My friend Susan asked me the other day what was on the menu for Easter. "The usual," I said. "Ham, potato salad, asparagus."
"Potato salad? I would've never thought of that," she said. Yet, in my family, it's just not Easter without my mother's concoction of potatoes, celery, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise and mustard. It's a family tradition.
"It took me 30 years to realize that not everyone celebrates the same way," Susan said. "In my house, we play a game cracking each other's Easter eggs, then we eat kielbasa." Now I was intrigued and wanted to know more about the egg-cracking.
That's the thing about holidays, isn't it? Everyone has their own traditions that often center around food. Years ago, I saw a sign in an Italian deli that said, "Order your wheat pie for Easter."
Wheat pie? I'd never heard of it, and furthermore, it sounded so unappetizing. All I could envision was crust within crust. Fortunately, it turns out that the real thing is much more appetizing. (It's also often called Easter Grain Pie.) First of all, the wheat part isn't flour, as I had originally assumed. It's actually soft, cooked wheat, more like a breakfast grain. You can cook up your own, or visit an Italian market and look for a can of Grano Cotto (cooked wheat). The rest of the filling is similar to some cheesecakes: ricotta cheese, sugar, eggs and dried fruit. "It tastes like a drier, lighter, crumbly, less-sweet version of cheesecake," my Italian friend Marisa told me.
If you're not up for making your own, you can find them at A&S Italian Fine Foods of Fairfield, where they have an array of specialty Italian foods for Easter.
But pie isn't just about dessert at Eastertime. Many families like to serve quiche for Easter brunch, such as the delicious sausage provolone quiche from Michele's Pies in Westport. But if you're looking for the ultimate savory pie, there's nothing like Italian pizzagaina. It's also known as "Easter pie" or "meat pie".
"This pie is more like a meal," said Doreen Battimelli of A&S. "A single pie can weigh several pounds. It's made by combining eggs, ricotta cheese, ham, salami, prosciutto, grated Romano cheese and black pepper, and encasing it in a pie crust to bake."
When it comes to the main course, area butchers are busy this time of year.
"The top three things we sell for Easter are lamb, ham and pork," said Greg Peck, owner of Southport's Spic and Span Market. The most popular choice, he said, is the market's American spring lamb, sold usually as legs or racks. He emphasized that they sell American, as opposed to New Zealand or Australian lamb, which tends to have a stronger taste. "Australian and New Zealand lamb is generally all grass-fed, whereas American is finished with grain or corn," he said. "That gives it more fat, and therefore more flavor."
The second most popular choice -- ham -- comes in various styles. There's the smoked, boneless and the uber-fancy spiral. Fresh ham, which is uncured and unsmoked, is always an option, too, said Peck, although it tends to be more popular at Christmas. And lastly, there's the beautiful crown roast of pork, complete with frills.
Dessert is always a necessity at Easter. Sure, there's usually plenty of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies to share, but you can't stop there. Again, the Italian tradition is a showstopper, with favorites like Colomba di Pasqua, or Easter dove cake. "It's similar to the Christmas pannetone-type cake," said Battimelli. "It is made in the shape of a dove, and is available in plain, or with chocolate or lemon filling and has sugar on top."
Another favorite is the Torta di Agnello, or Easter lamb cake. Personally, I like to finish off the Easter meal with a slice of pie, usually coconut cream or lemon meringue. This year, though, I think it may just be time to try a wheat pie.
- A&S Italian Fine Foods: Everything you need for Easter, including wheat pie, meat pie, traditional Easter egg bread, dove cake, lamb cake, chocolate eggs, and an array of roasts and hams.
2079 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield / 203-576-1600, www.asfinefoods.com
- Michele's Pies: The business offers five different kinds of quiche and numerous varieties of fruit, cream and nut pies.
180 Post Road East, Westport / 203-349-5312, www.michelespies.com
666 Main Ave., Norwalk / 203-354-7144