Buona Pasqua, Y'all: Five Tips for Making Easter Dinner Easier on Yourself

All my Peeps are in the house!EXPAND
All my Peeps are in the house!
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
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Because my husband was transplanted to Houston from New Haven, Connecticut, at the age of seven, he misses out on the Easter traditions that abound in the Italian-American community from which he hails. After losing both his parents and his grandmother, the traditions, primarily culinary, have fallen to me, a Southern gal of British-mutt heritage. Because my husband doesn't have his relatives here, I try to incorporate some of his family's recipes into our Easter festivities. And I want to pass on to my children some of their Italian-American heritage. It can get a little crazy when you are trying to make the perfect family get-together, so here are some tips:

Forget Perfect

Holidays are stressful because we feel emotionally obligated to create memories. Memories create themselves. Sometimes the best ones are when something goes wrong. My husband's family still laughs about the year their giant black labrador broke through the window screen and ate what remained of their Thanksgiving turkey. No leftovers for turkey sandwiches that year, but a funny story. One Christmas, my husband found me beating the stove with a wooden spoon and cursing like a sailor because my cheesecake was dripping in the oven. Not a pleasant memory for me, but it's one that he finds entertaining. And likes to tell, over and over, and over. And while we all love a deliciously roasted turkey, the time Grammy D forgot to take the neck bone and giblets out beforehand made it a much more memorable experience. So lose the idea of perfect and flow with the successes and inevitable failures that a holiday meal brings.  After all, these are your nearest and dearest that you are hosting. They're not here to judge. Except for Uncle Bruce's third wife, Betty. She's a tart.

Make Ahead/Do Ahead

You know you plan to do this. You say you're going to make everything ahead that can be, but it never happens. Well, this year, let's go for the gold in preparation. For me, it's getting the pastry done and the meats chopped up for the Ham Pie (more about that later). And I swear I am getting the cheesecake done the night before so that I am not beating the stove Easter morning. And I won't be foiled by a bottle of red wine the night before, either. I will make the Spinach Bread prior to midnight. And clean the house. I suggest attacking the mess the week before. If you have a guest bathroom, clean it and put a Keep Out sign on the door. I am not saying the house needs to be spic and span, but clutter will only add to the stress. If you are making a coconut Peeps cake, a pizza rustica, and a leg of lamb, three days worth of dishes in the sink is not only going to add to your stress level, it is also creating an atmosphere conducive to cross-contamination. You love these people, or most of them, and you do not want to give anyone a post-Easter run to the toilet, or worse, emergency room. Except for that tart Betty.


My holiday hosting gigs got so much easier when I finally caved in to letting other people shine on my stage. This is not an intimate dinner for your six classiest friends whom you are trying to impress. With my posse, we can have upwards of 20 people. That's a lot of food. While I love to cook and make my mark on whatever holiday we're celebrating, I have some great cooks in my circle of Peeps (it's Easter, I had to). My friend brings her yummy appetizers (usually something with bacon because she knows what the menfolk like), my mom brings her perfectly cooked ham and pecan-crusted sweet potatoes, and my brother, Cowboy Clint, is no longer allowed to come to Easter dinner without his smoked brisket. The first time he made it was his downfall. It was too damn good not to become a tradition. Not to play to stereotypes, but we women tend to bear the brunt of the holiday cooking, no matter how far we've come, baby. For years my three brothers have been content to show up at every family gathering empty-handed and ready to fill their gullets. Well, no more. You want Mom's ambrosia and my cheesecake, you bring the brisket, little bro. Now, if I could just teach my husband how to make the Italian ham pie.

Buona Pasqua, Y'all: Five Tips for Making Easter Dinner Easier on Yourself (6)EXPAND
Photo by Loretta Ruggiero

Cultivate Traditions

I cringe when I hear stories of people having to suffer through Tofurkey or quinoa nut loaf because their vegan sister-in-law insisted on hosting the holiday meal. I have nothing against veganism. The consumption of meat can be a thorny issue, but the holidays are not a time to test out some new cuisine on your family and friends. Sure, a new dish would be welcomed and maybe a twist on some of the standards would be fine, but don't go crazy. You can experiment another time. Holidays bring out the nostalgia in all of us. Ever since my mother-in-law passed away, I have taken on the job of making the family dishes she once made. It's a link to this spitfire of a woman we loved. On Christmas Eve, it's manicotti. Or, as the Connecticut Italians corrected me — "mahneegottz." And don't forget the mootz (that's mozzarella for the rest of us). One year, I asked her for the recipe and she pointed to the back of the Barilla pasta box. Of course, I knew the real secret was her marinara sauce.

I also inherited the job of continuing the Spinach Bread legacy. It's a simple assembly job, basically, but it's craved by not only my husband and his brother, but their friends who hung about during the holidays as well. A few years ago, I started making the ham pie that his grandmother used to send at Easter. (She also used to send us parmesan that she hand-grated because she didn't think we could get it in Houston.) In different parts of Italy, it's called pizza gaina, pizza chiena, pizza rustica, etc. In the Northeast, it has become an Easter tradition. Most people buy it from their local Italian markets, but there are still the traditionalists who make their own. In Italy, the dish varies from region to region. In New Haven, it varies from block to block. Every year, I am on Facebook trying to get all the tips and ideas about the ham pie from the Connecticut Italians. "Don't forget the pepper in the pastry!" "You have to use basket cheese!" "Don't use pastry, use bread dough!"  A few of the recipes are like layered tortes, but most are like a giant quiche loaded with diced Italian meats. Having done both the pastry crust and the bread dough, I am sticking with the pastry dough this year.

Enjoy Your People

This is, above all, the most important tip. There's a reason we spend time and energy making special holiday meals for our loved ones. Feasting connects us, whether it's a Passover Seder, the evening feasts during Ramadan, the gluttony of Mardi Gras or a Fourth of July picnic. Family and friends gathered together to break bread bring joy to our lives. We are drawn to the table, not just for food but for connection to other human beings. Spring is a time of renewal, so if we let go of the judgment, the past hurts, the political and religious differences, we can celebrate with our tribe and build closer relationships around the holiday table. Maybe Uncle Bruce's new wife, Betty, is a tart, but she probably has some interesting stories to tell.

Buona Pasqua, Y'all: Five Tips for Making Easter Dinner Easier on Yourself (5)EXPAND
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The Italian ham pie (pizza rustica) has numerous variations, so instead here's the very simple recipe for my mother-in-law's spinach bread. It should probably be called sausage bread because the spinach is basically an afterthought, but I am not going to go against the New Haven Italians on this one. I don't add salt and pepper because the sausage is highly seasoned as is. Frozen store-bought dough works best for this because of the dough conditioners. I have tried this with homemade dough, but it is not the same.

Donna's Spinach Bread


2 loaves frozen bread dough
1 lb. ground Italian sausage
1 (12oz) pkg. frozen spinach
Grated Parmesan (optional)
Egg wash (1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tbsp. cold water)

Spray pan or large rectangular container with cooking spray or olive oil. Place the two frozen loaves in pan. Cover with plastic wrap that has been sprayed also. Let thaw and rise at room temperature for 7-8 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Filling: Can be made a day ahead. Take frozen spinach out of refrigerator 15 minutes before cooking sausage to thaw. Cook crumbled Italian sausage in skillet until cooked through, about ten minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a large bowl. Use a spoon or paper towel to get rid of extra grease from the skillet. Add package of frozen spinach to the same skillet and sauté until just wilted. Remove spinach with a slotted spoon and add to sausage. Mix gently.

Preheat oven to 350.

Roll out each loaf of dough into an 8x12 rectangle. (This does not have to be precise; just make sure the dough will fit on your cookie sheet.)

Start laying the filling down the long side of the dough, right along the edge, about two inches in. Sprinkle with cheese, if using. Make one roll, jelly-roll style, and lay another line of filling against that roll and roll one more time to the end, creating a seam. Place loaf, seam end down, on a greased 9x13 baking pan. Repeat with the second loaf and place on baking pan three inches apart from the first loaf. If a loaf is too large for the pan, you can make a shepherd's crook, as I did, or put the second loaf on another baking sheet. This happens to me every time.

Let loaves rise an additional 30 minutes. Cut several shallow slits in each loaf and brush with egg wash.

Place in pre-heated oven for 25-30 minutes until brown on top. Let cool, then slice.

Mangia con la Famiglia!

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