April 06, 2007

On this most festive day, we celebrate for a glorious mixture of Christian and pagan reasons: because the winter’s ending, because Christ is risen, and because that means each one of us gets a shot at joining Him. (Actually, in the end, we”€™ll have no choice. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, even the souls of the damned will regain their flesh at the end of time, to perfect their punishment. So everybody has something to look forward to!)

After a dismal winter, maybe even a penitential Lent”€”more likely a season of dimly remembered good intentions that puddle in the corner and breed mosquitoes”€”there’s nothing finer than a spirited Easter dinner to crown the day and change your mood. Kids love the day, of course”€”because when Jesus returned from the grave, He brought with Him great big baskets of jelly beans and marshmallow bunnies! As He hippity-hopped around Jerusalem, He distributed these treats on suburban lawns and under sofabeds, and filled every child’s candy-dish with colorfully painted eggs He laid Himself, as reminders of”€”well, something or other. We can”€™t quite keep all of this straight…. Let’s check the Catechism again….

Okay. The Easter holiday in fact marks the Resurrection of Christ, which has less to do with hollow milk-chocolate animals than you might think. But it has for centuries been celebrated throughout Christendom by an inextricable tangle of pagan fertility rites, folk customs, and liturgical events designed to baptize all of the above and harness the natural good cheer at the return of decent weather, flowers, and fresh fruit to the hope for eternal life. The Easter Vigil incorporates some of the most powerful natural symbols in its liturgy”€”the blessing of fire, a darkened church, the slow procession of candle flames through a hushed congregation, and the consecration of water.

For centuries in Europe”€”and still in the eastern regions”€”laymen would bring water with them to Mass in bottles, so it could be blessed by the priest. Then they”€™d take it home for use around the home”€”warding off household demons, or serving as a beauty wash for the women, and a cure for illnesses; it was the medieval equivalent of baking soda. In fact, the belief arose that all water on Easter Day “€œhad a blessing in it,”€ so peasant folk would take that day for one of their semi-annual baths, cavorting in rivers and streams, consuming long-forbidden treats, and sneaking around back to repopulate the village. The Lithuanians used to rush home from church with their holy water, convinced that this would make their farm chores go faster that year. They”€™d sprinkle their homes, fields, barns and orchards with holy water, wash old people’s eyes with it, anoint their seeds and plants, and even the udders of the family cow”€”just to be on the safe side. Why not make like the Lithuanians? After all, it is a feast of new life….  

CELEBRATE: If you decide to start the day with an Easter Egg hunt, here’s a clever way to make your celebration a little different from the neighbors”€™, and memorable for all. On Holy Saturday night, as you decorate eggs, don”€™t bother to boil them first. That’s right, color them raw, and plant them all over the yard and bushes outside your house. When you put the kids to bed, suggest they wear their rattiest, oldest, most easily washable clothes”€”when they ask why, promise them a big surprise in the morning. Do the same yourself. Then come morning, awaken the little ones at sunrise for the Easter Egg Hunt. But as you collect them, instead of peeling and eating hard-boiled eggs”€”let’s face it, who really wants to eat them?”€”have a raucous egg-fight, boys against girls, on the lawn in front of your home. You might even want to lead them in an Easter hymn as they hunt and hurl, hunt and hurl, such as “€œJesus Christ is Risen Today,”€ “€œVictimae Paschali Laudes,”€ or the beloved Polish “€œChodzimy po dyngusie i śpiewamy o Jezusie.”€

This is sure to attract the attention of curious neighbors, who”€™ll want some explanation of what’s going on at 6 a.m. As Christians, it’s our duty to offer such accounts of our creed and customs to anyone who asks”€”so wait until they”€™ve crossed your property line, then shout “€œChrist is Risen!”€ and include them in the fun. Remind the boys not to aim for the head.

Our favorite Easter custom persists among the Poles, and bears the evocative name “€œDyngus.”€ It differs from town to town”€”for instance, from Buffalo to Chicago”€”but in general the custom invites young men to walk from house to house singing songs, along the way swatting young women with rods of willow, and pouring water all over them. While it’s obviously rooted in some ancient fertility rite”€”and soaking wet Polish blondes can prove surprisingly fertile”€”the practice also lays claim to some Christian roots. The water is said to be symbolic of Christ’s blood, which washes the sinner; another tale says that the crowds who rejected the Gospel threw water to scatter the noisy Christians who proclaimed the Resurrection.

When you serve up dinner, provide each guest an inexpensive but festive-looking Jack-in-the-Box, to drive home the theme of Resurrection. As the centerpiece of a lavish, Slavic Easter dinner, make the main course a fricasseed rabbit. The meat is healthy, versatile and delicious, but you”€™ll serve it mostly for the sake of the children. Encourage them to poke the Easter Bunny as hard as they like”€”he won”€™t rise from the dead.

Menu and recipes by Denise Matychowiak:

Champagne (of course)
Tangy Plum Soup
Beet Salad
Eggplant Salad
Spring Potato Salad
Easter Bunny Fricassee   
Resurrection Cheese Cake
Cheese Pascha


Easter Bunny Fricassee   

2 rabbits, cut into serving-sized pieces
Fleur de Sel and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
1/2 tablespoon butter
3 pounds kielbasa, sliced
1/2 cup shallots, finely chopped
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup Armagnac brandy
1/2-3/4 cup Pic-St- Loup red wine

Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Rinse and pat dry rabbit. Sear, then dredge in flour. Brown rabbit on all sides in large roasting pan with oil and butter. Set on stove over medium heat until oil and butter begin to foam.
Remove bunny and set aside.
Add kielbasa to pan. Stir with a wooden spoon. After about two minutes, add shallots. Stir and sizzle briefly before adding mushrooms. Season lightly and stir. The mushrooms”€™ aroma will begin to mingle with the kielbasa’s. Pour brandy over all and allow to warm up before flaming with brandy. Stand back and enjoy. Flame will diminish, then go out completely. Add wine.
Stir gently to loosen all the good bits from the pan. Bring to a gentle simmer, add rabbit back, and cover. Transfer to oven. Cook 11/2-2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Adjust seasoning and serve with buttered egg noodles seasoned with fleur de Sel.

Tangy Plum Soup

3 pounds plums
5 cups orange juice
2 cups mango juice
¼ cup clover honey
Plain Greek yogurt

Pit and cut plums into small pieces. Place in stainless steel pot with juices. Bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes, until fruit is soft. Puree in a blender and add honey to taste. Chill thoroughly and garnish with yogurt.

Beet Salad

4 medium size beets
1 1/2 cups sliced, pitted prunes
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped or quartered
juice of one lemon
sour cream or mayonnaise

Boil beets in their skins. When cool, peel them and grate or julienne them. Add prunes and walnuts. Season with salt, sugar and lemon juice to taste. Add sour cream and mayonnaise to make a smooth salad.

Eggplant Salad

1 medium eggplant
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 green peppers, diced
2 red peppers, diced
2 medium Bermuda onions, diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, mashed

Peel and dice eggplant. Place into a bowl and salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Warm oil in pan, saute the onion. When it is translucent, add the peppers. When they are nice and soft, add the eggplant but squeeze out the water before adding to the frying mixture. Add mashed garlic. Saute everything for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. At the end, add ketchup to taste. Let fry for another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and cool. Can be served hot or cold.

Spring Potato Salad

3 medium red potatoes
10 ounces frozen baby peas
2 cucumbers peeled and diced
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1/2 cup dill, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream

Boil potatoes in skins 15-20 minutes, until tender to knife, peel and cube. Allow to cool. Simmer frozen peas 1 minute and allow to cool.
Mix ingredients together and adjust seasoning. Add more sour cream or mayonnaise if necessary to make salad nice and smooth.

Resurrection Cheese Cake

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg whites
1 whole egg
zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 1/2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups heavy cream
1 pint blueberries

Cream butter. Add sugar, egg whites, grated lemon rind and sour cream. Blend flour with baking powder. Pour into 9 inch spring form pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, until lightly browned.

1 pound fresh ricotta
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup raisins
zest of one orange
1 tablespoon rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Pass cheese through sieve. Cream butter thoroughly. Add cheese and sugars and blend thoroughly. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each. Gently stir in sour cream, then add raisins, orange rind, flavorings.
Beat egg whites with cream of tartar into stiff peaks. Fold into cheese mixture. Pour over baked base and bake at 325 degrees for 40 minutes. Allow to cool, and top with freshly whipped cream and berries.

Cheese Pascha

2 pounds fresh ricotta
3/4 cup soft butter
1/4 teaspoon cloves, ground
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
5 egg yolks, hard-boiled
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

approximately 8 tablespoons whole cloves
5 dried apricot
1/3 cup honey
Puree cheese or press through sieve. Cream butter. Add sugar and spices to butter. Pass yolks through sieve, and add to butter. Add cheese to butter mixture. Add cream and mix thoroughly. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Boil cheesecloth in water with two teaspoons vanilla. Cut cloth in pieces to line small clay flowerpots. Spoon mixture into pots. Fold cheesecloth to cover filling. Refrigerate at least 24 hours. Unmold.
To decorate, slice dried apricots in half, lengthwise, then into thirds. Put three slices on side of each Pascha. Garnish top with cloves in shape of cross. Drizzle honey over finished cakes.

Excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.


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