Chocolate shines at Easter time: Why it combines with dairy and eggs in the holiday’s food traditions

By Claire Hopley

For the Gazette

Published: 04-07-2017 8:07 PM

In winter we long for spring, and by March and April we are positively demanding all the good things it brings.

But spring used to be tough. Everyone faced hard work to kick start the agricultural year, yet there were slim pickings at mealtimes. Much of the food was saved from the previous harvest, so people would be down to the last wrinkled apples and withered carrots.

The bright spot was that as the days lengthened hens started laying, and since cows and sheep had young, milk was becoming abundant.

This history explains the foods of Easter and other spring holidays. With eggs and milk plus a bit of spice or a handful of fried fruit, ordinary bread doughs were transformed into holiday specialties such as hot-cross buns or babka.

Mixed with fresh new cheese, eggs also appeared in Easter dishes such as the Italian Easter pie torta pasqualina. Dyed red and hard-boiled, they were nestled into the Greek Easter bread tsoureki.

One reason dairy foods and eggs were so much appreciated at Easter is that they were forbidden during the Lenten fast that preceded the holiday. So were other animal foods, so having meat for the Easter meal was a big treat. The choice varied from region to region, with some areas going for lamb, and others favoring the last of the hams that had been made the previous fall.

We still follow these old traditions, but we have a newer one too: chocolate. Chocolate was unknown beyond its Mexican homeland until the 16th century, and it was almost always served as a drink until the 1820s when the Dutch chocolate manufacturer Van Houten devised a process to separate cocoa butter from cocoa solids. Cocoa butter was fine in a drink because it was diluted by liquid, but it was greasy and unpalatable to eat. Once it could be separated out, chocolate manufacturers could mix it with the cocoa solids in proportions that made the kind of chocolate we like for candies or baking.

This development was followed by more new inventions. One was dried milk pioneered the Swiss company Nestle. Soon it was mixed into chocolate to make milk chocolate, and by the 1870s chocolate could be molded into fancy shapes — including egg shapes. Cadbury made its first chocolate Easter eggs in 1875. Now over 200 million of the company´s Crème Eggs are sold between New Year´s Day and Easter in Britain alone!

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Locally, Kathie Williams owner of Richardson´s Candy Kitchen in Deerfield says Easter usually tops Valentine’s Day as the biggest chocolate holidays. “Chocolate is popular at Valentine´s, but if there is a storm just beforehand, not so many people come into the store,” she says. “The weather is better at Easter and people start getting ready early so even a little bad weather doesn´t matter. We sell a real lot.”

Among the store’s most popular items are the chocolate bunnies. When Williams´s mother Barbara owned the store, she bought a different bunny mold after the birth of each grandchild so she could make a special bunny named after each one. There´s Tyler and Cameron and Alyssa and more. Kathie Williams says each has its fans. “The kids all love their own, of course, but we also have lots of people coming in for their favorites.

Easter doesn´t inspire the enormous range of foods that Christmas does, but with various breads and a treasury of chocolate treats, its traditions can keep cooks busy. Here are some recipes.

HOT CROSS BUNS

Hot cross buns from the store usually have a cross made of white frosting. In this recipe the cross is incorporated in the bun. As you cut the dough you flatten it slightly but then it continues its rise as it recovers from the cuts. In this way the cross is an emblem of the resurrection. Another traditional explanation of the cross is that it lets the devil out of the dough.

1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast

About 4 cups bread flour or all purpose flour

⅓ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon mace

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

½ room temperature butter

1 cup slightly warmed milk

½ cup raisins

For the glaze

2 tablespoons white sugar

3 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees In a small bowl mix the yeast with about one-third cup warm water. Let it sit for 10 minutes or until it is froth. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, preferably the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour with the sugar, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, and salt. Put the bowl in the oven to warm for a few minutes.

When the yeast is frothy and the ingredients in the bowl are warm, add the yeast to the bowl. Also stir in the egg, butter and warm milk. Mix by hand or with an electric mixer until the dough sticks neither to the bowl or your hands. Form it into a ball. Put it in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm draft-free spot for about 1½ hours or until it has doubled in bulk.

Slap the risen dough down, and roll it slightly with a rolling pin. Sprinkle the raisins on the surface, then roll it up and knead for 3or 4 minutes to distribute them. Shape the dough into 10-12 small balls, and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place until the balls have doubled in size — about an hour.

Now, using a single-edged razor or sharp knife, make a cross in each one. Let recover for another 15-20 minutes.

While the buns are rising preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put them in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown on top. They should sound hollow when you rap the bottom.

As soon as the buns come out of the oven, boil the milk and sugar for the glaze in a small pan. When it is very bubbly brush it on the surface of the buns. It will look white at first but will dry to a shine.

CHOCOLATE NESTS

Basically chocolate pudding made to look like nests, this dessert pleases all kids and pudding lovers. Kids like helping with the decoration.

4 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons cocoa

2½ cups whole milk

3 tablespoons shredded coconut or more as needed

About 2 ounces chocolate, either dark or milk

Small sugar-coated Easter eggs such as Cadbury´s or foil-covered eggs or jelly beans

Mix the sugar, cornstarch and cocoa together in a bowl. Stir in about half a cup of the milk to make a smooth paste. Put the rest of the milk in a saucepan and bring to simmering on the stove.

Pour the simmering milk over the cornstarch mixture, stirring all the while until it is smooth. Return it to the pan and cook over low heat, stirring all the time until it thickens. Pour into four or five small cups such as ramekins. Set aside to cool.

To decorate, put the coconut into a bowl. Put the chocolate into another bowl and set over a pan of simmering water. Let it melt. (Alternately melt it in a microwave.)

Stir some of this chocolate into the coconut using a fork to lightly toss the coconut into the chocolate. While it is still warm, arrange the coconut around the perimeter of the bowls so it looks like twigs or a nest. Put the eggs or jelly beans in the center.

CHOCOLATE TURRONE

This is an Italian treat. After the chocolate has melted it is easily made with children as the recipe does not require sharp implements. The exact amounts of chocolate, nuts and cookies can be varied according to taste.

16 ounces dark chocolate

10 ounces milk chocolate

¼ cup almond butter

About 1 teaspoon almond extract

1½ cups slivered or whole almonds

2 cups plain cookies such as Marie or Rich Tea, broken in small pieces

Put three quarters of the dark chocolate broken in pieces in a bowl over a pot of simmering water but without letting the bottom of the bowl touch the water. Let the chocolate melt. (Or melt in the microwave.)

Remove from heat and coat a 8 by 4 inch silicone loaf pan with half of it. (You could use a non-silicone pan lined with parchment instead.)

Set aside to chill.

Combine the remaining 4 ounces of dark chocolate with the broken up milk chocolate and melt it in another bowl over simmering water. Remove from the heat and stir in the almond butter and almond extract. Then add the broken bits of cookie — they should be about the size of peas or beans — and the almonds. Pour this over the chocolate in the pan, then pour the rest of the dark chocolate on top. (You might need to re-melt it to do this.) Let set for at least 3 hours in the refrigerator.

For serving, remove it from the fridge and let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Cut in 1-inch squares or similar shapes and serve with coffee or tea.

CHOCOLATE TWIGS

These twigs are easily made and can be used to make nest or basket shapes for filling with candies or cookies. Or they can be eaten as is. This is another project that children enjoy.

About 3 cups straight pretzel sticks

About 4 ounces dark or milk chocolate

Put the sticks on a large plate. Put the chocolate in a bowl and melt over a pan of boiling water or in a microwave. When the chocolate has softened pour it over the pretzels, and turn them over gently so you don´t break too many of them. Arrange the chocolatey sticks in the nest or basket shape you would like using a fork to keep your fingers more or less clean.

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