A British Easter brunch, once stuffy foods are updated, now hip and trendy

Hot cross bun at Metropolitan Bakery. Usually eaten on Good Friday, the buttery, fruit-spiked breads often grace the Easter Sunday feast, too.
Hot cross bun at Metropolitan Bakery. Usually eaten on Good Friday, the buttery, fruit-spiked breads often grace the Easter Sunday feast, too.
Posted: April 05, 2012

Tasty English food has gone from an oxymoron to a driving culinary trend in this country, thanks to chefs such as April Bloomfield of New York's Spotted Pig. Once-stuffy dishes rooted in British history are suddenly hip, made with a lighter hand and quality, seasonal ingredients.

In Philadelphia, British mania can be found in gastropubs such as Pub & Kitchen and the across-the-pond-themed eatery the Dandelion, but also through subtle menu touches. Marc Vetri put rarebit on the menu at his new pub, Alla Spina, though it's made Italian style, with sunny-side-up egg and applewood smoked bacon. You'll also find deviled eggs - made with porcini.

The trend translates brilliantly to the Easter table. Just ask the area expats who flock to the Whip Tavern in Chester County to ease their holiday homesickness. "There is a lot more to it than roast beef and Yorkshire pudding," says Whip owner K.C. Kulp, speaking of their Easter brunch. "There are a lot of culinary traditions that surround the event. When we open the doors at 11, there is already a queue forming."

Chef Wyatt Lash is basing this year's menu around lamb. "Lamb is a highly consumed animal in the U.K.," says the chef, who is adapting his centerpiece to more American tastes by serving a rack of lamb, instead of the leg or shoulder one might find on English tables. He's keeping the flavorings simple, using the trio of parsley, lemon, and sage, as well as a mint sauce.

To add some English flair to your meal, take inspiration from some of the Whip's Sunday brunch staples. Bubble and squeak is a classic side dish, created as a way to make use of the veggies left over from Sunday roasts. Lash elevates the dish by forming boiled potatoes, cabbage, leeks, cream, and butter into a pancake, which he pan-sears to a crisp. He drapes it with folds of smoked Scottish salmon, and a dill hollandaise sauce. To incorporate eggs, a sign of spring and Easter, into the meal, he suggests serving the dish or starter with a fried egg.

The most popular soup at the Whip, English onion, makes a great first course - it's a take on the French version, but with Anglo touches. Sweet onions are deglazed with a hard cider instead of wine, and the floating bread island is topped with a nutty Welsh or English cheddar.

Savory food might be the cornerstone of all proper English Easter meals, but for many the holiday is all about the sweets.

While hot cross buns are usually eaten on Good Friday, the buttery fruit-spiked breads are so beloved they often garnish the table on Easter Sunday as well. James Barrett, co-owner and baker of Metropolitan Bakery, has been making the Anglo breads for most of the 19 years he has been in business. They'll bake about 200 dozen this week.

"There are so many superstitions surrounding the buns," Barrett says. "Breaking them in half is supposed to preserve friendship, and some people dry the buns and grate them for medicinal healing. That's a lot of pressure for a baker."

Barrett does a slow, cold 24-hour rise on his hot cross buns, which keeps them fresh and moist while they are delivered to Metropolitan's regional locations. He adds candied oranges and currants, and cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as a pinch of saffron, which gives them a great golden color. The dough is eggy and rich, and the crosses are drawn on with a sugar icing.

Simnel cake is another English Easter sweet. "It's like a lighter version of fruitcake," says Lash, who is making the cake to serve at the Whip's brunch. It's pretty, and decorated with 11 marzipan balls symbolizing the apostles, minus Judas. Cut into the cake and you'll find raisins, currants, and dried grapes called sultanas.

But the sweet that seems to delight revelers no matter what their age is chocolate. In England, large chocolate eggs are often filled with smaller chocolates, like a cocoa piñata. "It was all about outdoing your neighbors and seeing how many you could eat before you got sick," says Whip general manager Alan Hudson, a native Brit.

At A Taste of Britain in Wayne, owner Debbie Heth has filled her shelves with the beloved chocolates, including malt and chocolate and Maltesers, and large 8- to 10-inch eggs filled with smaller Cadbury caramel eggs. There are also a lot of chocolate animals - no bunnies, Heth says, but the cows and chicls are cute as can be.

"I was really surprised to learn what a big deal this candy is to our English customers," she says. "One of our servers, Sarah, grew up near Oxford, England. She said of course she has to buy some of this candy - her son needs to grow up with the right British traditions!"

Contact Ashley Primis on Twitter @ashleyprimis.

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