As you know, I grew up in an Italian family, and holidays are always a big part of our family tradition.
Easter was an especially celebratory time in our family because it was not only the beginning of spring but also the celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
Our family had many food traditions that we still uphold today, and I will never forget my nana’s lamb cake. As a matter of fact, I still have her original lamb cake pans from 1960, and yes, I still use them.
The lamb cake would be the centerpiece of the dessert table, as it is today at my home, but there was so much food it was a true Festa Italiano.
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On the counter, there would be artichokes that my mother and grandmother would stuff with Italian bread crumbs. And then there would always be a frittata of some type, filled with asparagus and eggs or a fresh spring vegetable of some type. Breaded and fried broccoli along with fresh spring asparagus was a staple also.
Pizza Rustica, a round pastry filled with ricotta, chopped pepperoni, eggs and Romano cheese, is another tradition that we liked to serve. It was quite heavy, mostly savory with a touch of sweetness.
An Italian Easter dinner had to include a stuffed pasta of some type, whether it was ricotta-filled shells, lasagna, ravioli or manicotti. My father would make his signature Italian sausage tomato sauce and ladle it on top. Ricotta cheese was always a staple at Easter time, as it represented fresh sheep’s milk.
A beautiful pineapple-and-cherry-topped, clove-studded ham was really the centerpiece of the dinner. My father would use a whole bottle of corn syrup on top and, of course, some 7-Up soda in the pan while it was roasting. You could smell the ham the minute you walked in the front door.
No Easter dinner was complete without the leg of lamb that my grandmother would roast, studded with cloves of garlic and fresh rosemary and then slow-cooked for hours with San Marzano tomatoes and Chianti. I still remember how tender it was and that it would literally fall off the bone.
Now let’s get back to the Easter lamb cake. I have such great memories of this cake that I just had to reproduce it after I got married and started hosting Easter dinner at our house.
The baked lemon cake was always decorated so perfectly with jelly beans that looked like little Easter eggs and green dyed coconut for grass, along with a many raisins for a smile. Nana always placed a bell around the neck of the lamb, and I would just stare at it for hours. The highlight of the evening came when Nana cut the cake. She would always put a layer of Chantilly cream custard in the middle, and she soaked the cakes with a little bit of rum and amaretto. Oh, it was so good!
Did I mention that Nana would also make powdered sugar-laden cream puffs and her traditional Sicilian cannoli?
I mean seriously, no Easter is complete without cannoli or the Pasteria, a Neapolitan Easter cake made with fresh ricotta and wheat berries. How about the Cassata, another Sicilian cake layered with cannoli filling?
There is no doubt, my family was well known for the meals we served, and I try to carry this on today. One of the most important dishes is still Nana’s Easter Lamb Cake.
Easter time is for family and friends together, celebrating the resurrection of Christ and enjoying a dinner not only noteworthy but memorable. I was fortunate as a child to experience all of this and the tradition continues today.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 59-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.