In Southern California, where there’s a nearly imperceptible shift in weather between the seasons, I more and more find myself embracing holidays to mark the passing of time. In this regard, Easter warrants special consideration as it heralds the beginning of spring.
The holiday lands with the arrival of the season’s best ingredients, and I love paying tribute to them in a feast befitting this rejuvenatory time. Lamb? An absolute must. New potatoes? Of course! And mint? The more, the better. If my food doesn’t bring to mind visions of running through a lush field while flowers burst forth and songbirds alight on a branch, I’m not doing it right.
First, the lamb. Associating it with spring is cliché at this point, but why fight it? Although I eat lamb year-round, I often abstain from it in February and March so that it will feel new again when the season and holiday arrive. Because the meat can stand up to strong flavors, I like to pile them into a braise that bridges the end of winter and the beginning of spring. I cook a mountain of sliced onions in the lamb’s drippings until they’re reduced down and French onion soup-sweet. Then, a handful of garlic, a few sprigs of rosemary and some apple cider vinegar marry with the onions during a three-hour braise that gives the lamb a delicate, sweet sourness. It may look like a lot of brown when it comes out of the oven, but the meat and onions have such an intensely aromatic flavor that you won’t care about the aesthetics.
Up next: the green things. I love mint in any form, especially the predictable jelly, but that hasn’t aged well in our fresh-is-better era of cooking. Instead, I use the herb as the base for a slick sauce studded with chopped fresh lemon flesh for pops of acidity. I also add fresh marjoram to ground the bracingly cool mint.
Instead of using the sauce as a condiment for the lamb, though, I use it for my other spring staple: new potatoes. After boiling the smallest ones I can find in a sea of salt water, I coat the potatoes judiciously in the sauce. The finished dish looks like potatoes covered in freshly mowed grass, so it works as a verdant metaphor just as much as a flavorful side dish for the hearty lamb. I usually serve a simple salad of Little Gem lettuce and a dish of buttered peas to round out the table; some things you do want to keep pretty uncomplicated.
Finally, when it comes to dessert, while most people would expect carrot cake or a bowlful of pastel candy eggs, I bust out the coconut. Its fine shreds are Easter canon, often colored green to mimic blades of grass for decorating candies or for a model lawn to display dyed eggs. If you pass by any Eastern European bakery or pastry shop window this time of year, you’re guaranteed to spot some lamb-shaped cakes covered in shredded coconut “wool.”
My association, however, comes from eating four-tiered coconut cake as a child growing up in the South. It was a staple on our Easter table, the cake layers covered in meringue coated in fluffy fresh gratings of coconut — it looked like a giant Snoball but without the pink coloring. And while that cake is delicious, it’s also a pain to make.
To fit my smaller gathering — and my smaller reserve of patience this year — I’m opting for a much simpler coconut dessert: my spin on a Mounds candy bar, but in cake form. Essentially a giant coconut macaroon, the batter is teeming with toasted coconut and has the delightfully chewy texture you expect from both treats. A milk chocolate glaze completes the transformation in taste, but the relaxed form allows you to skip the tedious individual servings and dole it out in satisfying dessert-size wedges.
These ingredients and dishes — full of the promise of spring — commemorate everything bright and new about this time of year. And in a world where it has often seemed as if time has been standing still, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the feelings of change and renewal that the season’s bounty brings with it.
FRENCH ONION-BRAISED LAMB WITH GARLIC AND ROSEMARY
Time: 4 hours
Yields: Serves 6
Apple cider vinegar cooks down with onions until caramelized to flavor the lamb with a sour-sweet flavor enhanced by aromatic rosemary. If the lamb you buy is boneless, aim for around 3 pounds in weight. If it’s bone-in, aim for around 4 pounds. This preparation also works well with the same cut of beef or pork.
1 whole piece (3 to 4 pounds) lamb leg or shoulder (see above), trimmed of excess fat
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons everyday olive oil
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
½ cup white or red wine (or water)
2 heads of garlic, cloves separated, smashed and peeled (about 24 cloves)
3 sprigs rosemary (each 6 inches long)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup beef or chicken stock (or water)
Flaky sea salt
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Keep a heatproof bowl nearby. Season the lamb liberally with salt and pepper.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until it begins to shimmer. Add the lamb and cook, turning every 6 to 8 minutes or so, until the meat is evenly golden brown all over, about 20 minutes total. Transfer the lamb to a plate, and if there is more than 1 tablespoon fat in the pot, pour off the excess into the heatproof bowl.
3. Return the pot to medium heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions, season with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pot to keep the browned bits from burning, until uniformly soft and translucent, 16 to 18 minutes. The onions will be browned, but that color will be from the browned bits on the bottom mixing with their moisture, not from caramelization. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic cloves and rosemary and cook for about 1 minute more.
4. Pour in the vinegar and broth and stir, scraping the bottom of the pot to pick up the browned bits. Return the lamb to the pot and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cover the pot, and place it in the oven. Cook for 3 hours; the meat should easily fall apart when prodded with a spoon, and the onions will have reduced to a sludgy sauce.
5. Transfer the lamb to a serving platter; it will be very tender and may fall apart, so be careful when lifting it. Using tongs, twist and break apart the meat into large chunks and remove and discard the interior bone. Spoon the onions and garlic around the meat, sprinkle everything with a hefty pinch of flaky salt and serve.
WARM NEW POTATOES WITH CHOPPED LEMON AND MINT
Time: 45 minutes
Yields: Serves 6
Marble-size potatoes are ideal for this preparation, allowing the maximum amount of sauce to cover the warm, freshly boiled potatoes. If you can find only larger potatoes, after boiling them, cut them into chunks no larger than the size of a walnut shell. I like the flavor of marjoram as a background player to lots of mint in this sauce, but if you don’t want to buy an extra herb, just use additional mint. Dill or parsley also make great substitutes for the marjoram, although obviously, they will not taste the same.
3 pounds petite or marble-size Yukon gold or new potatoes
1 cup lightly packed mint leaves
2 tablespoons lightly packed marjoram leaves
2 garlic cloves
1 small lemon
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Flaky sea salt
1. Fill a large pot two-thirds of the way full with water and bring to a boil over high heat. While waiting, clean the potatoes and halve any that are larger than the size of a walnut shell. Season the water with a couple large pinches of salt, then add the potatoes. Allow the water to return to a full boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cook the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until you’re able to easily pierce one with the tip of a paring knife, and when you lift it out of the water, the potato slides off easily, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain the potatoes and transfer to a bowl.
2. While the potatoes cook, make the mint sauce: Finely chop the mint, marjoram and garlic together, then scrape into a bowl. Using a microplane, finely grate the lemon’s zest into the bowl. Cut away the white pith and finely dice the lemon flesh, discarding any seeds. Scrape the chopped lemon flesh and any juice into the bowl, along with the olive oil, and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper, and refrigerate the sauce until ready to use.
3. In a large serving bowl, combine the potatoes with two-thirds of the mint sauce and stir to coat evenly. Spoon the rest of the mint sauce over the potatoes and sprinkle with a hefty pinch of flaky salt before serving.
CHEWY COCONUT CAKE WITH MILK CHOCOLATE GLAZE
Time: 45 minutes
Yields: Serves 6
This cake is really more like a giant Mounds candy bar, but in cake form — and much more delicious. Toasted shredded coconut and coconut flour amp up the coconut flavor while also giving you two different textures. The unsweetened finely-shredded coconut (often labeled “desiccated”) used here gives the cake the best texture and cuts the cleanest when served. However, coconut flakes also work in this cake, but will not give you clean-cut wedges. If that doesn’t bother you then use an equal volume of coconut flakes (70 grams by weight) instead of the shredded type. If you prefer dark chocolate — or are not eating meat and dairy together — then use it instead of milk chocolate.
85 grams (1 cup) unsweetened finely shredded dried coconut (see above)
⅓ cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing
45 grams (½ cup) coconut flour or almond flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt (or 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt)
156 grams (¾ cup) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
85 grams (3 ounces) milk chocolate or bittersweet chocolate (see note above)
2 tablespoons unsweetened canned coconut milk
Toasted coconut flakes, to garnish (optional)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the shredded coconut onto a baking sheet and bake until lightly golden and toasted, 4 to 6 minutes. Watch the coconut carefully after 4 minutes because it can go from white to burnt very quickly. Transfer the coconut to a bowl to prevent it from over-browning on the sheet and let cool completely; leave the oven on.
2. Make the cake: Grease an 8-inch round cake pan, line the bottom with a round of parchment paper and grease the paper as well. In a small bowl, whisk together the coconut flour, baking powder and salt. In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, vanilla and eggs then whisk vigorously until lightened and smooth, about 30 seconds. Whisk in the oil until smooth.
3. Add the toasted shredded coconut and the coconut flour mixture, and use a large silicone spatula or spoon to fold all the ingredients together until evenly combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
4. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and let the cake cool completely in the pan. The cake will dip a bit in the center and that’s OK.
5. Make the glaze: Combine the chocolate and coconut cream in a small heatproof bowl and place the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water; the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water. Warm the chocolate and cream, stirring occasionally, until half-melted, then remove from the pan and continue stirring until fully melted. (Alternatively, warm the two ingredients together in a microwave in 30-second bursts at 50% power until half melted.)
6. Unmold the cake and transfer it to a serving plate. Pour the glaze onto the cake and spread it evenly over the top. Sprinkle with toasted coconut flakes if you like before serving.
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