- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Anne Willan would deny it, but she is the cook’s cook and the teacher’s teacher, with a sense of precision and style that is legendary. Yet, if there is anything else that she is good at, it’s being practical.

Miss Willan may be a famous author (more than a dozen books in 24 languages) and a renowned cooking teacher (with schools in France and at the Greenbrier in West Virginia), but she’s also a mother who worked hard the whole time she and her husband brought up two children.

So when asked to create an Easter dinner, she selects dishes that can be made in advance and that are not, despite appearances, complicated to assemble. Easter, she believes, is best observed as a time not of panic cooking but of peace.

“It’s a time of tolerance, a time when there is tolerance of weakness and a recognition of time passing,” Miss Willan says. “In most families, there is a tradition of good will, a welcoming of the different generations, a communication that otherwise doesn’t always take place.”

There is no mention of a time to impress with fancy dishes, although around the world, different cultures celebrate with their own culinary traditions.

In the United States, we often sit down to an Easter lunch of ham or lamb, but in many other countries, yeast breads are baked in celebration, Miss Willan says.

In Russia, there is kulich, a tall cylindrical bread baked in a coffee can and served with a delicious pyramid of sweetened cheese, similar to cream cheese, studded with candied fruit. The French make a similar Easter brioche, a yeast bread rich with butter and eggs, in a cylindrical mold.

In Germany, Easter coffee cakes made like jellyrolls filled with dried fruit are sliced nearly through at 2-inch intervals so that both ends of the roll can be joined and the bread shaped into a circle mimicking a crown.

Greek Easter bread is an almost-square loaf decorated with colored eggs in their shells. In England, where Miss Willan grew up, hot cross buns are topped with frosting in the shape of a cross, “although they are rarely good, usually dreary buns with a little cross of frosting on top. But the good ones have candied fruit and raisins and a nice sticky glaze.”

Rituals are not restricted to food, of course. In France, where Miss Willan spends seven months of the year teaching at her cooking school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, southeast of Paris, Easter is a joyful holiday of parades and festivals, complete with “choirboys carrying the cross, dignitaries in robes, huge flowers and lilies, the symbol of rebirth.”

Miss Willan says church in France generally is followed by “a lovely Easter lunch of baby roast lamb, little new vegetables, baby carrots, little turnips, some of the first green beans and eggs, which are a big thing.” Traditional foods often contain dried rather than fresh fruit and nuts, as Easter historically was when cooks used up the few foods left over from winter.

Although her children are now grown and living in far-flung places (Los Angeles and Moscow), Miss Willan’s family still gets together for holidays when they can. The holiday is more likely Christmas than Easter, the distances being so great, but the spirit and the meaning are the same, Miss Willan says.

“These kinds of things are enormously important. … They bring family members together.”

The recipes that follow are from Miss Willan’s newest book, “Good Food No Fuss: 150 Recipes and Ideas for Easy-to-cook Dishes” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Serve all of them along with a nice country bread and cookies with cherries or strawberries in season. Select whatever fruit is of best quality. Or serve one of the following dishes along with your own favorite baked ham or lamb. Whatever menu you select, make sure it’s easy, so you have time to enjoy the holiday and your family and friends.

Spring gratin of baby vegetables

This dish may look a bit daunting, but it is as simple as precooking vegetables, topping with a cheese sauce, and baking and broiling until bubbly.

Shortcut: Reduce the number of vegetables to two of contrasting color and taste.

Getting ahead: Prepare the gratin completely ahead, and refrigerate up to 24 hours, loosely covered with plastic wrap. Reheat it in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes for small dishes or 25 to 30 minutes for a large dish, then broil as directed.

8 to 10 baby carrots or 4 to 5 medium carrots, halved if large (1 pound)

4 to 5 baby turnips, halved or quartered depending on size (1 pound)

8 to 10 small white onions

3 to 4 small fennel bulbs, cut in 8 wedges (1 pound)

4 to 6 baby zucchini, thickly sliced (1 pound)

¼ cup butter, plus more for greasing dish

¼ cup flour

2 cups milk, more if needed

Salt and pepper

1¼ cups grated Gruyere or cheddar cheese

1½ tablespoons smooth mild or hot Dijon mustard, more to taste

Put carrots in a pan of cold, salted water; cover; bring to a boil; and simmer until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Cook turnips in the same way, allowing 10 to 15 minutes until just tender. Drain both vegetables; set aside.

Bring a pan of salted water to a boil; add the onions; and simmer them, uncovered, until just tender, 6 to 10 minutes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, rinse with cold water and leave to drain thoroughly. Use the same cooking water to cook the fennel and zucchini separately, allowing 5 to 8 minutes for fennel and 2 to 3 minutes for zucchini.

Butter a 1½-quart gratin dish or 4 to 6 individual dishes. Combine vegetables, and spread them in the dish(es).

To make the sauce, melt butter in a saucepan, whisk in the flour, and cook for a minute or two until foaming. Pour in 2 cups milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 2 minutes. Take sauce from heat, and stir in half the cheese until it melts. (Do not cook the sauce further or it will cook into strings.) Stir in mustard, taste and adjust seasonings. It’s important not to overheat the mustard, as that turns it bitter. The sauce can be spicy or mild as you prefer; it should generously coat the back of a spoon but not too thick. If necessary, add more milk.

Spoon the sauce over vegetables. They should be completely coated but still show through a veil of sauce. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top.

To finish, heat the broiler and set a rack 10 inches from the heat. Put the gratin on the rack, and broil until browned and bubbling around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes for a large gratin or 6 to 8 inches for small ones. Makes 6 to 8 servings as a side dish.

Braised leg of lamb with juniper

This dish is also easy to prepare. To make it even easier, ask your butcher to trim the skin and all but a thin layer of fat from the lamb.

Shortcut: Don’t bother to marinate the meat in advance with garlic and juniper. Start with the braising step.

Getting ahead: Braised lamb reheats superbly, taking on extra depth of flavor as it sits up to three days in the refrigerator. To reheat, wrap the lamb leg in foil and heat it in a preheated 400-degree oven until very hot, 20 to 30 minutes. Reheat the mushrooms and gravy separately on top of the stove.

1 5-pound leg of lamb on the bone

4 garlic cloves, cut into slivers

1 tablespoon juniper berries, crushed

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 onions, sliced

½ cup gin

2½ cups chicken broth, plus more if needed

1 bunch fresh thyme

2 to 3 bay leaves

1 pound wild or cultivated mushrooms or 2 ounces dried wild mushrooms

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips

Chopped parsley for garnish

Trim the skin and all but a thin layer of fat from the lamb. With the point of a knife, make 8 to 10 incisions in the meaty part of the lamb, and insert some of the garlic and a few crushed juniper berries in each. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 24 hours so the flavors permeate the meat. Reserve the remaining garlic and juniper berries.

Unwrap lamb, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Heat oil in a roasting pan or casserole, then brown the lamb on all sides over medium heat until well-browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Take it out, add the onions and brown them also, taking 5 to 7 minutes and stirring often so they don’t scorch. Replace lamb in the pan, and add gin, 2½ cups broth and reserved garlic and juniper berries. Tie the thyme and bay leaves in two or three bundles, and add them to the casserole. Bring to a boil; cover tightly with a lid or foil.

Braise lamb in preheated 350-degree oven, turning it once or twice, until the meat is very tender when pierced with a fork. This will take 2 to 2½ hours, or up to an hour longer if you like the meat almost falling off the bone. The meat should always be half-covered in liquid, so add more broth during cooking, if needed. Meanwhile, wipe the fresh mushrooms, trimming the stems. Wash them only if they are dirty. Slice or cut them into medium chunks. If using dried mushrooms, cover with warm water and leave them to soak.

Half an hour before the lamb is done, stir the mushrooms and bell pepper into the cooking juices. If using dried mushrooms, lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon, leaving any grit behind. Add them to the pan.

When done, transfer lamb to a serving dish. Remove mushrooms, pepper and onions with a slotted spoon, and pile them around the lamb. Cover and keep warm. Strain the cooking juices into a pan, and skim any fat from the surface. Bring this gravy to a boil and, if thin, boil until reduced. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon a little gravy over the meat, and scatter parsley over the vegetables. Serve the remaining gravy separately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Accordion potatoes

Medium Idaho potatoes (as many as there are guests)

1 to 2 bay leaves or thyme sprigs per potato

Salt and pepper

Olive oil, butter mixed with vegetable oil or pan drippings from a roast

Put each unpeeled potato into a tablespoon and cut it into vertical ¼-inch slices. (This trick ensures that they remain joined at the base.) Open the potatoes slightly, and insert 1 to 2 bay leaves or thyme sprigs in each one. Lay them in a baking dish just large enough to contain them.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and pour ½-inch layer of olive oil, butter mixed with oil or pan drippings over the top. Heat potatoes on top of the stove until bubbling, then roast in preheated 375-degree oven, basting from time to time, until they are brown and crisp. Time will vary from 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on their size. Serves as many people as there are potatoes.

Cherries chateaux

This sauce is ready in minutes and is also delicious with strawberries.

Getting ahead: Chateaux sauce can be made several hours in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator. If it separates slightly, simply whisk it to remix just before serving.

8 egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

Finely grated zest of 1 small orange or 1 lemon

2 cups medium-dry white wine

1 pound cherries, pitted

Beat egg yolks, sugar and orange or lemon zest with an electric hand mixer at high speed for 7 to 8 minutes, or until pale and very thick. This will also help to develop the citrus flavor. Meanwhile, bring wine just to a boil in a heavy-based pan.

With the mixer on low speed, very slowly add the hot wine to the egg-yolk mixture. Return the custard to the pan, and cook it over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until it thickens and lightly coats the back of the spoon, 3 to 4 minutes.

A clear trail should be left in the custard on the spoon when you draw your finger over it. Do not let it boil; if it gets too hot or cooks for too long, it may curdle.

Pour the custard into a cold bowl set over ice, and allow to cool, stirring occasionally. Serve at room temperature or chilled, poured over the cherries. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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