (top right).
Chocolate is another foodstuff widely associated with Easter. The origin of chocolate as an Easter treat is more recent since chocolate’s origin was from the New World – the word ‘chocolate’ is a variation of the Nahuatl chocolātl – so obviously it wasn’t introduced into Christian culture until the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs under Cortés. It most likely came to be associated with Easter due to the Lenten requirements – sweets and dairy were typically prohibited – so, considering its high sugar and milk content, it seems only natural that such an item would also be abstained from during the fast and thus indulged in during the feast.
The first item satisfied the chocolate content of the feast by a considerable margin; a chocolate torte, with chunks of milk chocolate in the cake and a dark chocolate icing topped with pistachios. It was excellent, given the obvious caveat that one likes chocolate.
Second item was Munavalgekook, also known as an Estonian Egg White Cake. This is something similar to Angel Food cake, only slightly richer with butter and cardamom and orange zest added to make it more flavorful. Icing was the same dark chocolate as the pistachio torte; after all, the fact that one is indulging in a feast shouldn’t be treated as an invitation to waste.
The final item was a Raspberry Dacquoise. A dacquoise is a type of meringue, this particular one made from almond flour. Between and on top of the layers of meringue is a blended mix of heavy cream and caster sugar (an extremely fine grind of sugar, finer than confectioner’s sugar) and the entire thing is chilled for several hours before serving. This was my favorite of the three; the tartness of the raspberries provided a pleasing contrast to the richness of the cream while the coolness combined well with the after-dinner coffee.
Apart from the joy inherent with celebrating any holiday with loved ones, there’s a greater value to the abstinence/feast cycle, one that transcends any particular religious creed or even spiritual belief in general. It’s a value of an almost anthropological dimension and that the modern world has largely lost – and much to its detriment, in my reckoning. The character building discipline of abstinence: the pooling of common resources in anticipation of the feast: the bonding inherent in any shared celebration; these are all things that our secularized era and its atomized, ‘Have whatever you want, whenever you want it’ culture of convenience will never know, and more’s the pity.