April 16, 2014 at 10:57 AM

Easter Eats Around the World

However you celebrate Easter, you'll most likely enjoy a feast of foods that have come down through the ages and traveled the globe, crossing cultures and countries...

By Lynn Cline

Gourmet Girl

Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.

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The return of spring brings annual rites and traditions, including the celebration of Easter this coming Sunday. Officially a religious holiday, Easter is also celebrated around the world to mark the return of spring, with traditional foods that honor the season.

One of the most common Easter foods is the hot cross bun, a spiced sweet bun with currants or raisins marked with icing crosses on top. Some believe the buns date back to ancient Anglo-Saxons who baked small wheat cakes to honor the goddess of spring. Versions of this bun can be found around the world, including the Polish baba and the Czech babobka. Round flat loaves marked with a cross and decorated with Easter eggs are made in Greece and Portugal and honey pastries are served in Syria and Jordan during Easter celebrations.

Another popular Easter food is roast lamb, which may date to the first Passover celebrated by the Jewish people, who roasted a sacrificial lamb and served it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs in hopes that the angel of God would protect their homes. To the Christians, Christ represented the sacrificial lamb so it's a fitting food for the Easter dinner.

Ham is also traditionally eaten at Easter time, which dates to the early settlers of the U.S. who, lacking refrigeration, cured their meat, including fresh pork, which was slaughtered in the fall. The cured hams were ready around the time of Easter, so ham became a popular centerpiece of the Easter dinner.

The Russians include kulich in their Easter feast, made with candied peel, almonds, raisins, and saffron, iced and traditionally decorated with Cyrillic letters that read “Christ is risen.” The kulich is taken to midnight mass on Easter eve to be blessed and is then served with pashka, a sweetened curd cheese confection.

The Italians celebrate Easter with Pasqua, the most important religious event of the year and also a primal celebration of winter's end and nature's rebirth. The Monday after Easter is a national Italian holiday, Pasquetta, or “Little Easter,” also called Lunedi dell'Angelo, orAngel's Monday. The day includes a feast, often a picnic or at the home of friends and family. 

As the day falls when Italians are breaking Lent, the feast is huge, with multiple courses of numerous dishes, starting with Easter pies made with cheese, herbs and eggs, and the Torte di Pasqua, a sweet torte such as ricotta cake. Other openers include stuffed pasta, lasagne and risotto with fresh seafood, asparagus or baby peas.

The second course features roasted or grilled meat, including lamb marinated with lemon and rosemary, grilled lamb chops with artichokes and roasted potatoes, lamb stew and polpettine, small meatballs of ground lamb, scallions, rosemary and parsley. 

Dolci, the dessert course, is equally important as the main course of an Easter feast. Chocolate eggs contain surprises for the children, and the adults enjoy the Pastiera Napoletana, a cake from Naples made with ricotta, candied fruit and orange blossom water. In Sicily, cannoli are part of dessert, and in northern Lazio, the final course features Pizza Pasqualina, made with cinnamon and chocolate.

Also in Italy, the Colomba pasquale, a dove-shaped Easter cake, was created in Milan to celebrate two white doves who perched on a Milanese war chariot during the battle of Legnano in 1176 and remained there until the city won. Another story claims the cake was created in the shape of a dove by a young girl who gave it to the Lombard conqueror of Pavia, Alboin, in 572. He liked it so much, he set her free from captivity.

You can't have Easter without eggs! In countries around the world, the humble egg takes a starring role during Easter celebrations, whether they’re decorated, hand-blown or poached and served as Eggs Benedict. As early as 5,000 BC, eggs were exchanged as a sign of friendship during spring equinox festivals, colored, blessed, gifted and eaten as part of the rites of spring. The ancient Zoroastrians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, held on the spring equinox and eggs were forbidden during Lent in the early Christian era, making them all that more desirable when the 40 days of fasting were over. The Christians adopted the egg as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, who rose from a sealed tomb in the same way a bird breaks through an eggshell at birth.

In Russia, during the rule of the czars from the 1880s until 1917, Easter was celebrated with more fanfare than Christmas, featuring Easter breads and other foods as well as decorated eggs exchanged as gifts. The royal families often gave jeweled eggs made by goldsmith Carl Faberge.

In Germany, Easter eggs are blown to empty them out, and the shells are painted and decorated with pieces of lace, cloth or ribbon and hung with ribbons on an evergreen or small tree, which village girls used to carry from house to house in Moravia on the third Sunday before Easter. German settlers in America, including those who became known as Pennsylvania Dutch, brought this tradition to America, along with the legend of the Easter bunny who delivers colored eggs to children. Germany also holds an egg dance, in which players dance around eggs placed on the ground trying not to break them.

In China, red colored eggs are given to children on their birthdays, since red symbolizes happiness and long life. The Persians also have given gilded and elaborately painted eggs for thousands of years.

In New Mexico, cascarones are emptied eggs stuffed with confetti that are hidden, then broken over people's heads when they are discovered.

However you celebrate Easter, you'll most likely enjoy a feast of foods that have come down through the ages and traveled the globe, crossing cultures and countries, carrying meaning and continuing traditions that date back centuries. Happy Easter!

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