An Easter Story

March 30, 2023

It all started on Ash Wednesday as soon as Monsignor Bernardo raised his blackened thumb and jottingly made a cross on my forehead with black ashes and reminded me that I was nothing but dust. For a teenager in the prime of life, thinking about dust was the furthest thing from my mind. But Mom and nonna took the season of Lent very seriously and that meant that for the next forty days, they would be in a somber mood with endless trips to church where the monsignor recited penitential prayers while showering his flock with pungent smelling incense that left the congregation in a murky fog. To me those forty days meant only one thing…no sweets until Easter!

By the last week of Lent things started to look up as Mom and nonna started making Easter specialties. Out came the lamb cake mold to make the almond flavored cakes that were just like the ones displayed in the pasticerria (pastry shop) windows in Italy. Out came the big round tin (almost the size of a foot stool), used to make the torta Pasqualina, savory pastry pie that was filled with ham, cheese, eggs and salame. Out came the pie pans for making pastiera, Neapolitan rice pie. And out came the baking sheets for forming ciambelle, those braided Easter breads with colorful eggs tucked into the dough. I loved the egg part because my job was to color them!

After forty days of such dinner fare as tuna casserole, baccala’, squid with spaghetti, and endless vegetable and cheese frittatas, I was definitely ready for some fun eating. And since we were a large extended family, Mom always took it upon herself to make lamb cakes for all her brothers and sisters and of course, Monsignor Bernardo.

The week before Easter, Mom made Dad a long list of ingredients she would need from the store for all her baking. Flour, eggs, butter, almond extract, at least four bags of jelly beans (I will explain) and four pounds of coconut! I think she was obsessed with that lamb cake mold and she dutifully made eight separate batters and filled that mold eight separate times!

What emerged from the oven was a sturdy flock, eight sitting lamb cakes huddled on cooling racks while tubs of confectioners icing laced with almond extract were made. One by one we frosted those lambs; I liked to make squiggles with a pastry bag to simulate wool; other times I covered the lambs in snowy white coconut “fur.” Black jellybeans became eyes, a pink jellybean became a mouth and a rainbow colored row of them ran along the backs of each one. Purple ribbons around their necks were the finishing touch as they sat on green straw. The flock was ready for the big giveaway.

Dad and I delivered them to my aunts and uncles so they could have them for their table centerpieces. The monsignor pinched me on the cheek when I delivered his.

After the deliveries, Dad stopped at Antoinette’s homemade chocolate store to buy what he always bought for Easter, a two-foot high solid chocolate Kewpie doll that reminded me of the cartoon character, Betty Boop!

Dad was a shrewd shopper, always analyzing what was the best deal for the money. He examined chocolate rabbits, ducks, and chicks like a scientist, which of course, he was. So it made perfect sense when he said that there was no reason to pay good money for several hollow chocolate bunnies or chicks when one big solid one would go much further in terms of how many people could enjoy it!

So Kewpie, who was as solid as they come, and wrapped in clear shiny cellophane, came home with us and stood tall on the dining room table, a pink bow atop her head!

Easter was finally here and dinner, a huge feast of roast lamb, spring peas, rosemary scented potatoes, stuffed artichokes and torta Pasqualina kept us at the dinner table for hours. How we had room for lamb cake, Neapolitan rice pie and chocolate is still a mystery to me but the image of my father taking a meat mallet at the end of the meal and smashing that darling Kewpie doll into edible chunks, is one of my fondest memories of Easters gone by.

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