The open egg cartons have been at my desk for days, the brillant patterns and colors of their contents stopping colleagues in their tracks.

"Did you dye these eggs?" they ask with a hint of awe at the mosaic of color. "How did you do it?"

I have to admit it isn't that difficult. With homemade dye produced from food, the process is easy and the result is a swirl of hues I can't get from a box. The effort is a welcome rite of spring that crosses cultures and centuries.

There is nothing predictable about the ancient process. And that is its charm. I reach for the odd assortment of foodstuff when I color eggs, this-and-that found at the bottom of the refrigerator crisper, the onion skins and beets, leftover cranberries and red cabbage leaves.

And that's not the only place I hunt for color. The jars of spices in the cupboard -- turmeric, curry and cumin -- come in handy, as does the frozen fruit in the freezer (raspberries or blackberries) or the canned fruit in the dark corners of the pantry (blueberries). And then there are beverages: juice and red wine, tea and coffee.

Cooks for centuries reached for eggs, a pan and food scraps when the days started to lengthen and thoughts turned to a new season. Then along came packaged dyes and the practice of using real food fell by the wayside for those of us without a cultural connection to the old ways.

Enough with the new! It's time to go back to the source, and we mean beets and turmeric, not Paas and Dudley. True, the home brew is a bit messier than the instant version (but let's face it, egg dyeing is always messy). Natural dyes take longer to work. Their colors may be lighter than the vivid packaged variety (there is no neon lime shade in natural food dyes).

And then there is the unpredictability involved (where did that color come from?). But, hey, that's why we are cooks! To get messy in the kitchen and experiment.

If you have used packaged egg dyes before, you will have worked with the cold method of coloring (which actually uses a warm dye, but the eggs are cold). You start with hard-cooked eggs and then dip them in color, essentially a two-step process.

One-step process

But with natural dyes, you can cook the eggs in the dye as it brews, which saves time and contains the mess a bit.

To get started, place the eggs in a single layer in a non-aluminum pan, and cover them with 1 inch of water and a little vinegar, which helps set the color on the eggs (see recipe above).

To the water, add the ingredients for the dye, pushing them down into the water and among the eggs. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. (If you're using beverages for the dye, simply simmer the eggs in the liquid. If you're using a can of blueberry pie filling, simply drop the cooked egg in there.)

Remove the eggs, strain the dye and let it cool. If you want the eggs to be a darker hue, put the dye in a bowl with the eggs and refrigerate for hours or overnight. Or try a second color for the eggs (keep several pots of dye going). The key is to experiment with anything colorful that you can crush and simmer in water for a dye.

If you would like a sheen on the eggs, rub them with vegetable oil. For easy storage, keep the just-dyed eggs in their original cartons.

Lessons in art

The dye is only a starting point. You also can dabble with texture and design. For a mottled effect, rub the dyed egg to remove some of the color before it is dry.

For patterns, wrap the egg in onion skins or tiny leaves after it has been colored (but before it dries). For a stipled effect, use a clean sponge and dab at the wet colored egg. For a marbleized look, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the dye and swirl the egg in the color.

Channel your inner child by drawing on the eggs with a wax crayon to create designs (the dye won't adhere to the wax). Rubber bands also can be used to create designs before you drop eggs in the dye.

How edible are these?

Before you start dipping into the colorful egg centerpiece that's been sitting out for a week, keep this food safety tip in mind:

Eggs, as with any food), should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. If you want to eat your dyed eggs, store them in the refrigerator until mealtime.

Now get busy. Your kitchen palette is waiting.