Just in case you’ve not noticed all the cute chocolate bunnies, brightly wrapped egg-shaped candies and neat rows of yellow, pink and blue marshmallow chicks, this coming Sunday is Easter.

This celebration of renewed life is, for many families, a religious holiday of some significance. For others, it’s just an exuberant time for feasting.

And, perhaps, an excuse for overindulging in the chocolate we’ve denied ourselves during Lent.

But regardless of our reasons for feasting, we do expect a special meal. So, if you’ve not started to plan, you do have a bit of a challenge ahead of you, though not one that can’t easily be overcome.

The lucky thing is that, unlike Thanksgiving dinner, whose menu is often all but recorded in the family Bible, Easter dinner often has less established expectations.

There might be, say, a favorite aunt’s deviled eggs, or a coconut cake (with jelly bean “eggs” pressed into the top) whose recipe has been handed down for generations.

This family might have always expected ham, and that family expected a leg of spring lamb.

But that’s really about the extent of it.

That’s one of the reasons this is, far and away, my favorite cook’s holiday. There’s so much wiggle room to be creative.

Since it’s a busy time, I look for things that are easy, can be made ahead, and can be transported without making a production out of it. It’s also a good idea to look for things that can safely sit out on a sideboard for a couple of hours without damage or spoiling.

Beyond those few restrictions, almost anything goes.

The recipes that follow meet all those requirements while providing the freshness that is the hallmark of the holiday.

 

Asparagus with Parisian Sauce

Parisian Sauce is a variation of mayonnaise that’s made with soft cheese instead of eggs, so it’s a bit more stable. Traditionally served with cold asparagus as suggested here, it’s also great with almost any cold vegetables and is lovely used as a dressing for potato salad. Serves 6.

 

Ingredients:

For the sauce (makes about 1¼ cups):

• 2 ounces cream cheese (¼ of an 8-ounce block)

• Juice from 1 to 1½ lemons

• ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• 1 tablespoon finely minced chives, thyme, oregano, or parsley, optional

 

For the asparagus:

• 2 pounds asparagus

• Salt

 

Directions:

1. Make sauce: Allow cheese to soften at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Blend with 2 tablespoons water and juice of 1 lemon. Whip until fluffy with whisk or hand-held mixer. Beating constantly, slowly add oil a teaspoon at a time. Sauce will have the consistency of mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper and adjust lemon juice to taste. Fold in herbs, if using.

(Note: Can be made 3-4 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes, then whip until fluffy again.)

2. Make asparagus: Prepare basin of cold water. Wash, trim and peel asparagus and cut ends of stems to make spears equal lengths. Put into cold water for a few minutes. Bring at least 1½ inches of water to boil in large, deep, lidded skillet over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt. Lift asparagus from cold water and carefully add to skillet. Cover and let return to boil. Cook 2 minutes, drain, and rinse under cold running water to arrest cooking.

3. Spread on platter or rimmed sheet pan to cool completely. If made ahead, transfer to storage container, cover and refrigerate. To serve, spread on platter and pass sauce separately.

 

Baked Four-Cheese Macaroni

For a lot of folks in our region, it’s not a feast without a golden brown-topped pan of baked macaroni and cheese. This one actually comes from Italy, but tastes like home to me. Serves 6-8.

 

Ingredients:

• 1 pound elbow or other small, tubular macaroni

• ¼ cup all-purpose flour

• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 3 cups whole milk, heated

• Salt and whole black or white pepper in a mill

• Whole nutmeg in a grater

• Dry mustard powder

• 1 cup (about ¼ pound) Gruyere cheese, coarsely grated

• ½ cup (about 2 ounces) Fontina cheese, coarsely grated

• 1¼ cups (about 6 ounces) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated

• ½ cup (about 2 ounces) whole-milk mozzarella, shredded

 

Directions:

1. Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil in heavy-bottomed 6- to 8-quart pot. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F.

2. Meanwhile, melt butter in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook, whisking, until bubbly and smooth. Gradually whisk in hot milk and cook, stirring constantly, until bubbling and thick. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and whisk in a pinch dry mustard. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 3-4 minutes. Turn off heat.

3. When water is boiling, stir in small handful of salt and macaroni. Cook, stirring often, for half recommended cooking time on package. Drain.

4. Butter 3-quart casserole or gratin dish. Fold sauce into macaroni and add Gruyere, Fontina and all but ¼ cup Parmigiano cheeses. Transfer to prepared dish and smooth top with spatula. Sprinkle with mozzarella and reserved ¼ cup Parmigiano and bake until lightly browned on top and bubbly to center, about 30 minutes.

5. Can be made ahead and reheated at 350 F. Let cool completely, cover, and refrigerate until 1 hour before serving. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes, then bake until bubbly, about 25-30 minutes. Let sit 15 minutes before serving.

 

Baked Hot Irish Potato Salad

My paternal Scots-Irish grandmother’s signature hot potato dish for Sunday was hot potato salad: mashed potatoes mixed with cream, mayonnaise, and green onions. It’s wonderful as it is, but also great made ahead and slapped into a casserole, then dusted with buttered crumbs and baked until hot through and golden brown on top. Serves 6.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 ½ pounds potatoes

• Salt

• 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into bits, plus 1 teaspoon for the crumbs

• ½ cup mayonnaise

• About ¼ to ½ cup light cream or whole milk

• Whole black pepper in a mill

• 6 small scallions, thinly sliced, both white and green parts

• 3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs

• 1 tablespoon minced chives, thyme leaves, or parsley, or combination, optional

 

Ingredients:

1. Scrub, peel, and cut potatoes into 1-inch chunks. Put in 3- to 4-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to boil, add large pinch of salt, and adjust heat to a simmer. Cook until tender, about 12-15 minutes. Drain and while still hot, add 2-3 tablespoons butter and mash with a potato masher until smooth and butter is incorporated.

2. Fold in mayonnaise and add cream or milk until potatoes are smooth and fluffy to your taste. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then fold in scallions. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

3. Butter a 2-quart shallow baking or gratin dish and put in potatoes. Smooth top. Can be prepared up to 2 days ahead through this step. Let cool completely, cover and refrigerate until 1 hour before serving.

4. When ready to serve, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Melt 1 teaspoon butter in small pan. Turn off heat and add crumbs, stirring until butter is evenly absorbed. Add herbs if desired. Sprinkle over potatoes. Bake until top is golden brown and potatoes are hot through, about 30 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

 

Old-Fashioned Southern-Style Deviled Eggs

It is not Easter around here without deviled eggs. You can “gourmet” them up to your heart’s content, but if you really want to please the crowd, keep them classic and simple. This is one time I recommend you use commercial mayonnaise, which is much less likely to spoil if it’s been left sitting out. Makes 2 dozen, serving 6-8.

 

Ingredients:

• 12 large eggs at least 2 weeks old

• ½ cup mayonnaise

• 1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard

• Salt and ground cayenne

• 2-3 tablespoons finely chopped sweet or kosher dill pickles or pimiento-stuffed olives, optional

• 2 tablespoons yellow onion, finely minced, optional

• Slivers of pickle or sliced pimiento-stuffed olives for garnish, optional

• Minced parsley or chives, optional

• Sweet paprika

 

Directions:

1. Using clean pushpin or needle, gently prick eggs at large end. Put in heavy-bottomed pan that will hold eggs in one layer and add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to full boil over medium-high heat.

2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes, drain, and rinse eggs under cold running water. Lightly tap eggs on sides of pan to crack shells, cover with cold water, and let stand 1 minute before peeling. Beginning at large end, peel eggs, rinse and drain.

3. Cut eggs in half lengthwise. Scoop yolks into ceramic or glass mixing bowl. Set whites, cut side up, on deviled egg plate or platter.

4. Roughly mash yolks with fork to texture of coarse meal; blend in mayonnaise and mustard. Season to taste with salt and cayenne and beat until smooth. (Can be done in food processor: put yolks in work bowl fitted with metal blade; pulse until finely chopped; add mayonnaise, mustard, salt and cayenne; process until smooth.) If adding pickle or onion to filling, fold in and mix until evenly distributed.

5. Using 2 spoons or pastry bag fitted with open star tip, divide filling among egg whites, mounding on top. Can be made several hours ahead; loosely cover without touching tops of eggs and refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, dust with paprika. If liked, eggs can be garnished with slivers of pickle or sliced olives and sprinkling of fresh herbs.

 

French-Style Roasted Butterflied Leg of Lamb

Ham is traditional for many at Easter, and is the easiest on the cook. If it’s precooked ham, all you have to do is glaze it — and you don’t even have to do that. Still, it’s not Easter for me without lamb of some kind, and this is just as easy as glazing a precooked ham. Well, almost. Serves 8-10.

 

Ingredients:

• 1 boned leg of lamb, about 4½-5 pounds

• 2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into slivers

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• 3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, plus sprigs, for garnish, optional

• Extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or fat from pan drippings

• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

• 1 cup beef broth

• Horseradish Sauce (optional, recipe follows)

 

Directions:

1. Remove netting from lamb and open meat out flat. Cut along connective tissue between inside muscles to butterfly. Lightly pound thicker parts with mallet to an even thickness. Wrap meat, cover, and refrigerate until 1 hour before cooking.

2. When ready to cook, remove lamb from refrigerator and preheat oven to 450 F. Make slits in meat at regular intervals and insert garlic slivers. Rub with salt, pepper and thyme. Drizzle with olive oil. Rub bottom of roasting pan with oil and put in lamb, fat side up. Roast 20 minutes, or until well-seared, and reduce temperature to 375 F. Roast to desired level of doneness (an internal temperature of 120-125 degrees for rare, 135-145 degrees for medium).

3. Remove meat to platter, loosely cover with foil, and let rest 15 minutes. Pour off any pan drippings from roasting pan and put pan over direct medium heat. Add wine and deglaze pan, stirring and scraping to loosen cooking residue. Let boil until vapors are no longer sharp and alcoholic, then pour into pan drippings.

4. Return pan to heat and add 2 tablespoons butter or fat from pan drippings. Sprinkle in flour and whisk until smooth. Whisk in broth then wine and drippings mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and simmer until thickened and wine loses raw alcoholic taste, about 4 minutes. Add any juices that have accumulated in platter, let heat through, and turn off heat. Pour into warmed sauce boat or bowl.

5. To serve, thinly slice across grain of meat, arrange on platter, and garnish with sprigs of herbs, if desired, passing gravy and/or horseradish sauce passed separately.

Horseradish Sauce

Horseradish sauce is great with almost any roasted meat, from beef, lamb and pork to turkey or venison. It’s a cold sauce, but it can accompany either cold or warm meat. Makes about 2 cups.

 

Ingredients:

• 1 cup sour cream

• ½ cup mayonnaise

• ½-¾ cup prepared horseradish, well-drained in a sieve

• 1 tablespoon prepared English or Dijon mustard

• Salt

 

Directions:

1. Lightly fold sour cream and mayonnaise together, then fold in ½ cup horseradish and mustard. Taste and add more well-drained horseradish as needed, then lightly season with salt. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Can be made up to 2 days ahead.

2. Taste and adjust salt and refrigerate 30 minutes longer to blend the flavors. Serve cold.