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On Monday, English home cook, author and former food journalist Mary Berry — star of The Great British Bake-Off and her own television shows (BBC) — introduced the British public to the traditions behind Good Friday and Easter foods.

The first of two episodes of Mary Berry’s Easter Feast on BBC2 saw her explore traditions in England, Jamaica, Russia and Poland. I highly recommend it. Below is a synopsis of the first programme with additional information from other sources.

Berry, an Anglican, told us that she is a regular churchgoer. She said she goes to Sunday services because ‘it is important to give thanks’. Easter is her favourite religious feast. (Finally, there’s someone who loves Easter as much as I do.)

Easter is the Church’s greatest feast. It has always been celebrated, from the earliest days after Christ’s death and resurrection. Christmas celebrations did not come about until much later.

Hot cross buns

Berry went to St Albans Cathedral to find out more about hot cross buns.

The cathedral’s historian explained that, in England, the precursor of this bun was the Alban bun. In 1361, Brother Thomas Rocliffe, a monk at St Albans Abbey, made highly spiced buns which the monks gave to the poor who appeared at the refectory door on Good Friday. The historian added that Brother Thomas was likely making peace with the locals who resented the Church. Monasteries at that time held an enormous amount of power.

St Albans Cathedral website tells us that their hot cross buns are still made locally — at Redbournbury Mill, which the abbey once owned. Anyone interested can find them the old fashioned way, by going to the Abbot’s Kitchen. They are available throughout Lent to Easter Monday.

The historian gave an Alban bun to Berry, who said it was much spicier than conventional hot cross buns. There is also no pastry or paste cross on the Alban bun, rather one which is formed with a knife before baking.

Although Berry and the historian did not discuss the significance of the bun’s ingredients, the spices symbolise those used to embalm Jesus after His crucifixion. I cannot find anything about the meaning of the dried fruit in them, but years ago, I read that it represents the gentle character of Jesus. I have also read that the fruit pieces suggest the drops of blood He shed for us.

For centuries, people ate hot cross buns only on Good Friday in contemplation of the Crucifixion. These days, sadly, they are available nearly all year round.

During the Reformation, England’s Protestants — and, later, Puritans — condemned the eating of hot cross buns as Catholic superstition. During Elizabethan times, one could only purchase them in London on Good Friday, Christmas or for burials.

Historians point out that fruit breads with a cross existed in ancient Greece. The cross made it easier to divide the bread into four pieces.

A number of superstitions about hot cross buns abound. As for them not going stale, I can assure you that they must be eaten within 12 to 18 hours. They get hard as a rock after that. And, yes, they also go mouldy.

Mary Berry makes hot cross buns for her family during Lent. The BBC has made her recipe available.

Jamaican bun

Berry spent time with Bettina, who is originally from Jamaica and belongs to a Baptist church in Nottingham.

Bettina makes Jamaican buns for the ladies at her church during Lent. They are actually large cakes, served in thin slices, often with Jamaican cheese. The buns are also very dark, because they have stout in them. This recipe looks like the one Bettina uses.

Escoveitch fish

Bettina also made a standard Good Friday dish of escoveitch (ceviche) fish for Berry to try. After marinating in a ceviche manner, Bettina pan fried the fish, basting it regularly. It looked delicious.

She served it with peppers, chocho and chilis. This recipe is like Bettina’s.

Bettina explained that marinating fish in vinegar dates back to the Moors, who introduced it to Spain. The Spanish, in turn, took the technique with them to the New World.

Russian devilled eggs and pascha

Berry met with a Russian Orthodox home cook and a priest, who explained how their Church observes Lent.

Father Peter explained that church members continue to follow the centuries-old vegetarian Lent, which starts two weeks earlier than the Catholic and Protestant one. They do not consume any food at all on Good Friday. Lenten fasting does not end until the Easter Vigil service ends, which is sometime between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m. Afterwards, everyone — including children — enjoys a feast.

Holy Thursday, which the Orthodox call ‘Clean Thursday’, is a busy, yet contemplative day, Father Peter said. It is the traditional spring cleaning day and it is also when the Easter cake, pascha, is made. Pascha is the word for Easter.

Pascha is a cheesecake with dried fruit. It is put into a pyramid mould with a Russian Orthodox cross on one side and ‘XB’ (‘Christ is risen’) on the other.

Another Russian Easter favourite is the devilled egg. A home cook made this for Berry. It involves peeled hard boiled eggs which are left to steep in beet juice. The programme did not mention this, but the red juice symbolises Christ’s blood. After several hours, the eggs are cut in half, the yolks devilled and piped back into the egg white centres. Caviar is a favourite topping.


Berry went to meet a Polish family in Cambridgeshire. They explained the importance of getting their Easter food blessed at church on Holy Saturday. I wrote about that in 2010.

In addition to coloured eggs, onto which the children were busy etching designs, olives are also an important Easter food for the Poles, probably because of their egg-like shape. Both symbolise life.

The husband made Berry a babka, the traditional Easter cake, which takes three days to make properly. Most of that time involves the rise of the enriched dough, similar to a brioche. He used a babka mould, similar to a kugelhopf mould, and added a chocolate insert. You could use a bundt cake mould.

Those who do not care for chocolate can add dried fruit instead.

A number of babka recipes exist, however, I have not been able to find the one this man used, which is the traditional one. He used his mother’s and, watching him make it, that’s definitely the original. Beware of ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ babka recipes. If anyone can point to one, please share the recipe or a link by commenting below. Many thanks!

Incidentally, he explained that ‘babka’ is also a complimentary word for a woman and a gracious name for a grandmother.

I’ll watch next week’s show and let you know what else Mary Berry discovers in the world of Easter food traditions.

This year Easter is on April 8.

Although ‘Easter’ is an English translation of ‘Oestre’ — a pagan goddess of Spring, in Latin languages the word for Easter — e.g. Pâques (French) — derives from ‘Passover’. Passover and Easter either coincide or are a week or so apart.

Easter is the one time per year when we enjoy Spring lamb, preferably lamb from our own country. Buy only the best. As Easter is the greatest feast in the Church year, it is well worth it.  After Lenten dietary disciplines it’s time for a happy, convivial lunch or dinner with friends and family.

(My thanks to Dr Gregory Jackson of Ichabod for the graphic.)

Please read the following in its entirety before beginning anything. Some dishes at the end of this post actually require preparation before or whilst the lamb roasts.

Spring leg of lamb

(Serves 8; 90 to 120 minutes cooking time and 15 minutes preparation time, not including bringing up to room temperature — see below)


1 4 – 5 lb leg of lamb

1 – 2 fresh sprigs of rosemary, broken into small bits

4 – 5 anchovies in salt and olive oil, diced

3 garlic cloves cut into quarters (optional but recommended)

Salt, garlic salt and pepper to season


1/ Remove the lamb from the refrigerator 1 to 2 hours before roasting. French chefs often say that ingredients at room temperature ensure the best cooking and flavour.

2/ Prick the sides of your lamb joint evenly with the tip of a sharp knife deep enough to hold the rosemary and anchovy pieces.

3/ Carefully put a piece of anchovy, rosemary or garlic in each slot, alternating them evenly along and around the joint. You can tuck them in with a knife edge. The rosemary will stick up a bit, which is fine. The anchovy will melt into the meat, adding a pleasant umami flavour.

4/ If I have the remaining oil and salt from an empty anchovy jar, I pour and spread it over the joint for extra flavour.

5/ Roast uncovered in a lightly greased baking tray for 90 minutes to 2 hours at 170° C (325° F – nearest equivalent) in a fan (convection) oven or at 180° C (350° F) in a conventional oven.

6/ Juices should be relatively clear when the meat is done — a bit of pink will not go amiss with young lamb.

7/ Remove to a carving tray, cover with a large sheet of aluminium foil and let rest for 10 – 15 minutes.

8/ Carve against the grain — from the width, not the length. If this proves challenging, try slicing at an angle.

9/ When you reach the ‘knuckle’ of the bones as they go off at an awkward angle, cut a V-shape into the centre of the join, then continue carving at an angle on each side.

10/ Contrary to popular myth, which probably applies to mutton not young lamb, you can make a perfectly serviceable stock with the leftover bone.  Place the leftover bone into a large pot, cover with water and 1/2 cup (120 ml) port (or red wine) and place on a medium heat until the stock starts to boil. Season well with salt and pepper, turn the heat off and let rest overnight to develop flavour. Strain the next day and place into a plastic soft drink bottle with cap and refrigerate. Without herbs or other aromatics, this should keep for at least a fortnight, if not three weeks. Use in gravies, sauces or as liquid for cooking vegetables.



(serves 8 — 15 minutes cooking and preparation time)

It’s jus for gravy itself, not au jus, by the way.  I hear many American chefs and cooks on television say, ‘Now I’ll make the au jus.’ It’s simply jus for gravy. Au implies ‘with’ in this instance.

Jus (‘zhoo’) is a lighter gravy than most North Americans are accustomed to. There is little to no flour or roux, although you can use as a thickener beurre manié (50-50 flour and soft butter rolled together) or Bisto gravy granules found in the UK.

Disclaimer: I have no personal or commercial interest in any brand names mentioned here.


3/4 – 1 cup (170 – 240 ml) meat stock (doesn’t matter what kind)

1/2 cup (120 ml) port (or red wine)

Salt, pepper, garlic salt and Old Bay or other herb/spice-based seasoning

1 sprig of thyme or rosemary

1/2 – 1 tbsp beurre manié or 1 tbsp Bisto gravy granules


1/ Drain any fat from the pan into the kitchen sink and run hot water whilst emptying so your drain does not become clogged. There should only be a tablespoon or two of fat.

2/ Keeping any meat chunks in the roasting pan, place over a medium-high heat to deglaze. Pour in meat stock and port. Add dry seasonings.

3/ Stir well and add the sprig of thyme or rosemary. Leave to simmer for 10 – 15 minutes whilst the meat is resting.

4/ Taste the jus and adjust seasoning. If it tastes watery, add more port or red wine and allow to reduce more.

5/ Once the jus becomes flavoursome, remove the sprigs of herb and add the beurre manié or the gravy granules.  Allow to thicken — this needs medium-high heat — then turn down to a low temperature.

6/ Carve the meat (as above) and serve the jus over the meat — 1 to 2 tbsp per plate.

7/ Put any leftover jus in a glass jar with lid and place in the refrigerator.  You can easily reheat it in 20-second blasts in the microwave the next day — remember to take the lid off.

Roast potatoes

(variable number of servings — see below — 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes: parboiling and cooling time of 20-30 minutes + 35 – 45 minutes roasting time; 10 minutes of your time)

Sorry, readers, but these can only be done well with animal fat. Half of it will still be in the pan when they are roasted. You need a fat which can withstand high temperatures. You can theoretically do it with vegetable oil but without optimum results.

Only responsible adults and older adolescents should attempt this as the fat needs to be extremely hot for good results.

For crispy potatoes, you will need to use a separate pan – not the one with the meat. If the meat is on the top shelf of the oven, use the bottom shelf for the potatoes until the meat comes out. Then you can move the potatoes to the top shelf.

I always roast my potatoes at the same temperature as my meat — with few exceptions — a universal 170° C (325° F – nearest equivalent) in a fan (convection) oven or 180° C (350° F) in a conventional oven.


the equivalent of 1 medium potato per person

2 tbsp animal fat — goose fat, duck fat, lard or beef dripping — for every 4 large potatoes (i.e. 4 tbsp fat for 8 large potatoes)

Salt, pepper and garlic salt to season


1/ Factor in meat resting time for this recipe. The potatoes need 35 – 45 minutes, so if your meat rests for 10 – 15 minutes, then you need to have your potatoes in the oven approximately 30 minutes before you take your roast out of the oven.

2/ You also need to consider that the fat will take 10 minutes to heat to a high temperature which is right for the potatoes. The fat, therefore, needs to go in 10 minutes earlier than the potatoes.

3/ However, you also need to parboil (sorry, there’s no way around this one — I’ve tried), cool and dry the potatoes out beforehand, so start 30 minutes before you need to put the potatoes in to roast.

Churchmouse says: To parboil, I use the microwave (instead of a pan with boiling water). If you’ve got it, flaunt it! Also, top chefs say that old potatoes work better for roasting and frying than ones fresh from the shop! Cut the eyes of the potato out or scrape them off. Wash the potatoes in warm water, dry with a paper towel, slit lengthwise down the middle (1/8 of the way through), then pop in the microwave for anywhere from 4 (medium potatoes) to 6 minutes (larger ones). Squeeze the sides; if they yield, remove them from the microwave — using an oven glove — put on a cutting board, slice fully down the middle in the place you cut earlier and leave to dry and cool for 30 minutes.

4/  Ten minutes before you need to put the potatoes in, pull out a large roasting tin with ample sides (hot fat will splatter). Place the appropriate amount of fat in the bottom of the pan, season and place in the oven for 10 minutes to heat through.

5/ Whilst the fat is heating up, peel the potatoes and slice into halves (smaller ones), quarters or eighths (larger ones). Each piece should be approximately an equal size for even roasting — this doesn’t always work (see step 6).

Churchmouse says: Rough and irregular edges are perfect, as they will become wonderfully crunchy.

6/ When the fat is hot (10 minutes later) and the meat is still roasting, pull the pan with the fat out of the oven and carefully place the potatoes in the fat. You will not need to rotate or coat them. However, make sure that you leave a small amount of space between the potato sections for even roasting.

Churchmouse says: Place smaller pieces near the middle of the pan as pieces on the outer edges cook more quickly. Not doing so causes smaller pieces on the outer edges to be well done whilst larger pieces in the middle still have some way to go before being finished.

7/ Roast for 35-45 minutes. As you will be taking the meat out during this time, if you have the potatoes on the bottom shelf of your oven with the roast on top, you can now move the potatoes to the upper rack.

8/ Try to leave your potatoes in the oven until you are ready to serve. If this is not possible, reduce the heat to low but not for much longer than five minutes. Otherwise, the potatoes might start to lose their crispness.

Devilled eggs

(One-half to one egg per person — 15 minutes of your time, but 1 – 2 hours cooking and cooling time)

It might seem a bit inappropriate to serve ‘devilled’ eggs on such an important holy day as Easter, however, the term implies the addition of hot pepper. It also generally means something which is peppered and mashed or mixed together as a filling — in this case, egg yolks.

This recipe comes courtesy of my mother and my paternal grandmother, although I have spiced it up a bit more.


1/2 to 1 egg per person

1 tsp mayonnaise per egg

Salt, pepper, garlic salt, Old Bay, cayenne pepper, chicken seasoning

1 to 2 tsp crème fraîche or 1 tsp heavy cream mixed with 1 tsp heavy yoghurt

Dash Worcestershire sauce

Dash Tabasco sauce or a touch of hot chili paste (optional)

Dash of mild paprika to sprinkle on top

Chopped chives or parsley on top for garnish


1/ Hard-boil eggs. Place eggs in a pan large enough for some space between the eggs, cover with water and bring to a rapid, rolling boil for six minutes. Turn off the heat and let them stand to cool (very important). Cooking times might vary. If in doubt, consult a cookbook. They should sound solid if tapped gently with a spoon.

2/ While the eggs are boiling or cooling, place the appropriate amount of mayonnaise into a medium-sized bowl. Add the powdered seasonings only at this stage and mix well.

3/ Once the eggs are cool, dry them with a paper towel and gently crack the shells to peel. The whites should be as smooth as possible, which comes only with thorough cooling.

4/ Cut each egg evenly in half lengthwise.

5/ Carefully scoop out the yolks and place them into the bowl with the mayonnaise.  Place the whites on a plate or in a Pyrex dish.

6/ With a fork, patiently mash the yolks into the seasoned mayonnaise. This will be lumpy, although smaller lumps will settle as the mixture rests. That said, try to mash and stir to dissolve as many larger lumps as you can.

7/ If necessary, add a small amount of crème fraîche or yoghurt-heavy cream mixture. Stir or mash again. The consistency should be semi-solid and somewhat creamy, therefore, if you need to, add a bit more cream.

8/ Taste the mixture. If you need to perk up the seasoning, add a bit of Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, Tabasco or chili paste.  However, remember that not everyone likes or tolerates much pepper.

9/ Once you are happy with the egg yolk mixture, spoon it carefully and equally into the egg whites. Make it attractive — a quenelle-type spoonful looks nice on the plate.

10/ When finished, sprinkle with a bit of mild paprika on top for colour, followed by roughly chopped chives or parsley.

11/ Cover and refrigerate for an hour, bringing out (but leaving covered) about 20 – 30 minutes before serving. During this time, any small lumps in the yolk will dissolve into the seasoned mayonnaise mixture. It’s important to leave the cover on in order for a skin not to form and for the colour to stay fresh looking.


At this point, you might be wondering, ‘Where’s the vegetable? Or the dessert?’

I leave that up to you — a side dish of peas with a hint of mint goes well. So do green beans. As for dessert, that’s also your choice, although you could always try something in the way of Amaretto (crêpes or cake).

Whatever you choose, I wish you a very happy Easter — especially to those of us in England who enjoy a four-day holiday so that we can best appreciate this apogee of the Church year, starting with a sombre Good Friday. Easter Monday is often a time for parishes to make pilgrimages or long walks to witness the Resurrection to others.

Whatever you do and wherever you are — may the spirit of the Risen Christ be with you throughout the year.

(For those who say that my timing is a week off here, I shall reply that Holy Week 2012 is about to begin. This is the last of my recipe collection for now — stay tuned for more in a few weeks’ time.)

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