Spring is springing…thank goodness. Snow’s beginning to retreat and the rivers are opening. Although Easter is early on the calendar this year, it’s never too early for Easter cheese. It’s the quintessential springtime dessert in many Mennonite homes, easy to make and ready to serve with a good drenching of first run maple syrup.
The Mennonite community has a very strong presence in central Canada. Many still plough their fields with horses and go to town in buggies. There are others who merely drive black cars. They believe in helping each other and depending on no one except themselves. Their larger community is one of the most socially conscious groups on earth with aid workers all over the globe. Here in Ontario, a number of “old order” families do not participate in government offered health care and dozens of farms have neither electricity nor telephones. In a wired nation like Canada, this takes real determination and faith.
For many Mennonites, life tends to move with the cycles of the years. Like most of our ancestors, they are perfectly in tune with the changing seasons. There is a time for everything, from cutting wood and planting to piecing quilts and making sauerkraut.
Late winter is a season of frozen fields and icy roads. Families and neighbours work together to re-stock their larders. They were among the pioneers of nose to tail eating, a trend that seems to have swept North American kitchens. Pigs and cattle are slaughtered in a communal effort to make farmers and summer sausage, smoked pork chops, thick, rind-on bacon, cured hams and head “cheese”. When the thick coils of sausage are made, some are cooked and then preserved in jars, covered in the lard which has been rendered from the same pig. These preserved sausages are a favourite, and essential, fast food, all that is needed for a quick Sunday dinner. Coming home from church, they can be fried in just a few minutes, served with cream drenched, sliced potatoes and a jar or two of pickles. For the family probably whole spiced beets or a chunky cucumber pickle would be opened. But if company is there, one of the children will fetch a jar of baby corn.
Spring truly begins in early March when the maple sap begins to run. The trees are “tapped” with metal spigots off which pails hang. A sleigh is drawn through the forest and the buckets are collected and taken to the small shack where the sap is boiled down into syrup. Sometimes farmers use a network of plastic piping that links the trees with one central collection tank. For about a month, wisps of evaporating steam can be seen curling from many a hardwood forest in Wellington and Waterloo Counties in central Ontario. Although some still make maple sugar, the main crop today is syrup which is sold at the roadside or at farmers markets. The prized first run syrup is light in colour and concentrated in flavour and makes a magnificent dessert when poured over slices of mild, egg-filled Easter cheese.
Easter Cheese is named that because it is served at this particular time of year, particularly with fresh maple syrup and while few outside of the Mennonite community have tasted it, it really does bring the diner closer to God
This custardy cheese is sliced into wedges and served with the season’s first maple syrup poured generously over each portion. This version comes from Nancy Wideman who farmed for decades with her husband, Carl, in Wellington County.
- 8 cups (2 L) homogenized milk
- 5 eggs
- 1½ cups (375 mL) buttermilk
- 1 tsp (5 mL) white vinegar
- ½ tsp (2 mL) salt
In a heavy saucepan, heat the milk until simmering. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, vinegar and salt. Gradually pour into the steaming milk; cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly to prevent scorching, for 15 – 20 minutes or until mixture separates and forms distinct curds.
Transfer to a cheesecloth-lined colander; let drip for 1 hour, squeezing periodically to make it into a ball of cheese. Serve immediately or wrap and refrigerate up to 1 week.
Makes about 10 servings.