Tasting history: Melbourne's multicultural Easter treats

Maamoul moulds.
Maamoul moulds. 

Easter. It's meant to be a season of new life and hope. But with hot cross buns and cheap chocolate eggs creeping on to shelves as early as January, it's easy to end up with a case of Easter ennui. But don't despair - traditional Easter specialties are being made across Melbourne, and from sweets to savouries, you're sure to find something to put a spring in your step this Easter.

Out the back of T. Cavallaro & Sons in Footscray, Tony Cavallaro rolls a fat sausage of marzipan on the marble bench and gently presses it into a weathered plaster mould. It's the first step in making an agnello pasquale or Easter lamb, a traditional Sicilian Easter gift. The lambs are made from either solid marzipan or with a marzipan shell filled with sponge and fruit mince and decorated with curlicues of buttercream icing.

"I always get excited making these," Cavallaro says. "It brings me back to seeing dad make them." He still uses the original plaster moulds his father Tommaso brought to Melbourne from Sicily in 1949. Tommaso inherited them from his father, also a baker, and Tony estimates the moulds are about 120 years old.

Simnel cake, a traditional Easter cake.
Simnel cake, a traditional Easter cake. Photo: Mark Chew

A love of tradition led Phillippa Grogan to add simnel cake to her Easter repertoire, first baking it for her Phillippa's stores about 20 years ago. "I love baked festive food that has roots in religious, cultural, pagan or historic traditions," she says. "In our intensively innovative world, there seems to be some security offered by the familiarity of flavours from our past."

This English Eastertide treat is a rich fruitcake loaded with currants and candied orange peel, filled and iced with marzipan that is gently toasted to enhance its flavour. On top are 11 marzipan balls that represent Jesus' 11 good apostles. It's gorgeous with a strong cup of tea or a nip of sherry.

Meanwhile, at Ablas in Preston, it's maamoul-making day. To the tune of a crooning Arabic songstress on the stereo, two workers deftly roll balls of date paste and toss them on to a tray. Next, bakers Jacques Abd El Nour and Hazim Hazim snatch pieces of wet, yellow, semolina-based dough and, with a flourish, evenly enclose each date ball within seconds.

These cocktail-sized Lebanese shortbreads are baked throughout the year but at Easter, larger maamoul become popular. At Ablas, they are made the old-fashioned way by pressing each soft, filled dough ball into a grooved wooden mould.

The date, walnut or pistachio-stuffed biscuits are wrapped in waxy paper and given as gifts throughout the Easter season.

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At Hellas Cakes in Richmond, Peter Laliotis' family has been baking tsoureki for more than 50 years. This Greek Easter bread begins with a rich dough incorporating flour, butter, eggs and sugar, spiced with mahlepi and mastic. The dough is plaited, formed into a circle and a dyed red egg tucked in the centre to "[symbolise] the red blood of Christ", says Laliotis. He explains that the night before Easter day, people head to midnight mass before returning for a feast, with the tsoureki the centrepiece of the table. "No football on that night!" he says, laughing.

Most Easter treats are sweet but look out for La Morenita's savoury specialty. On Good Friday, Maria and Marco De La Plaza will begin baking Chilean seafood empanadas filled with prawns, mussels, fish, calamari, onion and spices including paprika and oregano. The empanadas form part of the traditional Chilean Easter Sunday lunch, along with seafood soup and fried fish in batter seasoned with fresh coriander and garlic.

So cobble together your own Easter tradition from all that multicultural Melbourne has to offer. That way, when you see the supermarket chocolate eggs appear, you'll know they're just the happy harbingers of the handmade treats to come.

EASTER SHOPPING GUIDE

Marzipan lambs T. Cavallaro & Sons, $10-$150, 98 Hopkins Street, Footscray, 9687 4638; tcavallaroandsons.com.au.

Simnel cake Phillippa's, $36, 1030 High Street, Armadale, 9576 2020; 608 Hampton Street, Brighton, 9592 7340; 15 Howey Place, Melbourne, 9671 4030; phillippas.com.au.

Maamoul Ablas Patisserie, $2 each, 260 High Street, Preston, 9480 1700; Prahran Market, Shop 815, 163 Commercial Road, Prahran, 9827 5881; 3/87-95 Wheatsheaf Road, Glenroy, 9306 8688; abla.com.au.

Tsoureki Hellas Cakes, $6-$12, 322 Lennox Street, Richmond, 9428 6805; hellascakes.com.au.

Empanadas La Morenita Latin Cuisine, $3-$3.50 each, 67 Berkshire Road, Sunshine North, 9311 2911; latinfoodsandwines.com.au.

ALSO TRY

Colomba pasquale, a dove-shaped cake similar to panettone ($14), is an Italian Easter specialty, made the same way for 35 years at Angelo Pasticceria, 757 Nicholson Street, Carlton North, 9380 4023. And, hand-cast Callebaut chocolate eggs filled with house-made nougat are traditional Sicilian Easter Sunday gifts. Pick one up at Dolcetti, 223 Victoria Street, West Melbourne, 9328 1688; dolcetti.com.au.