Italian families have lots of food traditions at Easter, and I’ve made many of them through the years, such as pastiera, a sweet pie made with ricotta and wheat kernels,
or the colomba, a rich, eggy brioche cake made in the shape of a dove that’s on every Italian’s dessert table at Easter.
Once every few years, although it’s not an Italian tradition, I also indulge in making chocolate covered coconut cream Easter eggs. My mother-in-law used to make these (and peanut butter eggs) each Easter as a fund raiser for a local charity and they’re a real weakness of mine, but so much better than store-bought, especially when you use really good dark chocolate.
But the dessert that holds the most memories for me is the lamb cake that my mother always made when I was growing up.
It wasn’t the chocolate version, as seen in the first photo. It was the white cake version, pictured below, that I often make each Easter.
I’ve already written about the white cake version here, covered with buttercream and coconut, but since I attempted a chocolate version last year, I thought I’d show you the little brown lamb cake, and give you the choice of making either — or both.
I thought for a while about what to use to simulate the dark fleece of a brown lamb, and I came up with this combination: ground up chocolate wafer cookies mixed with ground up amaretti cookies.
It tasted good and I think worked well as wooly fleece, pressed into the chocolate frosting.
I used some cut up jelly beans for the eyes, nose, mouth and ear details, but if you have other ideas, I’d love to hear about them, or see a photo, so send it on. Don’t forget to tie a ribbon around its neck to dress it up in Easter finery.
I inherited the lamb pans from my mother, but you can find them for sale in many places, including on Amazon.com. You fill only one side, then cover with the other very well greased half.
I used a chocolate pound cake recipe I found online, and I knew there was more than enough for the lamb cake, so I baked the extra batter in some small, individual “cakelet” pans I had.
Clearly, I loaded the pan with too much batter, since it started to leak out near the end of the cooking.
No worries though. I just trimmed it up and proceeded with the frosting.
This is how the chocolate cake looks before frosting. Don’t worry about the small holes you see here and there.
I had to keep him company, so I made the vanilla version too. That recipe is here. Again, there seemed to be more batter than I needed, so I baked a couple of cupcakes too. Make sure you grease the pan thoroughly, then dust with flour. After greasing with butter, and before flouring, I sprayed with some nonstick spray just for extra “insurance” against sticking. Following those instructions, I’ve never had a problem – not even with the small ear parts.
When you release it from the pan, it sits upright like this – in desperate need of frosting and decoration.
Side by side, they make quite a cute pair. It’s almost a shame to cut into them.
But we do — starting from the back end. By the end of the day, we were left with these decapitated heads. I can assure you they didn’t go to waste.
Wishing all of you a happy Easter, or a Happy Passover, and if you don’t celebrate either of those holidays, Happy Spring to all of you.
Let me also take this opportunity to let you know we have a few spaces left in our memoir writing workshop on beautiful Lake Como, Italy.
Your home away from home for a week will be Villa Monastero, in Varenna — open to tourists during the day who come to see the beautiful gardens here, but closed at night to everyone but our workshop attendees. Life is short – don’t postpone your dream. For more information, go to www.italyinotherwords.com.
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3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder ( I use Dutch processed)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 325*F.
Grease and flour a 10″ fluted tube pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
In another large bowl, using an electric mixer on high speed, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Blend in the vanilla.
In 3 additions each, beat in the flour mixture and sour cream just until combined.
Do not overmix.
Pour batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until the center tests done.
Cool 10 minutes in pan; invert onto a wire rack and cool completely.===========================================For the frosting: 6 Tablespoons softened unsalted butter1/3 cup milk2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar2 t. vanilla extract3/4 c. cocoa powder
Beat the butter in a mixer until smooth, then slowly add the rest of the ingredients until everything is blended to the proper consistency. If it’s too thick, add a little more milk. Spread over the lamb. You’ll have more than you need to coat the lamb, so freeze the extra.
For the “wooly” coat:Buy some chocolate wafers and some amaretti cookies. Place some of them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin (or pulse in a food processor until the proper texture). Using your hand, spread the cookie crumbs over the chocolate frosting, pressing in to secure.Decorate the eyes, ears, nose and mouth with bits of jelly beans or other candies.
I know this would have been more useful had I posted this ham recipe before Easter, but it’s still perfect anytime you’ve got a crowd coming. Kentucky Derby party in your future maybe?
It’s a great dish for company, especially when you don’t have time to fuss. And it tastes so much better than those store-bought pre-sliced honey-baked hams sold at franchises.
This big ole’ ham was also purchased pre-sliced, but I normally buy one that isn’t. I just happened to be at a Costco before Easter, when the pre-sliced ones were all that was available. Throw out any seasoning packet that may have come with your ham. You can do better, without using artificial ingredients or flavorings.
Mix some melted butter, honey and light corn syrup together, pour it over the ham, occasionally baste with it while it bakes and you’ve got a lip-smacking ham that everyone will love and that serves at least 15 or 16 people.
I added some roasted grapes at the end too, just because roasted grapes have become my new favorite ingredient for adding to recipes.
1 large bone-in ham (mine weighed about 12 pounds)
1/3 cup butter, melted
8 oz. honey
1/8 cup dark corn syrup
Roasted grapes are optional, but if you want to add them, roast them on a Silpat or parchment lined baking sheet for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. Set aside. (You can do this the day before)
Place the ham flat side down and bake, covered with aluminum foil, for one hour at 250 degrees fahrenheit.
Melt the butter together with the honey and corn syrup.
Remove the foil from the roast, raise the temperature to 350 degrees fahrenheit, and reposition the ham so that the fatty part is on top. Cook for another hour, basting with the butter/honey/corn syrup mixture several times.
If using the roasted grapes, add the cooked grapes during the last minute or two, just to heat them through again.
Slice, swishing the slices through the honey glaze as you put them on the serving platter.
Springtime is finally here and to me, that means more than just daffodils and fresh produce in the farmer’s markets. It’s also a time for lamb, a meat that I love not just for its taste, but for its profound religious and artistic significance.
The lamb features importantly in the story of Passover in the Jewish religion, and at Easter in Catholicism. Walk into many churches in Italy, and you’ll see exquisite mosaics of Christ as a shepherd, with his flock. This one is in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome.
Lamb is traditionally eaten at Easter time among Italian families, and I love to make a whole grilled leg of lamb when serving a crowd. Unfortunately, most Americans infrequently cook lamb, if at all.
When prepared properly, it’s a flavorful meat to serve to family and always is a hit when company comes to call, especially when prepared in this style, which is fork tender and so delicious.
A rack of lamb is an elegant, albeit expensive dish to serve to company, since one serves just two to three people. Two of us had no trouble polishing off this rack of lamb in the photo below. So if you’re planning on company, you’ll want at least two racks. Make sure they’re people you really like, and who really like lamb.
This roast comes from a half a lamb I bought locally from a friend of a friend who raises a few lambs organically not far from where I live. It wasn’t trimmed as well as I wanted, so I “Frenched” it (trimming out the fat to expose the tops of the bones) and cut away almost all traces of fat and the “silver skin” under the fat. )If your butcher can’t (or won’t) do this, it’s not hard to do and is essential. Otherwise, the fat won’t melt during the short cooking time and you’ll end up biting into a layer of fat, and fighting the toughness of “silver skin” to get through to the meat, which is truly tender.
This rack weighed only 1.7 pounds before trimming, and you can see how much fat I trimmed from the roast. You’re bound to trim off some specks of the meat too, but that can’t be avoided. Be sure to use a very sharp, thin knife.
This knife is one of the several treasured ones made by my grandfather for me decades ago, when he would take an industrial file of carbon steel and whittle it down on a spinning stone wheel in the basement, before inserting it into a wooden handle.
Smear a good amount of Dijon mustard over the front and back of the roast.
Then cover it with the mixture of breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, and herbs.
Roast it at high heat for ten minutes, then lower the heat and roast for fifteen minutes longer.
After letting the roast rest for 15 minutes, slice between the bones and serve.
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1 rack of lamb, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds before trimming (double the recipe for two racks)
3 cloves minced garlic
3 sprigs rosemary, minced
grated lemon peel from 12 lemon
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 T. grated parmesan cheese
2 T. olive oil
Dijon mustard to spread on lamb
If the rack of lamb is not already trimmed by your butcher, you will need to do so, by cutting out the fat and bits of meat between the ribs (a process called Frenching) and by trimming away all the visible fat. Most butchers leave some fat on the meat, but this cut of meat is very tender, and the fat doesn’t need to be there to tenderize or flavor the meat. Besides, when the roast is covered with mustard and bread crumbs, and spends so little time in the oven, the fat won’t melt into the meat, leaving you a layer of unappealing layer of fat when you bite through the bread crumbs into the meat. Beneath the fat you’ll find a layer of “silver skin” and it’s best to trim this away too.
Make sure you leave the roast at room temperature for an hour (I left it for two) before roasting in the oven. Otherwise, you can’t be assured of even cooking.
After trimming off the fat, sprinkle the roast with salt and pepper, then spread a layer of Dijon mustard all over, top and bottom.
Mix together the garlic, rosemary, lemon peel, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese and olive oil. Dab the mixture over all sides of the roast.
Place the roast on a rack in an oven that’s been preheated to 450 degrees. Roast for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 300 degrees and roast for 15 minutes more if you like it cooked medium rare (as in the photos). Use a meat thermometer for accuracy – 120-130 degrees for rare (barely cooked inside) 130-140 degrees for medium rare (bright pink to red inside), 140-150 for medium (pale pink inside.) Let the roast rest for 15 minutes. It will continue to cook a bit further and the temperature will rise slightly.
When I was a young girl, my mother made a lamb cake for Easter, using a specially shaped aluminum cake pan. I inherited the pan decades ago, and carried on the tradition when my kids were little, but then forgot about it as they grew up. A few years ago, I resurrected it when my niece and her then two-year old son Hayden came for Easter. It was a big hit, even though it just didn’t seem right cutting into the cute little creature for dessert.
I don’t have my mother’s original recipe, but I found a pretty good one on Allrecipes.com a few years ago that I’ve included below. It’s a nice firm-textured white cake that holds up well as you stand the lamb upright to frost and serve. I once used this cake pan for my daughter’s birthday, repositioning the ears and frosting the cake to resemble our cat Rocky. At that time, I used a cake mix, but the softer texture didn’t hold up well. When I went to serve the cake, to my dismay, Rocky’s head had fallen off. A few wooden skewers later and a camouflaging ribbon around the neck and he was good as new. Lesson learned – don’t use a box cake mix for this specialty pan.
I like it with a buttercream icing, but you can use a cream cheese icing, or any kind you prefer.
The hard part is cutting the first slice. I hate to see that little lambie’s butt sliced off. It’s even harder to see it decapitated, but all that icing and coconut around the ears makes me come to my senses.
I know there are similar pans available for sale on various websites including Amazon.com. You may even be able to find one at a good kitchenware store where you live. If you don’t have a lamb form, it’s also delicious as a layer cake using two 9″ cake pans.
2 1/4 cups cake flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups white sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg whites
First, prepare your mold. Coat with vegetable oil, let sit for a few minutes then wipe clean with a paper towel. Then grease and flour your mold, making sure to get all the little areas.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Sift the cake flour, then sift again with the baking powder and salt; set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture alternately with the milk. Stir the batter until smooth after each addition. Add the vanilla.
In a large glass or metal mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it, then quickly fold in the remaining whites.
Fill the face side of the mold with batter. Move a wooden spoon through the batter GENTLY, to remove any air pockets. Make sure not to disturb the greased and floured surface of the mold. Put the lid on the mold, making sure it locks or ties together securely so that the steam and rising batter do not force the two sections apart.
Put the mold on a cookie sheet in a preheated oven for about 1 hour. Test for doneness by inserting a skewer or wooden toothpick through a steam vent. Put the cake, still in the mold, on a rack for about 15 minutes. CAREFULLY, remove the top of the mold. Before you separate the cake from the bottom let it cool for about 5 more minutes so that all the steam can escape and the cake can firm up some more. After removing the rest of the mold, let the cake cool on the rack completely. DO NOT sit the cake upright until completely cooled.
I frosted my lamb with a buttercream frosting, then covered it in coconut and pressed in some small pieces of raisin for the eyes and nose. Give it a little ribbon collar and lay it on a bed of coconut dyed green with food coloring. Decorate with jelly beans and/or small chocolate eggs if desired.
We don’t serve rib roast for Easter but I made one last weekend when our kids came home and we celebrated both of their birthdays. I thought I’d post the recipe for those of you who might be choosing rib roast for your Easter dinner over the more traditional lamb or ham.
While it can be expensive if you don’t buy it on sale, a standing rib roast is always impressive (when properly cooked) and it’s a snap to make too.
This was my first attempt at making Yorkshire Pudding, the typical accompaniment to rib roast. It too was easy to prepare and a big hit with everyone. Long after we were sated with enough roast, we sat around sipping our wine and munching on these little popovers studded with herbs. Yorkshire pudding isn’t really a pudding as you can see, but more of a bread made with a thick batter that’s poured into muffin tins greased with beef drippings. You can use butter if you prefer. Either way, it’s not as fattening as it sounds since you use only a small amount of fat for each portion.
Once you get the meat into the oven, mix up the batter for the Yorkshire puddings and refrigerate. After the roast is cooked and resting, pour the batter into the muffin tins and bake.
For the rib roast, I used Ina Garten’s recipe with some modification. Her recipe calls for a 7 to 8 pound standing rib roast. Since I was cooking one that weighed only 3.5 pounds (more than enough for four people and we had leftovers too), I eliminated the last step where you kick up the temperature to 450 degrees. Just make sure to keep checking with a meat thermometer and roast it to the degree of doneness you like. When the meat reaches 125 degrees, for me that’s perfect and I take it out of the oven. The cooking continues even while it rests on the countertop. During the time it’s resting, I put the Yorkshire pudding into the oven. When they come out about 20 minutes later, the medium-rare roast is ready to slice and eat.
Standing Rib Roast
1 T. kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
Rub the meat all over with the salt and the pepper. Two hours before roasting, remove from refrigerator and let it come to room temperature (I let mine sit out for only one hour, but I had a smaller roast). Place the rib roast in a roasting pan in a 500 degree preheated oven. Roast it for 45 minutes, then reduce temperature to 325 degrees and roast for another 30 minutes. Test with a meat thermometer for the required doneness. If you’re cooking a small roast, as I did, it may be done. I took mine out of the oven at about 125 degrees. For a larger roast, check the temperature. If it’s not done yet, boost the oven temperature back up to 450 degrees and roast for another 15 to 30 minutes. Take the meat out of the oven and let it sit, covered with aluminum foil, for at least 15 – 20 minutes before slicing.
1 cup milk
2 – 4 T. butter or beef drippings from the roast
1 cup flour
snippets of fresh herbs (I used chives, sage and thyme)
1/2 tsp. salt
Combine flour, chives, thyme and salt.
Whisk milk and eggs. Add to the flour and herb mixture. Refrigerate while the roast cooks.
Spoon a little bit of melted butter or beef drippings into the bottom of each of about 12 muffin tins. Tip the tins to coat. Pour the batter into the individual cups, about 1/2 to 2/3 full. Bake in a 450 degree preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
Good Friday is the most solemn day of holy week for Catholics, and no where is it observed with as much pageantry as in Sicily. Many towns and villages across the island hold elaborate processions commemorating the suffering, or passion of Christ as he was led to his crucifixion.
Each town has a different custom, but the processions almost always end with bands playing lugubrious music as worshippers carry a statue of Jesus Christ through the streets. Several years ago we were Taormina during holy week. Taormina is a jewel of a town on the eastern coast of Sicily overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Mt. Etna and the Calabrian peninsula. Tourists stream into the town because of its scenic location, abundant flowers, quaint architecture and ancient Greek amphitheater. But all that pales in contrast to the spectacle that is Good Friday in Taormina.
The event starts in the late afternoon just before dusk, as hundreds of women clad in black, carrying orange-colored lanterns, descend the narrow steps linking the main streets, and begin the procession. Young girls wearing white dresses and white cotton head coverings follow the women. A local priest and altar boys come next. Then comes another group of women who are supporting on their shoulders a statue of the blessed mother engulfed by flowers. A band playing somber music processes behind them, while the men of the village begin their march, bearing the statue of Jesus on their shoulders. The entire group slowly walks to the duomo and back.
After dark, the procession is repeated in silence, except for a lone drummer tapping out a haunting beat. At this point, shopkeepers turn off their lights, a hush comes over the town and the faithful make their final homage to Christ, illuminated only by the glow of candlelight. Whether you’re Catholic or not, you can’t help but get caught up in the beauty, the history and the solemnity of the occasion.
Click on the video below and you’ll see what I mean.
It wasn’t the typical weekly meeting for my chit-chat group of Italian friends called “Le Matte.”
This week we met at a chocolate factory. And it was bliss.
The above photo is of some marshmallow “peeps” after a dip in milk chocolate.
Here is a photo of the dipping machines – white, dark and milk chocolate.
This magical place is the David Bradley Chocolatier factory, in Windsor, New Jersey. We were lucky enough to be given a tour by Christine O’Brien, daughter of the owners Robert and Marcy Hicks, who founded the company in 1978 under the name “Sophisticated Chocolates.”
First, she let us choose some fruit and dip it into those chocolate tanks. Some of us chose big luscious strawberries. Some of us chose big fat orange segments. Some of us chose big luscious strawberries and then went back for big fat orange segments. Dipped in dark chocolate.
Yum. Excuse me while I savor the moment.
But that’s not all. We kept touring the place and tasting as we went along. Solid chocolate, potato chips dipped in chocolate, oreos dipped in chocolate, you name it. You like milk or white chocolate rather than dark? Chris was very accommodating and gave us samples of whatever flavor we liked. Of course, we all shopped and shopped later on in the outlet store next to the factory.
In addition to their three retail outlets, in Windsor, N.J., Cherry Hill, N.J. and Manalapan, N.J., the company sells to lots of stores across the country, including upscale places like Barneys in New York. Many of their products are also sold under private labels. Their busiest time is Christmas, when lots of corporate clients place orders. But they’re pretty busy right now too, with bunnies and eggs and other Easter items taking priority. Chris said that they go through about 2500 pounds of chocolate a week. Everything is made to order and made fresh daily. “We are working a little harder, but it’s going to taste better,” Chris said. Their stuff doesn’t go to the big box stores where you don’t know how long ago it was made. If you’re buying candy for Easter from their shelves, you know it was made within a day or two.
Here’s one of the workers filling the molds by hand.
And here are some of the bunnies that are ready for packaging:
They also make novelty items like chocolate lollipops in the shapes of stars. They’ll also make specially-designed items for events like baby showers, weddings or other occasions. You can check them out on their website: http://www.dbchocolate.com
And here’s a photo of some of “le matte” getting ready to checkout –
Milena, Eleanor, Paola, Shirley, Dede, Rena and Linda
Pastiera is a traditional Easter dessert from Naples, but now you can find it all over Italy. The best version I ever tasted was at a restaurant in Milan on my trip to Italy last month. Actually, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it was so good since the restaurant is called “Frijenno e Magnanno” (Neapolitan dialect for “Frying and Eating”). It’s similar to a ricotta cheesecake, but wheat berries, or kernels are a crucial ingredient.
Stories abound as to the origin of the dessert, including one that it was invented in a Neapolitan convent. But my favorite story about pastiera involves Partenope, a mermaid who lived in the gulf of Naples. She so enchanted the people of the region when she would emerge with her melodic love call, that they thanked her with their most precious gifts: wheat berries, a symbol of the earth’s fertility, ricotta cheese, a gift from the shepherds, eggs, a symbol of new life, candied fruit and orange flower water to suggest the fragrance of springtime, spices to represent people in far away lands, and sugar to call to mind the sweetness of Partenope’s call. The mermaid was so happy with these gifts, she decided to mix them all together and thus was born the first pastiera. Believe what you will, but believe me, it’s delicious. It actually improves with a day or two of rest when all the ingredients have had a chance to meld together. Traditional recipes do not call for mascarpone cheese, as mine does, but I was trying to reproduce the creaminess of the version I ate in Milan. I am not sure I succeeded. My version was good, as evidenced by the clean plates this week of “le matte,” friends at my Italian chit-chat group, but next time, I might double the amount of mascarpone.
By the way, I bought the wheat berries in a health food store, but if you don’t want to start from scratch, you can also buy them already prepared in a can in Italian specialty stores. Here’s what mine looked like after cooking in the milk and sugar.The candied orange and lemon peels can also be purchased, but you can make them yourself with little difficulty, if you follow the instructions on my prior post for candied orange peel. I was a little heavy-handed with them this time since I had such an abundant supply, but I think I prefer the pastiera with the lesser amounts called for in the recipe below. Pastiera
1/2 cup wheat berries, or kernels
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
Place the wheat berries in a pot and cover with water. Let the pot sit overnight. The next day, boil the wheat in the water for about an hour. Drain, then put the milk and sugar in the pan and cook for another hour or until the kernels are soft. Drain and cool.
1 pound ricotta
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbs. orange flower water
1 tsp. oil of orange
small drop of oil of lemon
dash of cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 – 3/4 cup candied orange peel, diced
1/4 – 1/2 cup candied lemon peel, diced
the traditional pastiera also includes candied citron, which I omitted
2 egg yolks
5 whole eggs
Place the ricotta in a sieve covered with cheesecloth and let it drain overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, beat the egg yolks and eggs together in a large bowl. Add the ricotta, mascarpone, sugar, orange flower water, oil of orange, oil of lemon, cinnamon, vanilla, candied fruit peels, and the egg mixture. Many recipes tell you to separate the eggs and beat the whites, but I find this is unnecessary and causes the cake to rise too much and subsequently fall and crack.
I lined a very large tart pan with pasta frolla and poured the mixture into that. My pan is 12 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep and holds nearly 8 cups of liquid. You can use two standard size pie plates instead, but you may have to make more of the pasta frolla in that case. Or you can just make one in a standard pie plate and bake the rest as a firm pudding, without a crust.
Pasta frolla is a sweet pastry similar to pie dough, but with more sugar and the addition of egg. Use your own recipe, or follow mine. It’s the same one I used in my apple strudel recipe.
3 1/2 cups flour
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
rind of 1 lemon grated
pinch of salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
Place flour and sugar in mixer with grated lemon rind and salt. Add cold butter in small pieces, mixing until butter breaks down into small bits. Add egg and mix just until mixture holds together in a ball. Divide the dough into two parts: 2/3 for the base and 1/3 for the lattice topping. Roll out the dough and place in tart pan or pie plate. This is a very delicate dough and it is hard to manipulate, but don’t work it too much with the rolling pin. It may crack as you try to get it in the pie pan, but don’t worry. Just patch it up by hand. No one will ever know the difference after it’s baked. Pour the pastiera mixture into the pan over the dough. Cut remaining strips of dough and make a lattice top over the mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. This is what it looks like as it goes into the oven.And here’s a slice for you!