Casa Mia

Casa Mia

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Preparing for Easter

Do you remember Alexander's department store? It was a step down from Macy's but a step up from Korvettes and when our parents would treat my sister, brother and me to our Easter outfits, and some spring clothes, it was the most exciting day of the year - at least for me forced to wear the same uniform day after day. While Mindy and I tried on bright yellow spring coats and mod  "bonnets" with wide brims, Stephen would entertain the other shoppers with his moaning and groaning, pleading and threatening, and whining and nagging over the amount of time we girls were spending on our shopping, the suits my mother would suggest for him, particularly any with short pants, and the fact that my father was "letting her get away with it," all the while laughing at his unhappiness.  In spite of his drama, our annual venture was the official kickoff of winter ending, spring beginning, and the first sign that the Easter preparation period would soon begin.

As you should know by now, everything in my life revolves around the food and Easter is no exception. Throughout the 6 weeks of Lent, we deprive ourselves of red meat, rich foods and 3 solid meals a day per canonical law, but we are dreaming of what we are going to scarf down once Easter arrives! So we start preparing right before Ash Wednesday and by the time the blessed holiday arrives, everything is ready to launch. And it all does on Easter morning with as much fanfare and excitement as the arrival of Santa.

First we start with the sausage: every January, right after the Christmas holiday season officially closed, my grandparents would make homemade dried sausage that cured in the cold, dry attic for about 3 months until it made its Easter debut.  Grandma would hand cut the pork butts and mix the chopped meat with paprika and fennel seeds smuggled in through the mail by relatives from the old country, adding enough salt to ensure the curing process would not spoil the goods. After the mixture was hand stuffed into the casings, Grandad would hang them over a pole in the attic for about a month and then lay them out on paper-lined trays with bricks to flatten them until they were ready to complete their curing process in a ceramic vat of olive oil. There was and still is no taste to compare with our sausage and even slicing it became a distinct art form to our family, as slicing thinly and slicing on an angle enhanced the taste.

For several years now, my brother, the Easter charlatan, has carried on the sausage tradition from my grandparents and this year, I was his sous chef.  I chopped butts and stuffed casings, although I admit to using his fancy attachment to the Kitchen Aid mixer, after he mixed the various ingredients with his hands! Unfortunately, the paprika and fennel did not come from Calabria but I'm sure it'll be fine. And the sausage is drying right now - in the fridge rather than the attic because you just can't trust the weather on the east coast anymore - too damp, too inconsistent. I doubt that we will put it into a vat of oil and probably won't even cut it super thin and on an angle but it will still be the best sausage you can imagine. I'm not providing the recipe because, let's face it, who in their right mind is going to make homemade sausage? (I never said we were a sane family...)

Next comes the Easter bread - a little dry, a little sweet, and a lot of delicious! Yes, it's easy enough to make the dough, but really tough to work into just the right shapes. Grandma always made one big round bread like a doughnut with two eggs on either side and a piece of blessed palm from Palm Sunday mass, as well as a "baby" for each of her grandchildren. She would proudly present us with our baby bread, wrapped in a brand new handkerchief secured with a thin pink or blue ribbon and wait for our reaction as we unwrapped it to find what did in fact look like a small baby and tasted like a weird bread. I have to admit that as a kid, I thought it was a bit strange to receive this as an Easter present: unwrapped, the baby was about 12-18" inches long, (depending on how old each grandchild was), with an egg that represented the baby's head, crowned by a piece of blessed palm, and legs that crossed with distinct toes on the baby's feet. Minus the arms and facial features, the bread really did look like a swaddled baby! It felt criminal to cut into it and dismember the damn thing for a piece of bread that admittedly, I needed to grow into, and grow into it I did. My own kids were fortunately less traumatized by the look of the baby and acquired a taste for it at a very young age as demonstrated by Noelle, age 2 below.

I'm not giving out this recipe either as again, I sincerely doubt anyone would make it or want to eat a baby but I will tell you how to make the baby bread shape. Simply, a piece of dough is rolled out and crossed over the egg, toes are cut with a knife into the bottom of each piece or leg, and voila, un bambino. (When all is said and done, really not such an easy task.) No matter how long I have been making them, my babies never turn out as eerily cute or oddly tasty as Gram's but I do love making them if for no other reason than to carry on my grandmother's tradition so I make a large round one for the Easter host and babies for the other members of my family. Add a shmear of butter and yummo as the infamous RR would say.

Sometime during that week before the holiday, my mother would bake delicious Easter goodies like birds nest cookies and apricot pastries that would also make their debut on Easter morning. Although not a baker, these were her specialties and I don't know of another family that had these cookies in their Easter repertoire. Maybe because they are a huge pain in the neck to make! So, as Mindy and I got older, mom started delegating the task to us, particularly the birds nests, and she never went back. I made them for a brief while until Mindy became the family baker and makes them to this day. This recipe I will share with you however because aside from the fact that misery loves company, they are delicious, very colorful and perfect for Easter. Here's the process - you decide....

After making the cookie dough, Mindy and I  would roll teasponfuls into balls, dip them in egg whites and chopped nuts, then place them on a cookie sheet, bake for a few minutes, pull them out, press a hole into the center with the end of a wooden spoon, (fortunately mom always had several spoons regardless of how many she would break on my brother's ass), put them back into the oven for another few minutes, take them out, cool them, then fill them with different kinds of jellies and just keep repeating the process. We would get punchy from standing up and rolling, dipping, denting, filling over and over and over again until all the damn dough was used up and one year, during our bouts of exhausted hysteria, Mindy and I decided we should roll up one big ball and fill it with jellies in sections so we could slice it up and serve it as a cake! We got as far as gathering all the dough into the big ball until my mother coaxed us out of going further through her giggles but it was an exciting idea nonetheless and one we reprised every single year! The apricot pastries didn't fare as well over the years. I have made them a few times and Mindy did them last year but no one has really owned them and probably never will as carrot cake has repeatedly beat them out. (Side note: Since Mindy is hosting Easter dinner this year, I have volunteered to revisit the nests and pastries. I'll let you know if I succumb to the one big nest.)  

But wait, there's more! What would Easter be without pizza rustica and frittata? That story will just have to wait until next week as the countdown to Easter draws nearer. In the meantime, get started on these...

Bird's Nest Cookies
1 bag of shelled walnuts chopped
2 sticks of margarine softened
2 egg yolks
2 C. flour
1/2 light brown sugar
2 egg whites
Assorted jellies (mint, grape, strawberry, raspberry)

-Soften the margarine and add brown sugar. Cream together.
-Add the egg yolks, blend thoroughly and add flour. Mix well.
-In separate bowls, put slightly beaten egg whites and chopped nuts.
-Make balls of dough mixture. Roll first in egg whites and then chopped nuts
-Place on a greased cookie sheet in preheated 350 degree oven for 5 minutes; remove from oven and, with the end of a wooden spoon, press the center of the cookie making a dent.
-Place back in the oven for 8 minutes more. Remove and place a small amount of thick jam in each cookie pocket.

What did I tell you????