Many cooks prepare traditional family recipes for Easter or Passover, calling up Grandma to confirm her preferred brand of mustard for a glazed ham or to nail down the exact ratio of potatoes to matzoh meal in her kugel. Others are eager to riff on old favorites and introduce new flavors. Instead of a ham, there might be pancetta-wrapped pork loin this year. Chicken soup could be flavored with lemongrass and cilantro.
The following menu suggestions cover both bases. Go 100 percent old school with your holiday dinner, experiment with an entirely new lineup, or pick and choose between the two. If your meal isn’t perfect this time around, you’ll have another chance in a year to practice and tweak.
For kosher celebrants, be sure to check labels on packaged ingredients for the Kosher for Passover seal.
Traditional Easter appetizer: Deviled eggs
The classic deviled egg recipe couldn’t be simpler: Remove the yolks from your halved hard-boiled eggs and mash them together with some mustard and mayonnaise. Return them to the cavities in the whites, sprinkle with paprika and serve. Deviled eggs are a classic for a reason. They are comforting, delicious and fun to eat.
Something different: Fried quail egg crostini
For an elegant and unexpected egg appetizer, top toasted baguette rounds with tiny fried quail eggs. For extra flavor, spread some herb butter over the toasts before adding the eggs, and sprinkle with sea salt. Or top the toasts with a small piece of bacon or smoked salmon along with the eggs and then sprinkle with herbs before serving. Look for quail eggs in gourmet grocery stores such as Whole Foods and online at dartagnan.com.
Traditional Easter main: Baked ham with brown sugar glaze
You’ll never go wrong with baked ham on Easter. The traditional preparation calls for scoring a fully cooked bone-in ham in a diamond pattern, baking it, brushing it with a mixture of brown sugar, mustard and vinegar, and baking it some more.
Something different: Pancetta-wrapped pork loin
Pancetta-wrapped pork loin is a more subtle choice, less salty but still tasty, and aromatic because of the addition of herbs. Wrapping a pork loin in slices of pancetta and sandwiching some sage, rosemary, and/or parsley between the pancetta and the meat gives it great flavor and protects the roast from drying out in the oven. As a bonus, each slice of pork comes with a crispy piece of the Italian-style bacon.
Traditional Easter side dish: Pineapple-Cheddar cheese casserole
OK, it’s not necessarily traditional on Long Island, but this sweet-and-savory casserole topped with crushed Ritz crackers is a staple on Southern Easter tables.
Something different: Baked pasta with spinach and feta
A baked pasta casserole including feta cheese and spinach or shiitake mushrooms and Fontina cheese would be a good match for pancetta-wrapped pork loin.
Traditional Easter vegetable: Honey-glazed carrots
Carrots have been associated with Easter as long as the Easter bunny has been around. To bring out their natural sweetness, they are often steamed or boiled until just soft and then sautéed with butter and honey until they are shiny and tender. Some cooks add a squeeze of lemon juice after cooking, to balance the sugar in the carrots with a little acidity.
Something different: Moroccan-glazed carrots with cumin and coriander
For a more complex version of glazed carrots, toss peeled carrot pieces with a little honey, olive oil, cumin and coriander and roast until soft and browned. Roasting rather than steaming or boiling will give the carrots a caramelized and occasionally crispy texture. Sprinkle with sea salt and some chopped fresh cilantro just before serving.
Traditional Easter bread: Italian Easter bread with dyed eggs
This pretty bread, sometimes flavored with almond extract or anise, is braided and then formed into a wreath shape. Pastel dyed eggs are tucked in between the strands of dough before it is brushed with beaten egg and baked. The sweetest versions are drizzled with a confectioners’ sugar glaze and sprinkled with nonpareils.
Something different: Braided pesto bread
A savory alternative to classic Easter bread. Dough is rolled into a rectangle, brushed with pesto and rolled into a tube. The tube is cut in half lengthwise and the 2 pieces are twisted together and formed into a wreath. The resulting bread has fresh, seasonal flavor that’s perfect for a holiday meal.
Traditional Easter vegetable: Green peas with lemon and mint
Another fresh-tasting spring classic: Toss blanched green peas (frozen are fine) with butter, lemon zest and finely chopped mint. You can add chopped spring onions and heavy cream for a richer dish.
Something different: Fava beans with baby artichokes and herbs
Fava beans are a good substitute for peas, especially if your menu has Mediterranean flavors. Saute them in olive oil, butter and garlic, along with artichoke hearts. Add some white wine, cover and simmer until the vegetables are cooked through. Sprinkle with a little lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper before serving.
Traditional Easter dessert: Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting
Carrot cake naturally comes to mind for Easter. Its versatility makes it welcome at all types of celebrations. Enthusiastic home bakers will jump at the chance to make a decorated layer cake. If you are expecting a crowd, bake a carrot sheet cake and you’re done with dessert. If you have a lot of kids in attendance, consider carrot cupcakes.
Something different: Baklava bird’s nests
Little nests made with shredded phyllo pastry (called kataïfi, and available in Middle Eastern markets), shaped and baked in muffin tins and filled with candied pistachios or other candied nuts, are a pretty if nontraditional addition to the Easter dessert table.
Traditional Easter dessert: Coconut-covered bunny cake
You know you are a traditionalist if you already own a bunny cake pan. Use a cake mix or bake a cake from scratch, cover it with vanilla butter cream frosting and flaked coconut, and become part of a long line of American bakers who bake bunny cakes for Easter.
Something different: Coconut panna cotta
Coconut panna cotta, a creamy and refreshing gelatin-based dessert, is a less conventional way to end Easter dinner. The recipe is straightforward: Dissolve gelatin in a little bit of heavy cream or milk, stir the softened gelatin mixture into some warmed cream of coconut, and pour into molds. Unmolded panna cottas can be garnished with fresh fruit, chocolate sauce, or both.
Traditional Passover soup: Matzoh ball soup
The Ashkenazi version of this soup consists of rich chicken broth, a few carrots, and some basic matzoh balls (I am partial to the matzoh ball recipe on the back of the Streit’s box).
Something different: Matzoh ball soup with ginger, lemongrass and cilantro
There are a million ways to dress up the basic recipe. Add some asparagus, spinach and/or mushrooms for a spring vegetable version. A little chipotle chile in the broth gives you soup with Mexican flavor. To begin a Passover meal with South Asian flavors, add a piece of fresh ginger and some lemongrass to your broth, and stir some chopped cilantro into your matzoh ball mixture.
Traditional Passover appetizer: Gefilte fish
Making this labor-intensive dish is becoming a lost art. Ground carp whitefish and pike are mixed with eggs, matzoh meal and onions, rolled into ovals or patties and then poached in fish stock made from the fishes’ heads, skin and bones. The poached fish is chilled before serving with horseradish on the side.
Something different: Herb-poached salmon and cod gefilte fish
A more modern (and simpler) version of gefilte fish is made with ground salmon and cod, and poached in water, lemon and herbs.
Traditional Passover main: Braised brisket with onions
Some cooks smother a paprika-rubbed brisket in sliced onions before braising; others rub the meat with kosher-for-Passover onion soup mix and braise it with canned tomatoes. Either way, oniony slow-cooked beef is a Passover classic.
Something different: Brisket with red pepper flakes
Kosher-for-Passover red pepper flakes are available online and in some markets, and contribute fiery flavor to a braising liquid that might include garlic, ginger, beef broth and orange juice. Brown your brisket, cook your braising liquid to allow the flavors to meld, return the meat to the pot, and braise until tender. Garnish with chopped scallions.
Traditional Passover condiment: Apple-walnut charoset
This sweet fruit and nut paste, symbolizing the mortar that the Jews used to build the Egyptian pharaohs’ buildings, is most often made with apples and walnuts.
Something different: Asian pear and pine nut charoset
This particular combination of fruit and nuts would be a good match for the brisket with red pepper flakes.
Traditional Passover side dish: Potato kugel
A noodle casserole called kugel is a familiar dish on Jewish tables during the rest of the year. But during Passover, when wheat noodles are forbidden, kugel is made with shredded or ground potatoes.
Something different: Sweet potato and coconut kugel
Spiralized sweet potatoes, unsweetened flaked coconut, ginger and garlic can be used in place of conventional russet potatoes and onions for a kugel with Thai flair.
Traditional Passover vegetable: Sweet potato and carrot tzimmes with honey and cinnamon
Classic tzimmes is made with sweet root vegetables and sweetened further with ingredients such as honey or brown sugar.
Something different: Roasted carrot, shallot and prune tzimmes with cinnamon, cumin and paprika
It’s important that tzimmes is sweet, but some cooks like to balance the sugar in the dish with a little bit of spice. Cumin, unlike fennel seed, caraway, mustard and cardamom, is generally not considered kitnyot. Certified kosher-for-Passover ground cumin and other spices are available on Amazon.
Traditional Passover dessert: Coconut macaroons
These simple nondairy cookies (a mixture of sweetened flaked coconut and egg whites) are expected after a Passover dinner.
Something different: Whipped coconut cream with berries
Nondairy whipped topping doesn’t have much flavor and is a poor substitute for whipped cream during Passover. Whipped coconut cream, which has a subtle tropical aroma, is wonderful with berries or other fruit. Refrigerate a can of coconut milk (use full-fat, not lite) overnight and then scrape the solids into a chilled mixing bowl, reserving the remaining liquid for another use. Add 2 tablespoons of sugar and a 1/2 teaspoon of kosher-for-Passover vanilla extract and whip until soft peaks form.
Traditional Passover dessert: Chocolate-toffee matzoh bark
Matzoh covered in toffee (made from butter or margarine and brown sugar) and then dark chocolate has become an expected after-dinner Passover treat. It’s often sprinkled with chopped nuts.
Something different: Chocolate-coconut milk truffles
While truffles made with cream are problematic at dairy-free Passover meals; truffles made with coconut milk are acceptable and just as rich. Heat coconut milk until just simmering and then pour over chopped chocolate; stir, refrigerate, scoop into small balls, and roll in unsweetened kosher-for-Passover cocoa powder.