Spring & Easter

easterpound.jpg Along with the first calls of the loons, the chirping of birds, the bright sunshine and the earthy fragrance of the woods, comes my desire for pound cake. Most years, these signs of spring in northern Minnesota coincide with Easter.

This year, though, snow still covers the grass around my house and it's cold enough outside to warrant a warm jacket. But even an Easter with no sign of spring in sight does not prevent my thoughts from turning to the tantalizing aroma of a baking pound cake wafting through my kitchen.

Every year, during the week before Easter, the pound cake season begins. Using the best butter I can buy, lots of eggs, flour and sugar along with my favorite flavorings, I bake at least one cake in an old cast-iron lamb mold that has been handed down to me through generations of use in my dad’s family. I nibble my way through pound-cake season as I bake that same batter in a bundt pan and serve it with clusters of fresh grapes or topped with fresh strawberries. I cut generous chunks from the cakes and wrap them up tightly in clear plastic wrap to share with friends.

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easter-eggs.jpg Despite my aversion to Christmas, I have always loved Easter. My experience of it was never religious, but purely secular. Growing up, Easter meant a celebration of Spring, egg hunts, fluffy bunnies and chicks, dyeing eggs with onion skins and flowers, and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. For several years I got to work in a gourmet store in the weeks leading up to Easter. The only thing better than taking home broken chocolate Santas had to have been taking home broken chocolate bunnies.

My other favorite memories of Easter include the ones spent in Italy where I saw the spectacular exploding carriage ritual in Florence known as Lo Scoppio del Carro. Of course there was also food, including those lovely hollow Perugina eggs filled with toys and the traditional dove-shaped sweet bread called La Colomba.

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macarons.jpgI love all French desserts and confections, but one of my most favorites is the macaron. Available in countless colors and flavors, macarons are very popular in France. In Paris, customers line up to buy them at many famous pastry shops, such as Dalloyau or Ladurée, which invented the double-decker sandwiched macaron in 1930. Since Paris is a bit too far for me to travel, I usually buy them at Bouchon Bakery in New York. I love all the flavors they offer even though their selection is not as wide as in France. But for me it doesn't matter, because the chocolate macaron is what I consider to be the best.

French macarons are basically meringue cookies made only of powdered sugar, egg whites, and almond flour. Getting the proportions exactly correct is key to the perfect macaron. Unlike the dense and chewy coconut macaroons, which French macarons are almost always confused with, macarons are smooth, light as air, and only slightly chewy. A smooth and flavorful filling in between two of the cookies is the icing on the cake. Pastry shops have come up with very unusual macarons and fillings, such as passion fruit and green tea, but the chocolate macaron is probably the most popular.

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coke2.jpg In a true southern kitchen, Coca-Cola is not only found in the refrigerator, it's also found in the pantry. You are more likely to find a few cans of Coke stashed with the flour and sugar than you are to find a bottle of balsamic vinegar. We marinate ham with it, make barbeque sauce out of it, add it to baked beans and even bake cakes with it.

I have been convinced for years that someday I will be discovered by a Coke executive in a hotel at 5 am, as I am standing by a Coke machine in my pajamas, or what I refer to as my 'almost pajamas,' a line of clothing I am going to design someday for those of us who start our day wandering around the halls searching for a Coke machine. It would be a perfect commercial.

I am not a fan of cake. I like chocolate cake but prefer to eat the chocolate that goes into the cake as the flour and butter do nothing but dilute the chocolate. Why waste the calories on the other ingredients when you can instead, just eat more chocolate?

My mother is a terrific cook, but she never made cakes. She would buy those dry, tasteless cakes with the icky icing from the grocery store and put some candles on it and that would be my birthday cake. When I got older she found an elderly lady who lived next door to my grandmother who makes a pretty good chocolate cake even though I was never too thrilled about it.

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hotcrossbuns.jpgThere are many stories regarding the history of Hot Cross Buns. One interesting one comes from Alan Davidson's "The Oxford Companion to Food". He says that the Saxon invaders in Britain chomped on buns adorned with impressions of crosses in honor of the pagan goddess of light, Eostre, from whom the name Easter is derived.

Today they are traditionally served at Easter and there is a superstition that Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday never became moldy and in the past one Hot Cross Bun would be saved as a good luck charm until the next year's buns were made. Whatever the history, these sweet tender buttery buns are a delicious treat and should be enjoyed all year long.

This is adapted from a Cook’s Country recipe for Sweet Dough.

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