“How about lamb for Easter?” I said to HRH (my Handsome Russian Husband).
“Lamb?” he said quizzically, as if I had proposed something like boa constrictor en croute.
“Lamb for Easter?” said HRH. “Not very traditional is it?”
It’s moments like these that I have to remind myself to take a few deep breaths and try to see this as humorous material.
“You’re right, of course,” I said, “apart from that thing in the liturgy about, ‘O, Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world…’”
“Huh?” said HRH.
“What’s traditional Easter food in your book?” I asked.
“Well, eggs,” said the pride of the Young Pioneers.
“Eggs, okay,” I said, pretending to write that down on a list and resisting the temptation to ask HRH if he had any thoughts on how to prepare the eggs.
“And Kulich, and Paskha,” HRH continued, now on a roll.
“Right,” I said.
“And maybe, pork or something?”
“That’s a great idea,” I said, “because Jesus was, of course, really into pork, which he totally would have consumed with all that cream and eggs in one sitting.”
“Huh?” said HRH.
“Jesus, you know, was more of a bitter herbs, shank bone kind of guy,” I said, but this kind of witty observation always falls on fallow ground in Russia, where they aren’t too clear on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
“What are you talking about?” asked HRH.
“Never mind,” I said, remembering that the tail end of that liturgical thing about lamb ends with these words: “Grant us Thy Peace.”
The Easter Holy Trinity: Eggs, Paskha, and Kulich
I have mixed feelings about Orthodox Easter, primarily because I feel deeply silly having to repeat, “Verily, he is risen,” every time someone greets me with the traditional, “Christ is risen!” I once opened the door on Easter Sunday to some guys collecting a carpet to be cleaned and we had to go through all of that. I was terrified I would have to kiss each of them three times.
From a food point of view, I get extremely nervous about the hard-boiled eggs, dyed red with onion skins that go to be blessed by the priest on Thursday and don’t ever see the inside of a fridge again — that’s a food poisoning incident just waiting to happen. Then there’s the Kulich, which is a kind of cake you have to make in a tall, narrow tin, and God help you if it doesn’t rise. It doesn’t ever taste of much unless you enhance the spices, but it looks lovely iced with the traditional XB (Christ is Risen) piped on top. To compensate for the rather dry kulich is Paskha, which is a marvelous, creamy cottage cheese confection — one of my Bulgarian friends calls it “Orthodox Cheese Cake.” Paskha is molded in a trapezoidal contraption called a “pashonitsa,” one of those pieces of culinary kit that comes out only once a year. It also sports the XB logo.
These three are the essential building blocks for an Orthodox Easter meal — either a midnight supper if you are a devout churchgoer, or a breakfast if you are a lax infidel. The rigorous 40-day fast that proceeds Easter becomes especially stringent during the last week of Great Lent, but it ends promptly at 12:01 AM on Easter Sunday, when everyone races home and consumes the Holy Trinity; nothing like shocking a deprived system with a smorgasbord of dishes consisting of full fat cream, tvorog, botulism-infected hard-boiled eggs, and butter.
My approach to entertaining on Orthodox Easter is to skew things towards brunch. This gives everyone a chance to sleep in after the long service, and hopefully get the “Verily, he is risen” stuff out of their system. It also gives me a chance to un-mold my pashonitsa in peace and parlay those (refrigerated) hard-boiled eggs into something palatable.
Since Spring is taking her own sweet time about arriving this year, and Easter is nothing if not a celebration of the arrival of spring, I’m determined to propitiate the arrival of warm weather by serving up a menu chock full of springtime treats. I’ll parlay the eggs into lovely egg salad with watercress and new pea shoots, use what the Russians call “young” potatoes and fresh herbs to make an elegant galette, and serve these with a triumphant main dish of leg of spring lamb with an herbed crust. I’ll make a nod to classical myths about the return of spring in the pomegranate signature cocktail, and finish up with Paskha, which I stud with candied fruits and ginger, and a decorated Kulich to keep things traditional!
Paskha and Kulich should both be made ahead of time, especially if you would like to have them blessed in church before Easter. The lamb should marinate at least 24 hours before you cook it, but be sure to bring it to room temperature before roasting. If you can get your butcher to trim, bone, and tie the lamb, this will mean less time in the oven.
Orthodox Easter Midnight Supper (April 8)
- Signature Cocktail: “The Resurrection”
- Egg Salad Toasts with Watercress
- Spring Leg of Lamb with Herbed Crust stuffed with garlic and anchovies
- Potato Galette
- Horseradish Carrot Salad
- Paskha and Kulich
Signature Cocktail “The Resurrection”
Long before there was Jesus, there was Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. In Greek and Roman myths, Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, the God of the Underworld and taken down to Hell to reign as Hades’ queen. Demeter, the goddess of fertility pines for her child and the earth becomes cold and barren, gripped in perpetual winter. Finally, Zeus sends Hermes, the Messenger God down to Hell to negotiate Persephone’s release so that mankind will not perish. Having discovered that Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, Hermes makes a deal with Hades that Persephone be allowed to spend six months of the year with her mother and six with Hades. Persephone’s return to her mother heralds the joyful return of life and spring.
- 2 oz (6o ml) vodka
- 1 oz (30 ml) Domain Canton
- 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
- 1 oz (30 ml) fresh pomegranate juice
- 1 tsp fresh pomegranate seeds
- Ginger Beer
- Candied ginger to garnish
- Place the vodka, Domain Canton, fresh ginger, and pomegranate juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake to combine.
- Strain into a chilled martini glass or champagne coupe.
- Add the pomegranate seeds and top off with ginger beer.Garnish with candied ginger on a cocktail stick