Lifestyle

Favorite dishes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Passover and Easter

Irish soda bread, one of this month
Irish soda bread, one of this month's featured recipes, is perfect for St. Patrick's Day, or just because.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

There’s an old saying that rings true: “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!” After my January article, I was pleased to hear how many people love Irish soda bread, one of the recipes featured.

Irish soda bread has a courser and denser texture than yeast-rising breads. And just like most favorite foods have many different versions, Irish soda bread is no exception. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve decided to include a hearty and more traditionally Irish version of soda bread. I encourage even the baking-intimidated to give this delicious and easy-to-make bread a try. You’ll be happy you did.

Irish soda bread

An 8-inch round loaf

Ingredients:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup (½ cube) cold butter

½ cup wheat bran

¼ cup flax seeds

1 egg

1¾ buttermilk (plus an extra tablespoon for brushing on top)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees with the rack placed in the middle. Coat a heavy baking sheet with vegetable cooking spray.

In the food processor (or by hand), combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Cut the butter into slices and then cubes. Add the butter to the flour until it resembles coarse meal. You can do this either in the food processor by pulsing for about 5 seconds or with a pastry cutter, or even with your fingers; then place this mixture into a large bowl. Mix the wheat bran and flax seeds together in a small bowl, then add to the flour mixture until blended evenly.

Lightly beat the egg and stir it into the buttermilk. Make a little well in the bottom of the bowl, pour in the liquid and stir until the dough gathers. It will be wet and thick-looking. Coat your hands with flour and turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough just a few times, adding flour as needed so it’s more workable. Gather it into a ball and place onto the baking sheet. Pat the dough into a circular shape approximately 8 inches in diameter and 2 inches high. Use a large knife to make a cross-shape indentation about a ¼-inch deep over the entire top. Brush with the tablespoon of buttermilk.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until well-browned and it sounds hollow on the bottom when tapped. Cool on a wire rack and serve warm with butter or add some slices of sharp Irish cheddar cheese, like Kerrygold’s Dubliner. Irish soda bread is heavenly the next day toasted.

The first evening of Passover begins on March 29. On Jewish holidays, I always serve kugel: a European Jewish dish, resembling a casserole, often made with noodles. During Passover, when wheat-rising flours are not allowed, I use matzo instead.

Kugel recipes also have many different versions that are both sweet and savory. Growing up, my mother prepared a sweet one, just as my grandmother had always made. Kugel is one of my most favorite comfort foods because it reminds me of my mother and how much I enjoyed eating hers.

Even though it’s slightly sweet, I serve mine as a side dish with the main course. It’s also wonderful for dessert with some fresh berries. I even love to eat the leftover kugel for breakfast — or anytime — and until it’s completely gone!

Matzo kugel

Serves 16 to 20

Ingredients:

11 matzos, kosher for Passover (broken up and softened)

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

6 eggs

2 (16 ounce) containers of cottage cheese

2 (8 ounce) containers of sour cream

1 cup milk

¼ cup (½ cube) melted butter, cooled

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cinnamon for sprinkling on top

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack placed in lower third. Butter or spray with vegetable oil a 9-by-13 inch baking dish. Break the matzo into small pieces and place in a colander; run it under hot water to soften. It should be the consistency of cooked oatmeal. Drain the excess water by pressing down on the matzo.

Beat the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the cottage cheese, sour cream, milk, cooled butter and vanilla; add the softened matzo and blend well. Pour this mixture in the prepared baking dish and sprinkle the top with cinnamon. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

This kugel works best if it’s prepared ahead of time and rests in the refrigerator overnight, then reheated before serving. It also freezes well and can go directly into the oven to be reheated at 350 degrees for about a half hour. Cut into 16 or 20 square servings.

Easter is on April 4 this year. I discovered a scrumptious dish called Italian Easter pie that also has many different sweet and savory ways it’s prepared. I love the sweeter version that has a crust made out of phyllo dough: delicate paper-thin layers already prepared and found in the freezer section of most stores. I prefer working with the larger sheets of phyllo that I found at Whole Foods, opposed to the smaller size that QFC or Albertsons carries.

If you decide to use the smaller packages of phyllo dough, the Athen brand found on Mercer Island, use two sheets side-by-side, to give you the over-lay of dough that is needed to create the top of the pie. This Italian Easter pie is one of those special desserts to serve all year round and for every holiday.

Italian Easter Pie

Serves 8 to 10

Ingredients:

2/3 cup confectioners’ (powdered) sugar and extra for sifting on top when it’s done

3 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon orange zest

1 (15 ounce) container of whole milk ricotta cheese

1 cup cooked Arborio rice (or another short grain white rice)

½ cup sliced almonds (toasted)

6 sheets phyllo dough (or 12 Athen brand sheets placed side-by-side, equally 6 layers)

¾ stick of unsalted butter (melted)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the oven rack placed in the middle. Lightly butter a 9 inch glass or ceramic pie dish. Lay the thawed phyllo dough on the counter so the layers are flat and cover with a damp dish towel to prevent it from drying out and cracking.

Place the ricotta in a sieve over a bowl to allow any extra water to drain through. You can also do this by putting it in cheese cloth and squeezing any extra water out. Put the sugar, eggs, vanilla, orange zest and ricotta in a food processor and blend until smooth; then pour in a bowl and stir in the rice and toasted almond slices. Set aside.

Quickly and carefully, remove one layer of phyllo dough and place it over the buttered pie pan. The edges are meant to extend over the sides. Brush the bottom and sides of the phyllo with some melted butter. Make sure to keep the dough covered in between use. Repeat this process for all six layers of phyllo, alternating how you layer each sheet: laying the next one in the opposite direction as the one before it, creating an even over-hang. Brush each layer of dough with melted butter. You will probably have extra butter left-over.

After you’ve buttered the 6th layer of phyllo, spoon the ricotta mixture into the dish. Fold the over-hanging dough over the top to enclose the filling. Don’t worry about it being perfect or even. Brush the folded-over dough with melted butter.

Bake for an hour and 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool and rest for at least 10 minutes. The pie should slide out easily to transfer to a serving dish. Sift the top with confectioners’ sugar before slicing.

Whether you’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, Passover or Easter or all of them – ENJOY!

Cynthia Shifrin can be contacted at cyns0117@aol.com.

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