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Easter : Beyond Chocolate Bunnies

Though Easter is usually celebrated in the United States with an endless stream of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans, there are many other traditions associated with the holiday.

Greek and Roman festivals--ancient antecedents of the feast that celebrates Christ’s return to life after His Crucifixion and death--celebrated the passage of winter into the rebirth of spring and have common points with Easter as well as Passover.

The rebirth of spring and its fertile promise of the long and prosperous season ahead is well illustrated by the Sicilian Easter wreath. Its round shape signifies the continuous passage of the seasons through the year--in fact, the four eggs that decorate it probably stand for the seasons.

The eggs, of course, symbolize fertility and the replenishing of the earth with animals as well as plants after the dreary winter months. The promise of the harvest to come is seen in the Swiss rice tart; throughout Europe, Easter pastries are filled with grains.

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In Naples, wheat berries are used for a similar tart, the grain in all of these pastries symbolizing the potential of birth and growth inherent in the seeds.

Though of more recent origin, chocolate is associated with Easter almost as much as it is with Valentine’s Day. The association probably came about when chocolate became more available at the end of the 19th Century and confectioners vied with each other to produce elaborate molded chocolates in the shape of eggs and rabbits--more symbols of fertility.

Chocolate souffle roll is based on a famous recipe originally introduced to the United States by Dione Lucas. Famous as one of the original television cooks in the early ‘50s, Lucas introduced many homey French recipes, such as this roll, to her audience. The recipe is equally associated with James Beard, who popularized it.

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Wreath can be assembled completely and refrigerated up to one day before baking. Bake the wreath on the day you plan to serve it.

SICILIAN EASTER WREATH

3 cups flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

4 large eggs

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2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

3/4 cup cool unsalted butter

Salt

4 unpeeled hard-boiled eggs

Colored sugar sprinkles or chopped almonds

Powdered sugar

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Combine flour, granulated sugar, salt and baking powder in bowl and stir well to mix.

Whisk together 3 eggs, vanilla and orange and lemon zests in separate bowl.

Cut butter into 1/2-inch pieces and add to dry ingredients. Using fingertips or pastry blender, rub in butter until mixture is fine and sandy (cool and powdery, not sticky). Stir in egg-zest mixture with fork and continue stirring until mixture holds together. Remove dough to lightly floured work surface. Knead lightly until smooth, about 15 seconds.

To form wreath, roll 3/4 of dough into 24-inch cylinder. Arrange on parchment paper- or foil-lined baking sheet, making circle about 8 inches in diameter. Press ends together to adhere. Beat remaining egg and dash salt to make egg wash, and brush surface with egg wash. Position hard-boiled eggs on top, equidistant from each other.

Roll remaining dough into thin cylinder. Cut into 8 pieces. Roll each piece 3 1/2 inches long. Criss-cross 2 pieces over each egg, forming X. Adhere ends of dough to wreath on either side of eggs. Carefully brush criss-cross strips with egg wash. Sprinkle entire wreath with colored sugar sprinkles.

Bake on middle oven rack at 350 degrees until golden and firm, about 30 minutes. Cool wreath on pan. Before serving, lightly dust top with powdered sugar. Slide wreath onto serving platter to use as Easter centerpiece. To serve, cut into thin vertical slices. (Eggs will be somewhat overcooked--they are really decoration and not meant to be eaten.) Makes about 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

433 calories; 276 mg sodium; 259 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 46 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0.13 gram fiber.

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This tart can be completely prepared the day before serving. Refrigerate the tart wrapped in plastic wrap. Bring it to room temperature before serving.

SWISS RICE TART

1/2 cup unsalted butter

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg yolk

1 1/4 cups cake flour

Dash salt

1/3 cup long-grain rice

3 cups milk

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

6 egg yolks

1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds

Powdered sugar

Beat butter and 1/4 cup granulated sugar in bowl on medium speed of mixer until creamy and light. Add vanilla and egg yolk and continue beating until smooth and shiny, about 3 minutes longer. Stop mixer. Sift cake flour and add to butter mixture. Pulse mixer on and off to incorporate flour. Scrape dough onto piece of plastic wrap. Wrap and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Bring large pan of water to boil and add dash salt. Stir in rice. Return to boil and cook, covered, until rice begins to split open, about 10 minutes. Drain and rinse rice.

Combine rice with milk and remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar in saucepan and bring to boil over low heat. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook rice until all milk has been absorbed, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Stir in lemon zest and cinnamon.

In bowl beat egg yolks to break up. Beat some of hot rice into yolks. Beat yolk mixture into remaining rice. Cool. Stir in toasted almonds.

Roll chilled dough and fit into buttered 10- or 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Spread cooled filling into pan. Smooth top with spatula. Bake on lower oven rack at 350 degrees until well colored and firm, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on rack. Unmold tart. Slide onto serving platter. Dust with powdered sugar. Makes about 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

395 calories; 85 mg sodium; 276 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 44 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.32 gram fiber.

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The chocolate roll can be assembled and filled up to 24 hours before serving. Cover the roll with plastic wrap and serve cold.

CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE ROLL

6 ounces semisweet chocolate

3 tablespoons coffee liqueur or water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

5 large eggs, separated

Dash salt

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 cup whipping cream

Powdered sugar

Finely cut chocolate and combine with liqueur and butter in heat-proof bowl. Place bowl over hot (not simmering) water and stir occasionally until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Beat in egg yolks, 1 at time.

Whip egg whites in separate bowl with dash salt until they just begin to hold very soft peaks. Whip in 1/3 cup granulated sugar in slow stream. Continue whipping egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Stir 1/4 of egg whites into chocolate batter, then fold chocolate batter into remaining egg whites.

Pour batter into buttered 10x15-inch jelly roll pan lined with buttered parchment or wax paper. Smooth top. Bake on middle oven rack at 350 degrees until cake is firm to touch, about 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven. Loosen sides of cake with small, sharp knife. Pull on paper to slide cake onto work surface. Cool about 20 minutes.

To finish, slide pan or baking sheet under cake. Cover cake with clean piece of parchment paper and another pan. Invert cake. Lift off top pan and peel off parchment paper. Replace with clean paper and replace pan. Invert again and remove top pan and paper.

In bowl whip cream with remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar until firm peaks form. Spread cream on cake with metal spatula. Roll cake by picking up long edge of paper and easing cake into curve. Continue lifting paper to form cake into roll. Roll cake directly onto serving platter, seam-side-down. Discard paper. Trim edges of roll. Refrigerate, loosely covered, until ready to serve. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. Makes about 10 servings.

Each serving contains about:

273 calories; 67 mg sodium; 145 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; trace fiber.

Burgundy plate in Easter braid photo from Bristol Farms Cook ‘N’ Things, South Pasadena.

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Food styling by Donna Deane and Staci Miller


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