Beyond the Chocolate Bunny

Celebrated pastry chef François Payard muses on Easter in his native France.


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For Easter, when I was younger, we would have a lot of petits fours with ice cream because my dad loved cookies. A lot of my cookie recipes are from my dad. The frozen cakes my dad made were displayed in the windows of his pastry shop. They were my dad’s specialties. Another cake he made was called Menelike; it’s a specialty cake.

I have a version of the cake in my cookbook, Chocolate Epiphany (Clarkson Potter, 2008). I give my dad credit for the recipe. He would decorate the top of the cake with a nest of chocolate and eggs in the middle. He used to make a chocolate and a coffee version. We would make these every Easter. A while ago, I made the caramel cake (pictured) at Payard, also inspired by my dad.

Easter in France is about chocolate gifts and less about special desserts. In France, the eggs were very popular. Each year, eggs would be decorated with different motifs. They are very artistic looking. Sometimes, the eggs would be glued together to make a rabbit. Chocolate eggs are much more popular in France than rabbits. In America, it’s much more about the rabbit.

The holiday is a simpler affair in France. It was one of the only holidays when my entire family could all sit down together at the table (since both of my parents worked at the family pastry shop). We always had a lamb shoulder for dinner—a very rustic, homey and authentic meal. My dad and grandfather would go to the butcher the day before and buy the lamb, then prepare it and serve it with roasted potatoes.

For appetizers, we always had canapés, something we also made at the pastry shop. Canapés can be prepared in advance and then paired with cocktails; my grandparents always drank Cinzano with a twist of orange. We also served rosé with the canapés.

When it came to wine pairing for the main course, my dad picked something from his wine collection. He had a great wine cellar and particularly liked wines from Bordeaux and Languedoc.

For dessert, my dad always had a lot of frozen sweets from the pastry shop. There was raspberry sorbet, a kirsch parfait, a stuffed pineapple with homemade pineapple sorbet or his specialty—a coffee sponge cake soaked in coffee, sabayon chocolate and sabayon coffee, glazed with chocolate and a meringue in the middle. If we served drinks with dessert, it was a bottle of Champagne.

Braised American Lamb Shoulder with Creamy Polenta

For the lamb:
1 (5-pound) bone-in American lamb shoulder
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
½ celery stalk
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 heads garlic, split in half, lengthwise
1 fennel stalk, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, coarsely chopped
3 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
6 cups lamb stock

For the polenta:
8 cups milk
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
½ pound yellow polenta (such as Moretti Polenta Bramata)
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons butter
Spring garlic, for garnish

To make the lamb: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Season the lamb with salt, pepper and fennel seeds. In a roasting pan set over medium-high heat, sear the lamb shoulder on both sides (about 3–5 minutes per side), and transfer the pan to the oven for approximately 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and add celery stalk, onion, garlic, fennel stalk, carrot, tomatoes, thyme and rosemary. Cook in the oven for approximately 15 minutes, turning over the lamb after about 7 minutes. After the 15 minutes, add the lamb stock and return to the oven, basting the lamb every 5–10 minutes for approximately 1 hour, or until lamb is tender.

Once cooked, remove the lamb shoulder from the pan and let it sit on a cutting board until it’s cool enough to touch. Remove the meat from the bone and shred using a fork. Return shredded shoulder meat to pan juices and let sit while cooking the polenta.

To make the polenta:
In a saucepan set over medium-high heat, combine milk, garlic, thyme and rosemary. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat and let simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the milk, discarding the solid ingredients, and whisk in the polenta slowly. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring often until the mixture thickens, making sure no lumps form. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add butter and continue to mix.

To serve: Split the lamb shoulder among two plates and garnish with spring garlic. Add polenta to the plates and serve.

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