Saturday, March 23

Happy Spring! - From Nowrūz and Passover to Holi, Higan and Easter

Around the world these days, different religions, cultures and nations, welcome the arrival of Spring. Although, in many parts of the world, this spring 2013, still looks more like a winter, throughout history was celebrated and with enthusiasm expected as a new beginning in many ways.

Events and festivities had their meaning and symbolism, along with prepared feasts.

Old Mayas built their pyramids by marking exact astronomical equinox. One of the most famous buildings, The Kulkulkan temple, is the site of a dramatic display of Mayan astronomical knowledge. Every year on the equinoxes the light of the sun makes a play of light along the steps of the pyramid. The effect begins in the late afternoon, around and lasts for an hour or so. The serpent appears for a few days, but on the actual date of the equinox the effect is most obvious and spectacular. Numerous people come to this place to attend the event.


Literally meaning "New Day," the traditional Iranian or Persian New Year marks the first day of spring equinox. Celebrations include a traditional spring cleaning and the Wednesday Suri, the Iranian festival of fire in which participants jump over bonfires to symbolize light (the good) winning over darkness (the bad). Modern Iranians celebrate New Year for 13 days. Iranian families gather together to follow the rituals and customs, clean out their homes, enjoy festive meals and gift exchanges and to wear new clothing.

Dinning table has to be set with items and food with a certain meaning:

Mirror – symbolizing Sky
Apple – symbolizing Earth
Candles – symbolizing Fire
Golab – rose water symbolizing Water
Sabzeh – wheat, or barley sprouts symbolizing Plants
Goldfish – symbolizing turn of new year and it's beginning
Painted Eggs – symbolizing Humans and Fertility

wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish – symbolizing rebirth
sweet pudding made from wheat germ – symbolizing affluence
the dried fruit of the oleaster tree – symbolizing love
garlic – symbolizing medicine
apples – symbolizing beauty and health
sumac berries – symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
vinegar – symbolizing age and patience.

So, here is some of the traditional sweet food prepared for this event:

Ma’amoul, Date Stuffed Cookies

My daughter first told me about these incredible cookies, as she tasted them from some of her friends. Their mothers consider these, not only a part of the big celebration, but also to have some health benefits.

Maamoul cookie molds

Anyhow, they are very tasty and if you happened to have the mold for Maamoul cookies, they can look like the ones made in professional bakery.

The dough:
3 tbsp warm water
1 tbsp rosewater 
1 tbsp orange flower water
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1-1/2 cups cake flour
2 tbsp sugar

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar and chopped pistachios (for dusting over finished cookies)

Rub in the flour with soft butter and add the rose and orange flower water. Add the sugar and mix till the dough holds together in a ball.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 1 hour. Prepare filling. Original cookies are made with date filling but I love pistachios so it goes great with those too, or you can mix both fillings together.

Date Filling:
¾ cup pitted dates, chopped
4 tbsp boiling water
1-1/2 teaspoons orange flower water 

Place all the date filling ingredients in a bowl and mix vigorously or in a food processor and process to a paste. Put the paste in a small bowl and set aside till you’re ready to stuff and bake the ma’amoul.

Nut Filling:
1-1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts or pistachio
2 tablespoons rose- or orange flower water
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Simply mix everything up well. Put the filling in a small bowl and set aside.

Stuff and Bake the Ma’amoul:
Preheat the oven to 350° F -180° C. Prepare a cookie sheet by the method you prefer: line it with parchment, or grease it lightly, or lay a silicon sheet over the surface. Use a tablespoon to take dough out – a level tablespoon each time. Flatten each piece onto the palm of your hand, and push it till it’s about a ping pong ball size circle. Place 1 ½  teaspoons of the nut filling on top of the dough. Bring the edges of the dough up with your fingertips and press them together to seal the filling. Repeat with remaining dough and filling or, simply hold some dough in the palm of your hand, poke a hole in the middle, and fill. Roll the ball of dough between your palms – lightly – to seal the filling.

*Mold originally used for these cookies can be found all over Middle East or some Oriental stores and they can be made in some amazing shapes.
Bake for 15 minutes

Persian Walnut Cookies

•  300 g ground walnuts
•  6 egg yolks
•  1/2 cup sugar (about 100 g)
•  1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300°F/150C.
In a bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla until they are thick and color turns to pale yellow. Add the ground walnuts and mix well. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or greased aluminum foil. Using a teaspoon, drop small portions of the walnut mixture on the sheet; make sure to leave enough space between them.
Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 10 minutes (they start to harden when they cool). Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet for 1-2 minutes. Then place on a wire rack to cool. 


An eight-day long holiday commemorating the Jewish Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery.  When the Egyptian Pharaoh freed the Jews, it is said that they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread to rise. To honor this, for Passover, no leavened bread is eaten. Matzah, Matzo, the unleavened, flat crispy bread is the primary symbol of the holiday and is used during Passover instead of bread.

These are some dishes prepares at this time of celebration:

Gefilte Fish pate

2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 lb whitefish fillet, bones removed, finely ground
1 lb pike fillet, bones removed, finely ground
3 large eggs
1.5 cups cold water
4 tbsp matzah meal
1 tsp coarse salt
2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp sugar
1 large carrots, peeled and grated
Fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Horseradish, for serving

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until translucent. Let  it cool. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine fish, cooled onions, eggs, water, matzah meal, salt, pepper, and sugar. Beat on medium speed for 15 minutes. Add grated carrots and mix until well combined.
Transfer mixture to big bundt cake pan, smoothing top with a spoon. Place the pan in a larger baking dish and fill baking dish with water up to 1/5 of the height of pan. Transfer to oven and bake uncovered for 1 hour then cover the pan with foil and continue baking until center is solid.
Take it out and invert onto a flat serving plate and refrigerate overnight. Slice and serve garnished with parsley and horseradish!

Passover Nut cookies      

3 eggs                
½ cup sugar
½ cup cake meal
½ cup finely chopped nuts
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon

Beat eggs very well. Add sugar and continue beating until mixture is smooth and creamy. Fold in the remaining ingredients. Drop the mixture by spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet with a room in between. Bake in 350F/175 C degrees oven for 15 minutes.


In the spring, north India celebrates a festival called Holi. The celebration is marked by lighting bonfires called Holika. Families play games and throw brightly colored water balloons at each other. In the afternoon everyone prepare festive meals. Yellow clothing for this holiday is a must to cherish mustard plants. Some regions paint elephants on this occasion to cheerfully celebrate Holi. Food is traditional with a loads of variety at a table. Holi is celebrated for couple of days, at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna (February/March), this year on March 27th.

Puran Poli (Indian lentil ciabatta bread)

Ingredients for recipe:

1/2 kg all purpose flour (Maida)
1/2 kg lentils (Gram dal)
1 tsp cardamom powder
1 tsp ghee (butter)
1/2 kg jaggery (unrefined brown sugar)
100 ml oil
salt to taste


Wash and boil the lentil with water and 1/2 tsp salt till it becomes soft. Cool slightly and strain the lentils using a strainer. Add cardamom powder and brown sugar (jiggery) and grind to make fine paste. If the paste is sticky, keep it on warm place to dry up completely. This is called puran. Knead 1/2 kg flour (maida) with water and 1/2 tsp salt. Do not make hard dough. Add oil and knead the maida again till oil gets absorbed. Prepare equal number of balls from maida and puran. Roll out maida balls to make small pooris. Stuff these pooris (wheat)balls with puran (lentil) balls. Roll them again into balls. Roll out to make chapatis. It is called poli.
Heat a griddle or a pan and roast each poli. Apply ghee on both sides when done. Serve with hot cup of tea

Vegetable pakoras (fritters)

These fritters are always very popular and served at many Holiday events


1 cup chickpea flour (Besan)
2 tbsp oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1-2 chopped green chillies (Jalapeno)
1/2 cup water
1 potato large
1 small cauliflower
1 small green cabbage head
1 sliced spinach bunch
1 1/2 cup sliced onion

Method for vegetable pakoras:

Boil potato until cooked, peel and chop finely. Finely chop cauliflower and onion. Shred the cabbage and spinach. Mix first set of ingredients (without vegetables) well or beat in a blender to incorporate air (this will make the batter fluffier). Let batter rest 1/2 hour in a warm place. Add in the vegetables and mix evenly. Deep fry* in very hot oil. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
*If you don’t like deep frying, like me, you can easily bake these in lightly greased pan on both sides for couple of minutes, just make them thinner so they can cook faster and more even.

Serve with cilantro or mint chutney.


The most important date in the Christian year, that commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, three days after his crucifixion. For Catholics, Easter marks the end of Lent, a season of prayer beginning on Ash Wednesday.
In Eastern Christianity, the spiritual preparation begins with Great Lent, which starts on Clean Monday and lasts for 40 continuous days (including Sundays). The last week of Great Lent (following the fifth Sunday of Great Lent) is called Palm Week, and ends with Lazarus Saturday.

The Russians celebrate Maslenitsa or ‘Pancake week’ , a traditional folk holiday symbolizing the end of winter. The holiday has pagan roots back to about 500 A.D. and was later adopted by Christians. Aside from pancake event includes performing bears, bonfires, boxing events and sled rides. 

Napoletan Easter Cake

Famous and delicious, it's the one made especially to celebrate the Easter in Italy.
Filling ingredients (enough for one big round pan or two small):

 1.5 lb ricotta cheese
1 lb grano cotto (cooked )
1  cup whole milk
grated rind of 1/2 lemon (organic)
grated rind of 1/2 orange (organic)
1 tsp unsalted butter
7 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp orange flower water
2 tbsp  lemoncello (lemon liquor)
2 tbsp diced candied citron
2 tbsp candied orange peels

Crema pasticcera (pastry cream) :
2 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour 00
1 oz (30 g) corn starch

Pasta frolla (shortcrust pastry):
4 cups (1-lb) flour (type-00-cake)
1 whole egg and 4 egg yolks
pinch of fine sea salt
1 cups sugar
250 g chilled unsalted butter
grated rind of 1 lemon (better if organic)

Prepare the shortcrust pastry , wrap it in plastic food wrap and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Filling: In a large pot combine cooked wheat, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp butter, 1-1/4 cups milk, 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange zest and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes creamy. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool down. In a medium bowl beat 7 egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. In a separate large mixing bowl combine  ricotta, sugar,  the pastry cream, egg yolks, vanilla extract,  limoncello, orange flower water and then at the end  the beaten egg whites. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the cooled cooked wheat mixture and candied fruit (diced into tiny pieces).

On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll the pastry to a thickness of 3/4 inch. Line the cake pan with pastry. Using a sharp knife, trim dough evenly. Roll out remaining pastry and cut into 1-inch-wide strips. Pour the cheese mixture into the prepared cake pan and place the pastry strips in a crisscross pattern over the filling. Bake in preheated oven at 350°F/180C  for 45 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 320°F and bake for 20-30 more minutes.
Remove the pastiera cake from oven and let it cool down completely, before removing from pan. Sprinkle some granulated sugar over the top.

  • Greek Orthodox Easter Bread
2 packets active dry yeast
2 cups warm milk
9–10 cups flour
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
2 tsp. makhlépi spice (optional)
8 tbsp. butter, melted and cooled
6 eggs, 1 lightly beaten
1 tbsp. grated orange zest
1 tbsp. grated lemon zest
2 hard-cooked red-dyed eggs (optional)
2 tbsp. black cumin seeds 

Dissolve yeast in milk in a large bowl. Stir in 1 cup of the flour and 1/2 cup of the sugar, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and set aside for 1 hour. Steep makhlépi, if using, in 1/2 cup simmering water for about 5 minutes. Strain, discard makhlépi, and set aside liquid to cool. 
Stir 1/2 cup water or makhlépi-scented liquid into yeast mixture. Add butter and 5 of the eggs and mix thoroughly. Sift 8 cups of the flour, salt, and remaining 1 cup sugar into mixture. Add orange and lemon zest, and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Turn out dough onto a floured surface. Knead (adding more flour if necessary) until smooth, about 10 minutes, then form into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl. Cover with a clean dish towel and set aside to rise for 2 hours.  Return dough to floured surface. Divide into 6 parts, rolling into ropes about 15" long. For each loaf, tightly braid 3 ropes, then press 1 dyed egg (if using) near the end of each braid. Or braid as I did one in round shape and insert eggs as wanted. Set bread aside to rise again for 1 hour on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Preheat oven to 350˚. Brush bread with beaten egg, sprinkle with cumin seeds, and bake until golden, 40–50 minutes. 


The spring equinox is one of the most traditional Japanese National Holidays and it is a time for many Japanese to pay their respects to their ancestors.
Higan means "the other or that shore of Sanzu River", which in Buddhist literature refers to Enlightenment with a gool to reach Ten Perfections:

-generosity, giving of oneself
-virtue, morality, proper conduct
-transcendental wisdom, insight
-energy, diligence, vigour, effort
-patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
-truthfulness, honesty
-determination, resolution
-equanimity, serenity

Ohagi (sweet rice balls covered with red bean paste) is the popular dish that is taken to some family sacred places and cemeteries at this time. Other traditional dish served very often at this celebration is Chirashi zushi - “scattered sushi” . It is very popular and simple, but for many unknown form of sushi dish, outside of Japan. It has all sushi ingredients but is more simple to prepare because .

Chirashi zushi - scattered sushi

Ingredients for 4 people:
2 cups prepared sushi rice
75 g Spiced pumpkin stripes
4 pcs dried shiitake mushrooms soaked into water 4 hours
50 g Pickled lotus root
3 pc omelets made from 2 eggs
1 nori sheet
12 St Sugar snap peas (snow peas)
1 tbsp wasabi paste
100 g tuna stake
100 g squid cleaned
4 medium Shrimps
3 tsp Rice vinegar
1 tsp Sugar
 some Salt
soy sauce

Cook mushrooms with soy and mirin for 20 minutes and cut into strips. Cut the omelet in strips that look like "golden hair". Crush nori into small flakes. Clean snow peas, blanch them in strong salt water for 2 minutes, drain. Cook shrimp in seasoned rice vinegar with a little water 2 to 3 min, drain and peel up at the tail part. Remove the black intestinal thread. Cut other fish in strips,. Divide Sushi rice in half and fill each bowl. sprinkle with nori strips and cover with a rest of the rice. Cover with eggs, mushrooms, and garnish the top with snow peas and shrimp. 

 *More details about sushi ingredients and how to cook rice sushi, see my previous post!

Happy Spring!

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