Eggs and more eggs!

You can't escape eggs at the moment. Whether you're reading about the shortages brought on by this winter's outbreak of avian flu or have hens of your own to worry about, those eggs will be on your mind, and the chocolate ones have been in the shops at least a month already! Eggs feature in spring folk customs right across the northern hemisphere. It is commonly told that our Easter eggs have their origins in German and Norse paganism, but that is to ignore their importance in the Jewish Passover ritual and the presence of painted and gilded eggs as symbols of death and rebirth in many parts of ancient Asia and Africa. As a specifically Christian symbol, the tradition of painting and exchanging eggs appears to have been adopted first by early Christians in Mesopotamia. From there, the custom spread through the Orthodox churches and had become common in the western Church some time before the seventeenth century. The first edition of the Roman Ritual, from 1610 includes prayers already in use for the blessing of Easter foods, including eggs.

Anyone who keeps hens, of course, will tell you that they stop laying as the days get shorter, starting again in early February (August in the southern hemisphere). With traditional Lenten abstinence added to that break. European households would have had a growing surplus of eggs by Easter, which they needed to use up fairly quickly. Hard-boiled eggs, egg-enriched breads, chopped eggs in soups, and both sweet and savoury cheesecakes have been served at family Paschal gatherings for generations. Easter hospitality is extremely important to me, and we like to gather family together around our table for the festival, so I'd like to add to that canon with some ideas from our own Easter celebrations.

Coddled eggs and œufs en cocotte
These are a great idea for a quick starter, especially if you are feeding children. Both involve breaking an egg into a pot or ramekin with other flavoursome morsels. Use your imagination for what your own family might enjoy - chopped onions and mushrooms fried with bacon; spicy tomatoes and peppers; smoked haddock or salmon. The possibilities are endless. For coddled eggs, the pots need to be covered then steamed; for cocotte, add a tablespoon of double (heavy) cream and bake in the oven in a tray of hot water.

Chopped liver and egg
This dish of Ashkenazi origin is a treat for many Jewish households at Passover and other festivals.  Chicken livers, which are koshered beforehand, are lightly fried in schmaltz (chicken fat) and chopped together with fried onions and hard-boiled eggs. Don't be tempted to mince the mixture too finely: it's best served as a coarse pâté, not a smooth paste. If you do not keep a kosher lifestyle, raw livers can be used, so long as you have trimmed them well and removed all traces of fat, membrane and vein tissue. Serve with tangy pickled gherkins or beetroot & horseradish relish.

Everyone loves a nice quiche, don't they? Served just warm, they make an elegant starter at dinner or a simple main course at lunch. Keep the egg mixture really simple - just cream, eggs and seasoning - and fill the case with wonderful spring goodies like cooked leeks, blanched baby broccoli, cooked crab, smoked haddock or fresh herbs.

What better way to keep the people of Ukraine in mind at Easter than sharing a traditional dessert. This set cheese dessert, enriched with egg yolks and butter and decorated with candied fruits and nuts originated in Russia and is common throughout eastern Europe. It is pressed into a pyramid shape, said to represent the tomb of Jesus. This recipe - - has been adapted for American readers, using ricotta and fresh cream: I'd seek out proper tvorog and smetana, both of which are sharper in flavour and offer a pleasant contrast to the richness of the dessert. They're fairly easy to come by in the UK now that most towns have a Polish/Latvian/Lithuanian grocer's shop. If you want to be really authentic, you can buy a mould online, but it is just as good made in a colander or new, clean flowerpot.

Cocktail Flip
Why not round off your Easter celebrations with a cocktail? A flip is a mixture of spirit, liqueur and other flavourings, shaken with a whole egg. The resulting cocktail is creamy, rich and foamy. Try shaking 25ml crème de cacao, 40ml green Chartreuse and 10ml lemon juice with an egg but without ice. Once you've given it a really good shake, add ice and shake again for about 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled glass and dust with grated dark chocolate. If herbal liqueurs are not your thing, you could use hazelnut Frangelico or almondy Amaretto in place of the Chartreuse.

It is said that the hundred pleats in a chef's hat represent the number of ways to cook an egg. While I'm not sure I can manage to name that many, I hope I've given you some new ideas to play with that will enhance your springtime entertaining.


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