I went on my first Easter egg hunt a couple of years ago, hand in hand with my then-2-year-old son, Max. I’ve got 44 years on him, but it was a first for both of us.
In Jerusalem, where I grew up, the world of the Easter bunny, hot cross buns, roast lamb and simnel cake just did not exist for me. If someone had described an Easter egg hunt to me — “kids rush around collecting chocolate eggs that have been hidden by a rabbit” — I would have thought it strange. The concept of Easter was something distant, miles away from our own tradition of Pesach, or Passover.
Without a doubt, though, our Seder in Israel would have seemed equally strange to the children tucking into their Easter lunch in Britain, where I live now. Why is a story — the Haggadah — told, and what does it mean? Why is the dining plate compartmentalized? What does one even do with lettuce leaves and radishes dipped in salty water? Most important, where’s the chocolate?
The traditions of Easter and Passover seemed worlds apart to me until that hand-in-hand moment with Max. We had been invited by friends to have lunch on Easter Sunday. At the end of the meal came the unqualified highlight: the big hunt for the little coveted eggs.
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My moment of connection came as I was delving around in the compost heap at the end of the garden. As I uncovered a gold foil-wrapped egg with Max, my own childhood memories of finding the afikoman — hidden earlier in the evening, inevitably, behind the sofa — came flooding back. Back then we were hunting for half a matzo, but the thrill was the same and there it was.
At both Easter and Passover, the meal is more than just food. It is the bridge between generations and the signifier of a story. At Easter, the simnel cake is decorated with 11 balls of marzipan to represent all the apostles minus Judas. The lamb represents Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and Christ’s sacrifice of his own life. At Passover, flat matzo, rather than regular leavened bread, recalls how the Jews were forced to leave Egypt in such a hurry that there was no time to wait for their bread to rise. Bitter herbs stand for suffering.
My own favorite as a child was my Italian grandmother’s haroseth. Hers was made of dates with a bit of orange, dusted with cinnamon and dotted all over with long pine nuts, making it look like a hedgehog. Tucking into simnel cake at that Easter lunch, as rich and dense with dried fruit and nuts as my grandmother’s hedgehog haroseth, was a powerful madeleine moment.
Whichever traditions we might be putting into practice over Easter weekend, or the eight days of Passover, they’ll be serving two purposes. On the one hand, they are symbolic, providing a platform for all of us to connect with a shared story. On the other hand, these same traditions allow us to connect personally with the history we are making within our own family and circle of friends, last year and the year before that and the year before that, when the kids were very young.
We haven’t yet done a proper Seder meal for our children in London. Family-friendly though the celebration is, I know our boys would be in deep slumber well before any haroseth is spread over a piece of matzo. When we do, though, we will be seating the Easter bunny alongside the hedgehog. Such is my story and the story of my family: In order to live on, traditions need to be braided together to become something new. I offer two recipes to those baking, then, that are very different from each other.
The casatiello is an Easter bread steeped in Neapolitan tradition. My grandmother may have been Italian, but she certainly wouldn’t have been baking with flour for her Seder meal, nor serving pork products (at any time of the year). Casatiello is made the day after the big Easter feast in Italy, when there is leftover meat and cheese. Heading out for an Easter Monday picnic is also something of a ritual in Naples, so again, this bread makes sense: All of the fillings, baked as they are into the dough, are safely tucked in and won’t fall out.
Intended more for the Passover table, then, is the flour-free walnut cake. The necessity for unleavened cakes is the mother of great invention; in so many of my favorite cakes, ground nuts replace the typical flour. The tendency of these nuts to dry out, then, calls for a pre-emptive drenching with a floral or citrus sugar syrup or, as here, a nutty liqueur like amaretto. The resulting cake is moist enough for the icing to be omitted (or replaced with a dairy-free substitute) for those wanting to serve the cake after the Seder meal.
One of the great joys of baking is that the result always gets shared. That sharing is the essence of any celebration: coming together to honor traditions and, quite possibly, give rise to new ones.
Yotam Ottolenghi is a British chef and the author of several cookbooks, including “Plenty,” “Plenty More” and, with Sami Tamimi, “Jerusalem.” He is also an owner of the Ottolenghi cafes and Nopi restaurant in London.
Here are Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes. They are perfect for Easter or Seder but are great for any time of the year.
Neapolitan Easter Bread (Casatiello)
Yield: 8 to 10 servings; total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus 1 hour rising
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
3 tablespoons fine semolina flour
1 lightly packed cup basil leaves
1 lightly packed cup parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more for seasoning
4 cups bread flour (strong flour), more for dusting
3 teaspoons instant yeast (fast-action dried yeast)
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 salami log (6 ounces), rind removed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (1 heaping cup)
4 1/2 ounces Gruyère, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (1 cup)
2 ounces Parmesan, coarsely grated (1 lightly packed cup)
2 large eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and coarsely grated
1. Grease a 10-inch tube pan with a flat bottom with 1 1/2 teaspoons oil. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons semolina, tapping out any extra once the interior is fully coated.
2. Combine herbs, 2 tablespoons oil and a good pinch of salt in the bowl of a food processor. Blitz to form a paste, scraping down sides as necessary, and then set aside.
3. In a large bowl, combine flour, yeast, 1 tablespoon oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the lukewarm water. Use a spatula to stir mixture until combined and turn out onto a floured work surface. Dust your hands with flour, then knead dough for 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. You may need to add more flour if dough is too sticky, but do not add too much or it will become dry. Shape dough into a ball and set aside. Scrape down, clean and dry work surface, then dust with more flour.
4. Roll dough into a 12-by-16-inch rectangle, with the longest side toward you. Spread evenly with herb paste, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border at the top and bottom, and a 1/2-inch border on the sides. Scatter salami, Gruyère, Parmesan and egg evenly over herb paste. Grind pepper generously over the surface and then gently push the cheese, egg and meat into the dough.
5. Starting from the longest side, roll dough into a log (as you would a Swiss roll or the dough for cinnamon rolls), making sure to tuck dough in at the ends as you go so contents don’t fall out. Press edges to seal.
6. Transfer dough to pan, with the long sealed side facing down. The stuffed dough will be heavy, so make sure you have a good grip on both ends before you lift it. Use your hands to bring the ends together, pinching them into place so they form a continuous ring of dough. (It may be easier to shape it into a ring on the counter first and then transfer it to pan.) Using a pastry brush, coat dough with remaining oil and then sprinkle evenly with 1 tablespoon semolina. Cover with a slightly damp cloth and let rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until nearly doubled in size.
7. Meanwhile, heat oven to 450 degrees.
8. Bake bread for 30 minutes, until golden and crisp; it will seem very hard but will soften once it cools. Remove from oven and set aside for 15 minutes to cool slightly. Turn bread out of pan onto a wooden board. (You may need to run a knife along edges of pan to release the bread.) Serve warm or cold.
Yield: 8 servings; total time: 1 1/4 hours, plus cooling
For the cake:
Oil or butter, for greasing the pan
4 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
1 packed cup dark muscovado sugar
12 ounces walnut halves (about 3 1/2 cups), blitzed to the consistency of fine breadcrumbs in a food processor
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons amaretto
For the caramelized walnuts:
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated or superfine sugar (caster sugar)
2 ounces walnut halves (1/2 cup)
2/3 cup heavy cream (double cream)
1/2 teaspoon granulated or superfine sugar (caster sugar)
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8-inch springform pan with oil or butter. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and set aside.
2. Place egg yolks and muscovado sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl, if using a hand-held electric mixer). Whip on high speed for about 2 minutes, or until pale and fluffy, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Add walnuts, lemon zest and salt and mix well to combine.
3. Clean and dry the stand mixer bowl and whisk attachment, then add egg whites to bowl. Whip on high speed for 2 minutes, or until stiff peaks form. Using a spatula, fold egg whites into the walnut mixture a third at a time; the mixture will be thick and quite difficult to bring together at first but will gradually loosen, so the final addition of whites lightens the batter considerably.
4. Pour batter into pan and bake for 40 minutes, until evenly puffed. This is a moist cake, so a skewer inserted inside should not come out completely dry and clean. Let cake cool for 5 minutes, then release it from the pan. (You may need to run a small knife around the edge.) Carefully flip over cake, remove pan bottom and paper, and flip again to transfer it to a large plate. Brush surface with amaretto and then leave to cool completely.
5. While cake is cooling, make the caramelized walnuts: Sprinkle sugar evenly over the bottom of a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook gently for about 6 minutes, swirling pan but resisting the urge to stir, until you get a medium brown syrup, the consistency of maple syrup. Add walnuts and quickly stir them into the syrup until coated. Pour nuts onto a parchment-lined sheet pan, spread in a single layer, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Once cool and hardened, roughly chop into 1/2- and 1-inch pieces.
6. To serve: Add cream and sugar to the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use a large bowl and a hand-held whisk). Whip on high speed for 1 minute, or until firm and fluffy. When cake has cooled, spread cream over surface and then scatter with caramelized walnuts.