Easter has always been very special in our family. Isn't it funny how the most special celebrations always happen after a long period of anticipation... before Christmas, we would celebrate advent every day, building up the excitement over weeks and weeks for a spectacular finale of glowing eyes and gazillions of candles (yes, real! candles) and sparklers on the tree. And the presents, of course!
As for Easter, there's lent to observe - not quite the gentle easing into things like advent, but quite the opposite: 40 days of fasting, which we didn't observe by the book, because children must eat, of course, but there was always something we had to give up. Meat could be one thing, but it was more likely to be sweets of any kind. Even though we didn't get much candy or chocolate as children anyway, the forty days meant that we were craving the stuff by the end of it and going into the Easter basket hunt with determination. No, that's too gentle a word - we were quite ferocious, really!
Apart from frequent visits to church, the week before Easter was always full of lovely traditions, starting with the procession on Palm Sunday, on which I passed out on several occasions - not out of religious fervour, foaming at the mouth over some shamane ritual, but because I was singing in the children's choir and had to stand in the sun for an hour - now, apart from the fact that I am not a sunbather anyway (I do worship it, but from a distance and most definitely in the shade), I would invariably get up too late for breakfast and after one hour of rehearsal, one hour of church and another hour at the procession, I just collapsed.
Palm Sunday was just the start though, things were really getting into swing from Thursday before Easter, called Green Thursday in Austria. I've always heard that the name originates in a misinterpretation of the Middle High German "grînen" which means "to weep" - the Thursday before Easter was the time for confession and penitence, enough reason to break out in tears, of course. But since it was called Green Thursday, we would always eat something green, most likely spinach and potatoes as in this recipe. For some children I knew, this was penitence enough for all their sins!
I don't actually remember any traditions surrounding Good Friday, except more church, but the Saturday was very special again: we would go to... church! This time, however, this would be a reason for celebration, as mass was held late at night (and how exciting is staying up until the small hours when you're a child) and there used to be a massive fire in the middle of the church yard, with people chatting away by the flickering light of the fire until very, very late (no marshmallows involved, unfortunately). But then came the very best part: after weeks of fasting, it was now time to celebrate. For us, this meant visiting a very old friend of my Mum who sadly passed away last year. She lived on her own and her tiny kitchen table would be bending under the feast she prepared for us every year. Hard-boiled eggs (we call them "Russian eggs" and they're similar to these ones here) dressed with mayonnaise & gherkins, salads, cold meats and ham rolls. The latter are usually slices carved off a baked ham, stuffed with fresh horseradish cream. And fried pigs ears for dessert! These were random cuts of dough fried in hot oil, dusted with icing sugar and served with elderberry & plum compote - which we actually called tailor's rags, but that might have been a term of endearment created by the old woman herself, as she was a seamstress by profession. And it does sound much more appetising than pig's ears to a ten-year-old, if only a bit.
Easter Sunday we used to wake up with a red eye, but we nothing would have kept us from hunting for our Easter baskets, of course! And there were more celebrations to come. You guessed it: church! Very early, too, as my parents used to sing in the choir in their hometown, so we had to sit in an ice-cold church for hours, freezing off our derrières throughout rehearsal! After that it was off to visit not only two sets of grand-parents, but also all our godparents, as they would all have prepared nests of eggs and chocolates for us, which we had to find somewhere on their gigantesque farms or gardens... well, at least it gave us a good workout for all that chocolate we consumed after weeks of deprivation!
My grandmother always baked an Easter lamb for us, you actually see these all over the country in every single bakery, and the sad thing is that, lovely as they were, they never got eaten. Why? Too much temptation from chocolate eggs and bunnies! Since I lost my grandmother only a few years ago, I miss out on that special treat now - so I baked one for my kids this year, well before Easter so it wouldn't suffer the same fate.
In the aftermath of Easter, you're always faced with one problem: the hard-boiled eggs. It is custom to have egg fights in the morning of Easter Sunday, so there were plenty at home already, and each basket we got on our road-trip would contain another two or three... what to do with all those eggs? Well, here's one recipe for using those left-overs: a ham slice rolled up and filled with a creamy and tangy egg salad, given a bit of bite with chopped cornichons and capers. A fabulous treat for our lunch boxes. It was only through making egg salad one year that I discovered that my Dad had been cheating at egg fighting (this is apparently called egg jarping/dumping here in England), by using a plaster egg... I will never forgive him for that! But with 12 Easter baskets between us, my brother and I would be faced with another, sweeter, problem... we'd have a hard time getting through all that chocolate over weeks to come - but you gotta do what you gotta do!
Chocolate Sponge Easter Lamb
(made in this mould)*
150 g softened butter
150 g caster sugar
10 g vanilla sugar
1 pinch salt
4 large eggs
2 tbsp whiskey
150 ground almonds (or walnuts)
150 g self-raising flour
100 g cornstarch
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp cocoa
Beat the butter and the sugar, then gradually add the remaining ingredients. Fill into the buttered form and bake in the pre-heated oven at 160 C for 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
* Recipe adapted from the one on the box.
Ham & Eggsalad rolls
8 slices Brunswick or other smoked and cooked ham
2 hard-boiled duck's eggs (or 3 large chicken eggs)
15 g cornichons (small, crunchy gherkins)
1 tbsp capers
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 level tbsp freshly grated horseradish root
1 tbsp chopped parsley
pepper, salt to taste
First, prepare the salad. Chop the cornichons and capers finely, combine with the remaining ingredients. Put about 1 tbsp of the salad onto each slie of ham, arrange in an even pile widthwise towards one end of the slice, roll gently to form a neat roll.
Serve with bread.