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Western Pennsylvania is a melting pot of culinary traditions, and no more so than during the holidays, when the dishes your mother and grandmother grew up with are the stars of the dinner table.
For many Pittsburghers, including myself, it wouldn’t be Easter without a honey-glazed ham on the buffet, along with a big creamy bowl of scalloped potatoes, fresh spring peas swimming in melted butter and a platter of mustardy deviled eggs. This all-American meal pays homage to the 1950s through dessert, where the tried-and-true favorites include coconut cream pie for the adults, and a chiffon-like lime Jell-O salad — sweetened in all its jiggly glory with crushed pineapple and shredded carrot — for the kids and coconut-haters.
My neighbor Josephine Coletti, who was raised in a small village near L’Aquila in central Italy’s Abruzzo region, has a different tradition. For her, as for many of the Italian born or Italian-Americans living in Pittsburgh's "Little Italy" neighborhood of Bloomfield, Easter means pasta with some sort of lamb sauce, along with sweet Easter breads, dried meats and a bounty of asparagus.
Farmers have raised sheep for centuries in Abruzzo’s Apennine Mountains, and the region is famous for its hearty, signature lamb ragu. Lamb and sheep are also a key source of Abruzzese cheese, including pecorino-Romano, a hard, salty cheese that’s perfect for grating onto pasta.
As a child, Mrs. Coletti says, Easter morning unfolded with various types of frittata, especially with ricotta and asparagus, which grows wild in Abruzzo’s shady corners. The family enjoyed cured meats such as salami and soppressata, and “eggs, eggs and more eggs,” she says, including the brightly colored hard-boiled ones that children would use to play bocce.
The frittata and dried, salty meats were paired with sweet breads with tinted hard-boiled eggs baked into the dough and a whimsical dove-shaped bread known as calomba di Pasqua. “When I was young, the baked sweet breads would be taken to church in a basket on Holy Friday or Saturday to be blessed by the priest,” she recalls.
Dessert, she adds, was always a delightful exercise in decadence: A “Pizza Pan di Spagna,” which is a sponge cake made with eggs, sugar, flour and lemon rind for flavors, and moistened with liquor and filled with cream. Mangia!
Eastern Europeans like their breads sweet on Easter, too, most famously golden-brown loaves of paska. Rich with butter and eggs, it’s often braided along the edges or marked with a cross design. (The name paska comes from the Hebrew word for Passover and signifies peace, salvation and happiness.) The yellow crust is said to represent the resurrection of Jesus while the white represents the Holy Spirit. The Easter holiday also is celebrated with hard-cooked and decorated eggs, egg-cheeses (similar to cottage cheese but made from milk and eggs), ham, kielbasa, baked veal, cuts of lamb and pork roast served with fresh horseradish and beets — all of which has been loaded into baskets, covered with an embroidered cloth and taken to church on Holy Saturday for the Easter blessing.
For those with German ancestry, which accounts for a lot of Pittsburghers (Germans are the largest ethnic groups in the city), dinner on Maundy Thursday might start with a warm and creamy bowl of Grundonnerstagzuppe (Green Thursday Soup). A celebration of fresh spring herbs, this delicate soup often contains bitter greens such as dandelion or sorrel as a sign of pertinence; the name derives from the ancient German word greinen, meaning to cry or moan.
In Poland, Easter is an even bigger deal than Christmas, writes Zuza Zak in “Polsak: New Polish Cooking.” “The Easter feast is always a cold buffet of zakaski (hot and cold hors d'oeuvres), as guests come and go all day long, with warm dishes being served at intervals,” she writes. One example is a simple, souffle-like babka lightly perfumed with cumin served on a sea of marinated red peppers.
And in Mexico, one of the most beloved desserts during Lent and on Easter is a sugary bread pudding made from chunks of stale bread called capirotada. Originally served in the 15th century as a sopa seca, or dry soup, at the start of a meal, it pleases the palate with a lush combination of syrup-soaked bread topped with fresh cheese and toasted nuts, and studded with wine-soaked raisins. Like the sweet Easter breads baked throughout Europe, it’s rich with meaning. The bread represents the body of Christ; the dark syrup made from red wine and piloncillo (unrefined whole cane sugar) symbolizes his blood; and the cinnamon sticks and whole cloves used to flavor the syrup represent the wood of the cross and the nails used to crucify him.
A solemn dish, to be sure, but also one that leaves diners feeling upbeat from the delicious sugar rush.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
Paska (Ukrainian Easter Bread)
This is an Easter table showpiece. Traditionally eaten in Eastern European countries , it’s often paired with a custard-like cheese called hrudka, but you could use a sweetened cream cheese spread. Also delicious with your leftover Easter ham or to hold slices of kielbasa as sandwiches. Plus, it makes for wonderful toast.
1 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup whole milk
1 large egg
¼ cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2½ teaspoons salt
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cold water
Coarse white sparkling sugar, optional
Make dough: Mix and knead all of the dough ingredients — by hand, mixer, or bread machine — to make a soft, smooth dough. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, and let it rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until it's noticeably puffy.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; divide it into two pieces, one twice as large as the other. Take the larger piece, roll into a ball, and place it into a well-greased 9" x 2" round pan.
Divide the other piece of dough into three equal pieces, and roll each out into a 20" strand; use the three strands to create one long braid. Place the braid around the inside edge of the pan, or use it to form a cross over the top of the larger piece of dough.
Cover loaf and let it rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. Toward the end of the rising time, preheat oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the center.
Make topping: In a small bowl, beat the egg with the water. Brush the mixture gently over the top of the risen loaf, and sprinkle with coarse white sparkling sugar, if desired.
Bake the bread for 35 to 45 minutes, or until it's a rich golden brown. Remove it from the oven, and turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool before cutting.
Makes 1 large bread, or 20 servings.
— King Arthur Flour
Grundonnerstagzuppe (Green Thursday Soup)
This easy soup is wonderful hot, warm or chilled. You can choose any combination of fresh green herbs you like — I used basil, mint, baby dill weed, oregano and parsley.
1 cup diced sweet onion
6 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
Handful of fingerling potatoes (about 6), diced
1 good handful of 5 or 6 different herbs, roughly chopped, with some reserved for garnish
1/2 cup light cream
Salt and pepper
Sour cream and toasted croutons, for garnish
Cook onion and garlic in olive oil until tender. Add stock and diced potatoes, and simmer till the potatoes are tender.
Add herbs and cook for 10 minutes.
Puree soup in a blender, food processor or with a hand immersion blender until silky smooth. Add light cream, and season with salt and pepper.
Serve topped with some herbs and a dollop of sour cream and croutons.
— Adapted from kitchenproject.com
Cumin Babkas on Marinated Red Peppers
This recipe hails from the Tartra Mountains region of Poland, known as the “Polish Alps.” It’s one of the many little dishes, or appetizers, called zakaski, that Poles enjoy on an Easter buffet.
I stretched the batter into 8 cupcake molds instead of 6, which may be why they deflated as they cooled. But no matter — they were light, fluffy and melt-in-your mouth delicious.
2 red bell peppers, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt to taste
White wine vinegar to cover thyme
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup ricotta
2 eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Large pinch of sea salt
Prepare peppers: Rub peppers with some olive oil and a little salt and place under a hot broiler for about 7 minutes, turning them regularly so that they are slightly charred on both sides. When cool, slice them, discarding the core, and place in small bowl.
Pour over enough white wine vinegar to cover, add thyme, bay leaf and some freshly ground black pepper. Leave to marinate for at least 1 hour, ideally overnight.
Make babkas: Preheat oven to 300 degrees, and lightly grease 6 silicone cupcake moulds.
Blend ricotta thoroughly with egg yolks. Beat the egg whites in separate bowl with vinegar, until they form soft peaks. Fold into ricotta mixture. Stir in cumin and salt, and pour into greased moulds.
Bake in oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Serve the babkas on top of marinated red peppers.
— “Polska: New Polish Cooking” by Zuza Zak (Quadrille, September 2016)
Pasta with Abruzzi-style Lamb Sauce
This rich pasta sauce is typical of the Abbruzzo region, where lamb is plentiful, especially in the spring. You can use it on any pasta, but it is typically served on egg fettucine or gnocchi. (I used tube-shaped penne rigate.) Serve with plenty of pecorino-Romano cheese, which is made from sheep’s milk and adds a sharp and salty flavor. My friend Josephine Coletti, who gave me the recipe, suggests Locatelli pecorino. “It’s the best,” she says.
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3/4 to 1 pound boneless lamb, diced finely
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 to 3 bay leaves
1 small sprig rosemary,
1/2 cup dry red or white wine
1 quart Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano), coarsely chopped, with their juices
1½ tablespoons coarse salt
1 pound penne or maccheroncini
1/3 cup freshly grated pecorino-Romano cheese, plus more for serving
In heavy pan, heat oil over moderately high heat. Add onion and saute, stirring frequently, until the onion is pale gold.
Add garlic and continue cooking for 1 minute.
Add lamb (and the bone, if you have it) and brown well, about, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and stir. Add bay leaves and rosemary.
Add wine and simmer until evaporated, 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, partially cover and cook 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fat begins to separate from the sauce. Allow sauce to rest for a few minutes before serving. Remove any bones.
Meanwhile, fill a large pot with 4 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Add coarse salt, cover and return to a boil.
Add pasta and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon. Cover and bring back to a boil. Uncover and cook the pasta, stirring frequently, until it’s al dente.
Drain pasta and immediately transfer it to a warmed bowl. Toss with the lamb sauce and ⅓ cup of grated cheese. Serve at once, passing additional cheese at the table.
Serves 4 to 6.
— Josephine Coletti
Capirotada (Mexican Lenten Bread Pudding)
This is traditionally served as dessert but would make an excellent sweet breakfast or brunch dish. It’s rich and caramelly, with a nice crunch from the nuts.
4 Mexican rolls or 1 pound crusty French bread
4 ounces unsalted butter, melted
1¼ pounds piloncillo (whole cane sugar) chopped or 2½ cups packed dark brown sugar, well packed, plus ¼ cup molasses
3 cups water
1⅓ cups wine, a light sherry or red wine
4 inches Mexican cinnamon stick
2/3 cup raisins
6 ounces crumbled Mexican fresh cheese
1½ cups toasted mixed nuts (such as pecans, blanched almonds, peanuts or pinenuts) plus a little additional unsalted butter if using pine nuts
3/4 cup thick cream or commercial sour cream thinned with a little milk (optional)
For bread: Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Slice bread into chunks (about 4 cups), spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, until thoroughly dried and beginning to brown.
Drizzle melted butter evenly over the bread, tossing and turning the pieces to ensure that they are evenly coated. (I removed the bread from oven, and tossed with melted butter in a bowl.) Return to the oven and bake until nicely golden, about 15 minutes, then scoop into a mixing bowl.
For syrup: Combine piloncillo (or brown sugar and molasses), 3 cups water, 1 cup wine, cinnamon and cloves in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, then simmer gently over medium-low for 20 minutes.
For pudding: Toss raisins with the remaining ⅓ cup wine and macerate for 15 minutes. Crumble cheese over the bread, then add nuts, soaked raisins and any liquid they have not absorbed.
To finish dessert: Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Strain the syrup onto the bread mixture (I only used about half of what was in the pan), stir thoroughly and let stand 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Scoop the mixture into a decorative 8-inch square baking dish or divide between 6 small gratin dishes. Bake for 30 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling nicely and the bread looks caramel-coated on top.
Remove, cool a little, then serve with a bowl of thick cream passed separately, if you wish.
— Rick Bayless