This Thing Called Easter
Easter is one of the most important festivals on the Christian calendar and most Christians pretty much agree on this one*. The manner in which it’s celebrated has, as could be expected, been analysed, discussed and argued over for millennia in a singularly un-Christian fashion, so much so that the meaning seems to have been lost along the way. As far as I’m concerned, Easter is one of those rare occasions when commerce actually does something good by reminding everyone that Easter isn’t only
about the crucifixion but also about the Resurrection & ultimately about love. So have a glorious time this Easter and enjoy eating your chocolate eggs & rabbits; have a ball baking hot-cross buns, pastiera’s & simnel cakes and, weather permitting, have long picnics & Easter lunches al fresco; do take care with the choccie eggs and the kids because there’s nothing worse than revved up kids at the end the end of great day. Easter and Passover are inextricably linked to one another because the Last Supper was, in fact, the Passover meal where Jesus shared bread & wine with His disciples and where, according to 1 Corinthians 5, verse 7, the disciples were told to “get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb**, has been sacrificed” …… the words referring to the fact that no yeast was permitted in the Jewish home at that time and simultaneously to Jesus as the Easter lamb.
HONEY AND ROSEMARY ROASTED LAMB
- 1 x 2 kg leg of lamb
- 2 tbsp clear honey of your choice
- 2 large onions, thickly sliced into rings
- 5 rosemary sprigs, broken up – if you really rosemary, use more
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Pre-heat the oven to 200 C.
- Place the onion slices into a roasting tray with about 120 ml water and a little salt and pepper to taste.
- Place the lamb on top of the onions and massage the surface well with the oil and then the honey before stabbing the skin section of the lamb with a thin sharp knife to make little slits.
- Stuff the rosemary sprigs into the holes and then season the lamb well to taste.
- Depending on how you like to eat your lamb, roast for 80 minutes for rare and 95 minutes for medium (if you really want to cook it well, anything from 110 minutes upwards will do the job).
- Make sure that you baste the lamb every now and again with the pan juices and if it becomes to dark, cover lightly with foil.
- As soon as it’s cooked to your taste (remember that the meat continues cooking while it’s resting) remove from the roasting dish, and allow to rest – cover it if you are afraid that it will cool down too much.
- Serve with roast potatoes and use the pan juices for gravy.
Easter is a moveable feasts (not fixed in relation to a civil calendar but it’s usually celebrated between the 22nd of March and the 25th of April) because it’s celebrated on the 1st Sunday after the full moon; most religious celebrations don’t celebrate the date but rather the event, though, and then it depends on whether you’re using a Julian or Gregorian calendar. There have been many speculations about the origins of words and the word Easter is no less encumbered; it could originate from the old English word Eoaster – a reference to an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the same name but, if you dig hard enough, you’ll find a pagan root*** for most of the words in use nowadays. Through the ages, Christians have celebrated the period in many different ways, much like today but the early Christians didn’t seem to celebrate or observe it, suggesting that it evolved over a period of time starting some time after the Apostolic Age (the period in which the apostles were alive & Jesus was born in 25 – 25 AD & the time John died (around 100 AD). It was celebrated in different ways over the ages depending entirely on the moods and the whims of the popes at first and then later, the moods, the whims and the egos of the many men of the cloth. Today I’m looking at how some countries around the world celebrate Easter:
BASIC ROASTED LAMB AND POTATOES
- 2,5 kg leg of lamb
- 2 kg potatoes, peeled
- 6 slices prosciutto (like Jamon Iberico or St. Danielle ham or whatever you can get hold of)
- 1 large lemon, grated zest and juice
- 4 garlic cloves
- 2 well sized sprigs fresh rosemary – tear the needles off
- 1 – 2 heaped tbsp softened butter
- 500 ml home made vegetable stock
- Heat the oven to 230 C.
- Make incisions on the skin side of lamb using a long sharp knife.
- Blend the ham, the garlic, the lemon zest and half the rosemary in a food processor, season it with salt and freshly ground black pepper and push the mixture into the incisions in the lamb.
- Break the rest of the rosemary into tiny sprigs and push a prig into some of the incisions before spreading the butter over the surface of the meat, seasoning well.
- Season the potatoes to taste, arrange in your roasting dish and pour the stock and lemon juice around the potatoes.
- Place the lamb on top of the potatoes and roast for 15 minutes – turn the heat down to 180 C and roast for another hour and 15 minutes.
- Test and remove from the roasting dish – set aside for 15 minutes to rest in a warm place.
- In the meantime make gravy by heating butter and olive oil in a saucepan, add the onions and fry until they are golden brown and then add the flour, stirring well to prevent the lumps – pour in the red wine and reduce it by half.
- Now add the stock and the redcurrant jelly and simmer for about 5 minutes – serve this with lamb and potatoes.
- Easter is very important to Italians and many of the rites are steeped in ancient pagan rituals; on Palm Sunday the churches are decorated with huge baskets of palm leaves and olives that, once blessed, are handed out to the congregation & St. Peters square in Rome is packed to the hilt with crowds trying to catch a palm leaf blessed by the Pope. Scoppio del carro (explosion of the cart) is a traditional Florentine celebration. The agnellino (roasted baby lamb) will be on most menus with the Colomba (a dove shaped sweet, light bread) a more popular gift than the eggs. Italian Easter eggs are something to behold & usually large containing equally large gifts.
- Since Easter eggs**** and bunnies originated in Germany, it’s to be expected that the Osterhase (Easter bunny) will be visiting the little children to leave eggs for them & in some parts of the country exquisitely decorated egg trees (hollow eggs are decorated by adoring mothers); the tree will be on display throughout the holy week to remind families why they’re celebrating Easter in the first place. A few other traditions are like the Easter Fire and the world famous Oberammergau passion play are among the traditional celebrations here.
GREEK INSPIRED ROASTED LAMB
- 3 kg leg of lamb – organic if possible
- 1 kg new potatoes – unpeeled
- 500fresh tomatoes, chopped peeled and drained
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1 handful fresh oregano
- 1 large lemon, zest and juice only
- 200 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 1 very large handful of Greek kalamata olives
- Heat oven to 240 C.
- In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, half of the oregano, the lemon zest and a little salt – once combined, pour in the lemon juice and olive oil – mixing well (be sure to drizzle in the oil slowly to combine easily).
- Stab the lamb all over with a long, sharp knife and then push as much of the herb paste into the holes as you can (this is not a typical Greek method, though).
- Put the baby potatoes into the roasting dish and add the rest of the olive oil and the rest of the mixture that was stuffed into the lamb.
- Put the lamb firmly into the dish, between the baby potatoes and roast for 20 minutes before reducing the heat to 180 C and roasting for 75 minutes for a rare roast and another 15 minutes if you want it medium and so on.
- When ready, remove from the roasting dish and allow to rest for 15 minutes– remove the potatoes, add any remaining oregano and keep everything warm.
- Put the roasting dish over medium heat, add the tomatoes and olives to any remaining juice and simmer until everything has been incorporated and the tomatoes have broken up.
- Serve the lamb with the potatoes and the tomato sauce.
- Russians celebrate in accordance with the Eastern Orthodox Church – apart from using different calendars, the rites and rituals between east and west are also different and ne’er the twain shall meet. For example, the western churches hold sunrise services and the eastern ones hold their services throughout the night – just to be quite sure, the door remains tightly closed until midnight when the priest opens the door saying “Christ has risen” a few times to which the people reply – “He is risen indeed!” The most important Easter tradition here has to be the egg decoration – eggs are mainly dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ and cracked open with their nails to remind them of his death and re-birth. Easter feasts are communal and held at the churches and not at home – Easter cakes known as kulich are taken to the church to share with everyone.
HOT CROSS BUNS
- 650 g strong white flour as well as some to dust the surface – do not use cake flour here.
- 125g mixed peel
- 25 g soft raisins
- 275 ml tepid milk
- 100 g sugar
- 1 jumbo free-range egg
- 50 g butter, cut into cubes – you’ll need some more for greasing
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 medium lemon, zest only
- 1½ tsp instant (quick-action) yeast
- 2 tbsp plain flour
- 1 tbsp golden syrup, gently heated, for glazing – honey tastes better but the glazing won’t be as glossy (we tried both)
- Sift the flour, the salt and the ground mixed spice and rub in the butter using your fingertips before making a well in the centre in order to add the sugar, the lemon zest and the yeast.
- Whisk the egg into the tepid milk and pour into the well – now mix everything together using the tips of your fingers.
- Put the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and then start working in the mixed peel and the raisins until everything is well combined – knead until the dough is silky smooth and elastic.
- Grease a big mixing bowl well with butter, shape it into a large ball and cover with cling wrap – put in a warm place for about an hour to prove.
- Turn the dough out onto a dusted work surface and knock the dough back, shape it into a ball once again and cover it, setting it aside in a warm place to rise yet again.
- When ready, turn out the dough on a dusted surface, divide into equal pieces and roll into balls – flatten slightly (just use your palms) and cover them again to rise for another 10 minutes.
- Now grease the baking tray well or, if you don’t trust you tray, cover with a layer of greaseproof paper (or parchment, if you are so inclined).
- Here comes the final part – wrap the whole tray very loosely with greaseproof pepper and put this inside a very big polythene bag (it’s important that absolutely no air gets inside) – close it tightly and set aside for 40 minutes to rise.
- In the meantime heat the oven to 240 C and start making the topping by mixing the flour with cold water into a paste, putting the paste into a piping bag – as soon as the buns have risen, remove from all the paper and plastic, pipe a cross on each bun.
- Bake the buns for 8 – 10 minutes (depending on your oven) until they are pale golden, remove, put them on a wire rack and brush them with the melted golden syrup – leave it to cool.
- It’s an important weekend in Australia where it’s celebrated with gusto – the churches follow the Eastern Calendar and make sure they’re all decorated with flowers to commemorate the Resurrection. There’s no shortage of chocolate eggs and bunnies with the egg-making a national tradition.
- In Brazil, the celebrations begin with the Holy week when palms branches are turned into crosses and banners and then blessed by the priests before Christians take to the streets (lined with stalls and shops selling Easter bunnies etc) to take part in processions where statues of Jesus and Mary are carried around. The speciality here is Pacoca a treat made with crushed nuts, sugar and spices but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
SLOW ROASTED SPICED LAMB
- 2kg leg of lamb, boned – try and achieve a weight of around 1,8 kgs.
- ½ tbsp lightly toasted coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp dried lightly toasted fennel
- 1 tbsp dried lightly toasted cumin seeds
- Extra virgin olive oil as needed
- 2 jumbo organic egg yolks – at room temperature
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 100 ml cold pressed organic sunflower oil
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp medium smoked Spanish paprika
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Season the lamb well with salt and pepper to taste and sear it on all sides in a large heavy bottomed saucepan or large casserole dish; remove from heat and set aside to cool & then pre-heat oven to 180 C .
- Crush all the toasted spices with ½ tbsp salt in a mortar and pestle until everything has been crushed – a medium crush, not too roughly crushed; massage the lamb with a tbsp of oil and coat well with the spices on all sides.
- Place the lamb on a rack on top of a roasting dish, pour about 250 ml water into the dish and cover the whole lot with large piece of foil (shiny side down).
- Roast for about 2 ½ hours before removing the foil and roasting for another 20 minutes, uncovered.
- To make the sauce, put the yolks, the mustard, the garlic, the salt and pepper into a blender (or processor) and combine well – without switching off the blender, pour in about 100 ml olive oil very slowly, to be followed by the 100 ml sunflower oil.
- Pour in the lemon juice, add the paprika and combine well – chill this until serving and serve with the lamb.
- Bulgarians gather at midnight on the Saturday before Easter Sunday carrying red painted eggs and bread with them and as soon as the priest say the words “Christos Voskrese” and the congregation shouts back “Vo istina voskrese”, he starts blessing everybody’s eggs. The traditional gift here is a loaf of bread with about 15 eggs given to friends – someone is sent to deliver it the gift and that person usually receives a little money in return. Traditional foods like Banista (a pastry) are made for the feast and it’s a time of love and small gifts.
- Mexican Easters are a combination of Christian rituals and local Indian traditions – the latter due to the Christian missionaries efforts to turn non-Christians into Christians. Sadly many of the old traditions are dying out to make place for the ‘modern’ way of life. Passion plays and processions of the 12 stations of the Cross are particularly popular and many, smaller communities the celebrations are a little more radical with flagellation and real crucifixion being enacted. Here the palms are hung on the doors of homes to ward off evil. The most dramatic tradition has to be the burning of a Judas doll stuffed with fire crackers – this can be rather dangerous because people have been injured or embarrassing for someone, especially politicians, whose effigies are often burnt as well.
- French children aren’t really interested in Easter bunnies – bells and fish are more their cup of tea and they also believe that on Good Friday all the church bells in France fly in the direction of the Vatican, taking with them all the misery and grief in France (but only for those who mourn Jesus’ crucifixion) and on Easter Sunday they blow in the direction of France again, blowing eggs and chocolates into the country. As can be expected, the bells do not toll in France from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Children love egg games – like rolling eggs down a slope – the egg that doesn’t break is the winning egg and going on egg hunts. Here lamb is the traditional meal but not always roasted – braised lamb dishes are equally popular.
JUNIPER AND GIN LAMB
- 1 x 3kg whole leg of lamb – keep in fridge until needed
- 50 ml gin
- 200 ml white wine – a Chenin blanc works really well here
- 5 juniper berries, crushed
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 2 rosemary sprigs, leaves picked and chopped – about 2 tbsp of chopped rosemary will do nicely
- Sea salt and freshly crushed black pepper to taste
- Extra virgin olive oil as needed
- Heat the oven to 180 C.
- In a mortar and pestle, pound together garlic, rosemary, juniper and a tsp of black pepper corns with enough extra virgin olive oil to make a paste.
- Remove the lamb from the fridge, make a few stabs with a long, thin knife and then rub in the paste, pushing down some of it into the holes – set aside until it has warmed up to room temperature.
- Put the leg into a roasting dish for about 105 minutes and allow to rest for about 20 – 25 minutes for a roast that’s still slightly pink in the middle.
- In the meantime, pour as much fat from the roasting dish as possible and then put it over direct heat, scraping off all the bits and pieces before pouring in the wine, bringing it to the boil and then straining it into a saucepan to season to taste.
- Pour the juices of the lamb into this sauce, reheat everything and serve with the meat.