In spite of – or maybe because of – all that has changed since March 2020, I feel particularly drawn to food traditions this year. There is something hugely comforting, I think, about cooking a particular dish at a particular time to mark a particular occasion. This Easter, being normally a shared experience with family and friends whose homes we now can’t go into, makes it even more so. Whatever your Easter traditions – hot cross buns or roast lamb, simnel cake or just a ton of chocolate – I hope today’s dishes bring some sweet (or savoury) reassurance. Mine consist of enriched yeasted buns at one end of the day, slow-cooked lamb at the other, and way too much chocolate in between.
Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with figs, herbs and pistachios
You can get ahead by making the paste and marinating the lamb overnight, but make sure you take it out of the fridge an hour or two before you want to cook it. After that, it’s just a matter of assembling everything in the pan and leaving it to do its thing in the oven. This goes well with any kind of lightly cooked vegetable side of your choosing.
Prep 25 min
Cook 5 hr 45 min
3 onions, peeled, 1 roughly chopped, the other 2 cut into 6 wedges each
6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
30g piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground turmeric
15g dill, roughly chopped
4 tbsp (15g) flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
45ml olive oil
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
Salt and black pepper
1 x 2kg bone-in lamb shoulder
3 cinnamon sticks
12 cardamom pods, roughly bashed open in a mortar
150g soft dried figs, two-thirds cut into quarters, the rest into 1cm dice
700ml chicken stock
40g pistachios, very lightly toasted and roughly chopped
2 lemons – 1 juiced, to get 1½ tbsp, the rest cut into wedges, to serve
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. Put the chopped onion, garlic, ginger, spices and 10g each of the dill and parsley in a food processor and blitz until finely minced. Add the oil, vinegar, a teaspoon and three-quarters of salt and a generous grind of pepper, and blitz to a coarse paste. Pat dry the lamb, pierce the flesh all over with the tip of a small, sharp knife (about 10-12 times in all), then coat the lamb with the paste. You can now cook it right away, or refrigerate and marinate for a few hours to overnight.
Put the onion wedges, cinnamon sticks, cardamom and the fig quarters in a large, ovenproof, cast-iron saucepan for which you have a lid (about 28cm in diameter). Lay the lamb fatty side up on top, then pour in the chicken stock around the edges so as not to wash off the marinade. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes, baste the lamb with the juices, then cover with a lid, lower the heat to 160C (140C fan)/310F/gas 2½ and roast for four hours, basting it three or four times while it’s cooking. Turn the heat back up to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6, remove the lid and roast for 45 minutes more, or until the lamb is well browned and extremely tender, and the sauce has reduced nicely.
Gently lift the lamb out of the pot and leave it to rest in a large oven tray. Pour the remaining contents of the pot into a large, shallow platter or dish with a slight lip, then put the lamb on top.
Combine the chopped figs with the pistachios, lemon juice and remaining herbs, spoon this mix all over the lamb and serve with the lemon wedges alongside.
Chocolate and hazelnut “Colomba” buns
The crisp topping on these buns is inspired by the classic Italian Easter bread, Colomba di Pasqua. If you want to get ahead and wake up to the smell of freshly baked buns on Easter morning, make and shape the dough the evening before, then pop in the fridge overnight for a slow rise. The next day, take it out of the fridge before you make the topping. For the chocolate, use whatever cocoa percentage that you have to hand, but stay away from white chocolate because it would be too sweet.
Prep 45 min
Prove 4 hr+
Bake 40 min
For the dough
130g blanched hazelnuts, well toasted, 80g finely blitzed, the rest roughly chopped
330g strong white bread flour
50g caster sugar
1 tsp salt
1 sachet fast-action dried yeast (7g)
125g whole milk
2 tsp orange zest
1½ tbsp marsala, or rum or sherry, or orange juice
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
100g fridge-cold butter, cut into 1½cm dice
150g dark or milk chocolate, roughly chopped into 1cm pieces or chips
Sunflower oil or other unflavoured oil, for greasing the hands
For the topping
1 egg white (save the yolk for another use)
60g caster sugar
1 tbsp marsala, or rum or sherry, or orange juice
Put 50g of the finely blitzed hazelnuts in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook in place. Add half the chopped hazelnuts, all the flour, the sugar, a teaspoon of salt and the dried yeast.
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, orange zest, wine and vanilla paste, then pour into the stand mixer bowl and mix on medium-high speed for eight minutes, until you have a fairly sticky dough. Still beating on medium-high speed, add the butter a few pieces at a time, then mix for another eight minutes, until the dough comes together into a ball around the hook and is smooth, shiny and elastic. Add the chocolate and mix for just 30 seconds, until combined. With oiled hands, shape the dough into a ball, put it back in the bowl and cover tightly (I use reusable food wrap). Leave to prove somewhere warm for an hour and a half, then transfer to the fridge and leave to prove for another hour and a half.
Line the base and sides of a 23cm round springform cake tin with greaseproof paper. Remove the dough from the fridge and place on a lightly floured surface. Shape into 11 buns, each weighing around 85g, put three of them in the centre of the tin and arrange the rest evenly spaced out all around them, like the petals of a flower. Cover tightly and leave to prove again at warm room temperature for an hour to an hour and a half, until doubled in size (or, if making these ahead, put them back in the fridge and leave to prove overnight).
Heat the oven to 190C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. About five minutes before you are ready to bake, make the topping. Put the egg white in a medium bowl with the sugar, marsala and the remaining 30g of blitzed nuts, whisk for three or four minutes, until slightly thickened and pale, then brush liberally over the buns. Sprinkle with the remaining chopped hazelnuts, bake for 20 minutes, then turn down the oven to 170C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 and bake for another 25 minutes, rotating the pan once halfway through so the buns bake evenly.
Remove, leave to cool for a couple of minutes, then unmould on to a rack and leave to cool for another 30 minutes. These are best eaten on the day they’re baked, split in half and spread with plenty of butter. Slice and toast any leftovers the next day.