Easter

The traditional Italian-American Easter meal is rich, festive, elaborate and labor-intensive. The array of dishes might include a big antipasto, a thick pizza rustica, homemade pasta, lamb accompanied by several vegetables and numerous pastries. Does this sound like a lot of work? So this year why not try a brunch, instead. Much of the work and preparation can be done ahead of time.

The word “brunch” obviously stands for “breakfast” and “lunch.” It’s served midday and combines the best sweet and savory elements of both of these meals. It’s the most common way to celebrate Easter and Mother’s Day and has even become a way of dining at weddings and family celebrations.

How did this type of meal evolve? It was common among Christians to have a large post-church meal on Sundays. Catholics used to require fasting from midnight on before receiving communion, so after leaving their place of worship, many people ate a large meal combining breakfast and lunch. Some churches even hosted the meals on the premises. We also know that during much of Western history, the Sunday midday meal was the largest meal of the day, followed by an early evening smaller supper.

A British writer named Guy Beringer first used the word brunch in 1895. In his essay, “Brunch: A Plea,” he advocated for a meal that was lighter than what was traditional at the time. The midday post-church meal in turn-of-the-century Britain consisted of heavy meat pies and filling foods, but Beringer proposed a lighter meal, which started with breakfast food before moving onto dinnertime fare. He wrote, “[Brunch] It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

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Beringer also noted that a later meal on Sunday would make it easier for those who liked to drink on Saturday nights. He wrote, “By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers.” He even suggested that instead of coffee and tea, perhaps this new meal could start with an alcoholic beverage.

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Although brunch originally conjured up images of idle ladies of leisure, Americans became very taken with brunch after World War I. During the Roaring Twenties, partygoers created a mini-brunch that took place in the early morning hours between dinner and breakfast, to refresh and sustain people who were dancing and drinking all night long. One women’s magazine recommended that in constructing a brunch menu, “a delicate hash, light fish balls, liver and bacon were all appropriate.” Tastes have changed … the menus of today’s best brunch establishments feature such creations as lemon-ricotta pancakes, frittatas and Eggs Benedict. According to one legend about the invention of Eggs Benedict, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict in 1893 asked for something new and different during her regular meal at Delmonico’s and she and the maître d’ came up with Eggs Benedict. Others say that in 1894, Mr. Lemuel Benedict requested the combination of poached eggs, Canadian bacon, English muffins and Hollandaise sauce in order to recover from a hangover. Either way, the chef recognized the dish’s potential and it’s been a brunch classic ever since.

One thing that hasn’t changed from Beringer’s original vision of a brunch is its association with alcohol. Most brunch menus serve drinks. A Bloody Mary in particular was developed specifically to be drunk in the morning to quell the pain of a hangover. The Bellini, a cocktail of sparkling wine and peach juice or puree, was invented in the 1930s by Giuseppe Cipriani at Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy and named after one of Cipriani’s favorite Renaissance painters, Giovanni Bellini. Along with its sister, the Mimosa, these cocktails became associated with brunch because their light, drinkable flavor made it seem acceptable to drink them in the morning. Also, brunch is usually a leisurely meal, not rushed, and lounging with eggs and pastries does seem to lend itself to enjoying a cocktail or two.

Easter Brunch Menu

Prosecco Strawberry Cocktail
Italian Easter Bread
Cold Poached Salmon with Mustard Sauce
Asparagus, Orange and Lentil Salad
Caramelized Mushroom and Onion Frittata
Homemade Sausage Patties
Italian Easter Cookies

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Prosecco Strawberry Cocktail

Ingredients

  • 2 cups hulled strawberries
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1 bottle chilled Prosecco 
  • 1 orange, sliced into rounds
  • Mint sprigs, for garnish

Directions

In a blender, puree 2 cups hulled strawberries and 2 tablespoons water until smooth. In a pitcher combine strawberry puree,orange juice, sparkling wine and orange slices. Stir gently. Serve garnished in tall glasses with mint sprigs.

Italian Easter Cheese Bread

Italian Easter Cheese Bread

Crescia al Formaggio or Italian Easter cheese bread is still mostly unknown in this country. This light-textured, golden egg bread containing Parmesan cheese makes a wonderful, savory aroma as it bakes. Be aware that this isn’t a soft, moist loaf. It’s very light, crusty and dry inside. Serve it in thin slices with butter or use the leftovers for grilled sandwiches or paninis.

Dough

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk, white reserved
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) softened butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground pepper (black if you don’t mind the specks, white if you do)
  • 1 1/4 cups freshly grated Parmesan, Romano or Asiago cheese, or a combination

Glaze

  • Reserved egg white (from above)
  • 2 teaspoons cold water

Directions

Combine all of the dough ingredients except the cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium speed for 10 minutes, until the dough becomes shiny and satiny. It’ll be very sticky; stop the mixer to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl a couple of times during the mixing process.

Add the cheese and beat until well combined.

Scrape the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and set it aside to rise for 1 hour; it rise much. Gently deflate the dough, turn it over, return it to the bowl and allow it to rise for an additional hour; again, it may not seem to rise much — that’s OK.

Oil or flour your hands. To make a traditional round loaf, form the dough into a ball and place it in a large souffle dish or another round, deep pan. The pan should be about 6″ to 7″ wide, and 3″ to 4″ deep.

To make a braid:

Divide the dough into three pieces; roll each piece into a 12″ log and braid the logs. Nestle the braid into a lightly greased 9″ x 5″ loaf pan.
Cover the loaf lightly with a thin kitchen towel and allow it to rise for 2 hours (or longer, depending on the warmth of your kitchen); the dough should become noticeably puffy, but it won’t double in size.

To bake the bread:

Put the oven rack in a lower position, just below the middle and preheat the oven to 425°F.

Whisk the reserved egg white with the water and brush the top of the loaf.

Place the bread in the oven and bake it for 15 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F, tent the bread lightly with aluminum foil and bake for an additional 30 to 35 minutes, until it’s a deep, golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 190°F. The braided loaf will require less time than the round loaf.

Remove the bread from the oven and let it cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Use a knife to loosen the edges, if necessary, and turn the loaf out onto a rack to cool completely before slicing.

Store airtight, at room temperature, for several days. Freeze, tightly wrapped, for longer storage. Yield: 1 loaf.

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Asparagus, Orange, and Lentil Salad

Red or Pink lentils cook quickly and become mushy if overcooked.

Ingredients

For the salad:

  • 1 medium-size fennel bulb
  • 2 large oranges, peeled and sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • 2 pounds fresh asparagus
  • 1 1/2 cups dried pink/red lentils, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • Baby arugula leaves for garnish

For the dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

Rinse fennel thoroughly and trim the root end of the bulb. Trim stalks from the bulb and chop fronds to equal 1/4 cup. Thinly slice bulb and mix with oranges, black pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover and let stand until ready to complete the dish.

Cut asparagus tips into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Cut stalks diagonally into thin slices, discarding tough ends.

Bring 3 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add asparagus and cook 1 to 2 minutes or until crisp-tender; drain. Plunge into ice water to stop the cooking process; drain. Pat dry with paper towels.

To make the dressing:

Whisk together vinegar, shallots, honey, Dijon mustard, kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil until blended.

For the lentils:

Bring 3 cups water and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add lentils; return to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring often, 8 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain well and rinse with cold water. Toss lentils with 1/4 cup of the dressing.

Combine parsley, asparagus, fennel mixture and fennel fronds in a large bowl; toss with remaining vinaigrette according to taste. Spoon lentils onto a serving platter; top with the asparagus mixture and garnish with arugula.

poached salmon

Cold Poached Salmon with Mustard Sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 4 salmon fillets (6 ounces each)
  • Sea salt and finely ground black pepper
  • 3 cups chicken stock, or low-sodium canned broth

Mustard Sauce

  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground dry mustard
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Place in a large, ovenproof sauté pan with the chicken stock and heat over medium heat just to a simmer. Place the pan in the oven and poach the salmon until the flesh is opaque, but still medium rare, 12 to 15 minutes.

Make the Mustard Sauce. Combine the mustards, honey and vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil and stir in the chopped dill.

Transfer the fillets to a platter and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Slice the salmon into thin slices and serve with Mustard Sauce on the side.

frittata

Caramelized Mushroom and Onion Frittata

Ingredients

  • 1 pound sliced fresh mushrooms
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 8 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream or half & half
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

Directions

Preheat the broiler.

In a 10-in. ovenproof skillet, saute mushrooms and onion in butter and oil until softened. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook for 30 minutes or until deep golden brown, stirring occasionally. Add shallot and garlic; cook 1 minute longer.

Reduce heat; sprinkle with cheeses. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, cream, salt and pepper; pour over the mushroom mixture. Cover and cook for 4-6 minutes or until eggs are nearly set.

Uncover skillet. Place pan under the broiler. Broil 3-4 inches from the heat for 2-3 minutes or until the eggs are completely set. Let stand for 5 minutes. Cut into wedges. Yield: 4 servings.

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Homemade Sausage Patties

Makes 8 small patties

Ingredients

  • 1 poundlean ground pork or ground turkey
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried sage, crumbled
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried fennel, crushed
  • Pinch of ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

Mix together the ground meat, garlic, sage, thyme, fennel, nutmeg, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Add the egg white and combine thoroughly. Cover and chill for at least 15 minutes

To easily form the sausage patties, rinse your hands in cold water. Divide the mixture into eighths and shape each portion into a 2 1/2-inch disk. Patties can be made to this point and refrigerated or frozen until ready to use.

Heat a skillet over high heat and then add the oil. Once the oil is heated, swirl it around the pan. Cook the sausages on both sides until completely cooked through and golden brown, about 4 minutes per side. Drain and serve immediately.

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Italian Easter Cookies

Dough

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise seed
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups (10 5/8 ounces) Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

Icing

  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Multicolored nonpareils

Directions

Beat together the oil, butter, eggs, vanilla, salt, baking powder, anise and sugar until smooth. Add the flour, beating until smooth. Refrigerate the dough for at least one hour or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Pinch off the dough into 2-teaspoon-size (1/2-ounce) balls; a teaspoon cookie scoop works perfectly here. Roll the balls into logs about 4 inches long and about 1/2-inch in diameter. Coil into doughnut shapes, leaving a small hole in the middle.

Place the shaped cookies on lightly greased baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between them.

Bake for about 18 minutes. They may have the merest hint of golden color on top, but they definitely won’t be brown. Do not overcook or they will get too hard to eat.

Remove them from the oven and transfer to a rack to cool completely before icing.

To ice the cookies:

Combine all icing ingredients in a saucepan and heat on low until the mixture is lukewarm, stirring often. Hold one of the cooled cookies by the bottom and dip the top of the cookie into the glaze, letting the excess icing drip back into the pan. Immediately sprinkle with the nonpareils and place on a wire rack to let the icing set.

Allow the frosting to harden before storing the cookies. Yield: 3-3 1/2 dozen cookies.

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