This year was the first year in our married life that we stayed local for Christmas. While it was, at fleeting moments, sad not to be ensconced in the familiar familial Christmas, it was restful to be at home in our new home, owned and not yet lived in 2 months.
And it was a rewarding new experience to be on the hosting side of the equation. I’m grateful that we are able to return some of the generous hospitality from family and god-family by inviting, in turn, others that may not have had a place to go.
It was also fun to try my hand at making the traditional Polish Christmas Eve supper, called Wigilia. Thankfully, we have a small Polish store nearby, so I was able to stock up on sauerkraut (the real kind – only containing cabbage and salt), candied orange peels, ‘country sausage’, ready-made barszcz (beet soup) and baked makowiec (poppyseed roll). My quest for dried mushrooms was unsuccessful in most major supermarkets of the area (Trader Joes, you disappointed me!) but finally I was pointed in the direction of a hidden shelf at Whole Foods which held dried porcini mushrooms.
Traditionally, Wigilia (‘evening meal’) contains 12 to 13 dishes (accounts vary) and by dint of diligent counting, we achieved that number. The evening is also usually meatless (up until the 1990s, the Catholic Church in Poland decreed Christmas Eve a day of fast, so the evening meal was always meatless and the only full meal of the day), but it was also a Sunday, so I figured the Sunday trumped the fast day. Oh, and we had wine too, again not very traditional.
I started prepping the day before the main event and that turned out to be the right amount of time.
First, I made bigos, Polish hunter’s stew.
I loosely followed about 2-3 recipes, but the condensed version was: brown onion, bacon and sausage (in the order desired and amounts desired), put in a crockpot. Add half a cabbage and approximately the same amount sauerkraut (most recipes say to add half the amount of sauerkraut as cabbage, but I wasn’t measuring). I also added reconstituted mushrooms (bring 2 cups broth to a boil, add about 1/2 cup dried mushrooms, turn off heat and let soak for an hour. fish out mushrooms, cut and add to bigos, strain liquid through coffee filter and add to crockpot). I also added a handful of raisins (prunes are more traditional, but I didn’t have any on hand). Most recipes call for a can or so of tomatoes, I had 2 tomatoes so I threw those in. Added 2-3 bay leaves, and half a packet of bigos spices (allspice, celery seed, and marjoram are the most important). I let everything cook for 8 hours on low and it came out perfectly cooked. Bigos apparently needs to be cooled and heated a number of times for flavors to develop, so a trick in my family is to leave the crockpot container outside once cooked and then heat it again (this didn’t work for us because we had temperatures in the 60s – which only plummeted to the teens now!). Note: to be more traditional, I should have only added meat on Dec. 25th (and added a larger quantity of pork/beef).
Next was my favorite and most important part – making uszka (‘little ears’ – despite their unappetizing name, these mushroom-filled dumplings are the highlight of the evening for me. And reheating them for a 2 AM snack after Midnight Mass is what Christmas is all about).
Uszka turned out to be more complicated then I thought. If I had to redo, I would probably just saute chopped onion (and some garlic) with finely chopped mushrooms (I used button, don’t judge) and then mix in some breadcrumbs. Some recipes called for throwing in an egg but that just didn’t seem to work for me. Anyway, I made the filling the day before, and I also made the dough so that it would chill in the fridge for an hour before we rolled it out. I really didn’t like the dough as much as my mom’s pierogi dough, so in the future, I’ll go with hers since it’s much easier. Essentially, put a few cups of white flour in a bowl and then add hot water and mix with a spoon and eventually your hands (the water should be as hot as you can stand, obviously don’t injure yourself). Some recipes including the one I used recommend not using boiling water but instead adding an egg or two but I felt this made the dough super chewy and tougher once boiled (and you really don’t want to be struggling to cut through the dough with your spoon when your dumpling is floating around in purple liquid). Once the dough is ready, roll it out and cut out little squares. Put a teaspoon (don’t overstuff!) of filling into the middle of the square and then fold it to make a little triangle. Close opposing ends of the triangle to make a little bishop’s hat shape (you can dip your finger in water to help seal the dumpling). Drop into boiling water with a drop of oil and fish out once the dumplings float to the top (about 1-2 minutes). Let drain in a colander (you can add some butter to stop the uszka from sticking to each other). (a recipe that explains in more detail could be this one).
A strong husband willing to dexterously handle a rolling pin is extremely important to the success of this operation. 🙂
The beet soup itself was from a box, so I can’t claim any credit there. It was delicious and time-saving.
Next, I prepped kluski z makiem (imaginatively named noodles with poppyseed).
Traditionalists would have you make the noodles yourself but after taking 2 hours to make uszka there was no way we were going to bring out the rolling pin again. Egg noodles are your friend. For the poppyseed sauce, I boiled about 2 cups of almond milk with honey and a drop of vanilla extract. Then I added candied orange peel, crushed pecans, and ground poppyseed (mielony mak – if it’s not ground, you will have to boil it twice and then grind it – so don’t bother, just get the ground version or buy a can of poppyseed filling). You want the poppyseed to become a sort of thick sauce that you can easily mix with the noodles. Easy to prep in advance, mix noodles and poppyseed, and then pop into the microwave when needed.
Finally, I made ryba panierowana (breaded fish).
Traditionally you use a fresh water fish – usually carp – and I had tilapia in the freezer, so I figured what was good enough for the Apostles (tilapia are found in the Sea of Galilee) was good enough for me. After thawing the fish in the fridge, I sprinkled it with lime juice and let it soak for a bit, then dried it off carefully (paper towels are best for this), sprinkled the fish with garlic powder, salt and pepper. Then I coated it in 3 toppings (each in a separate bowl): flour, egg, breadcrumbs (saltines smashed with a rolling pin make excellent breadcrumbs, by the way) and fried in a mixture of butter and vegetable oil. The main tip I have is to make sure the pan is hot before you add the oil, and then again make sure the oil is hot (you can sacrifice a breadcrumb to the oil to check the sizzling) before you add the fish. And it will cook faster on the second side, so be watchful. Best to use two spatulas to flip it as fish can be delicate. I decorated with a sprig of dill (you can’t have Wigilia without dill or parsley!) and a lime wedge, because I generally don’t do lemons. Also, eat the dill! It’s not just garnish. It’s an essential part of the meal. In fact, we may have counted it as a separate dish to meet our quota 😉
To accompany the fish, I roasted potato wedges (according to this fabulous non-Polish recipe) and beets (no recipe, but easy enough to google). The final plates looked something like this:
And our table like this:
Oh! No dessert photos. Well, we had kluski z makiem as a transition to the dessert part of the evening. We also had store-bought makowiec and a szarlotka (essentially apple cake). I used my Russian neighbor’s recipe (and only felt like half a traitor for not making the completely different and more labor-intenstive Polish verion). I don’t have her recipe, but this one is a close approximation.
The tweaks I made to this recipe per my neighbor were using 4-5 apples and putting down first a layer of apples, then pouring in batter, than another layer of apples, and more batter (and sprinkling some cinnamon here and there). I find this gives a better distribution of the apples/batter in the finished product. Also, make sure to really beat the eggs properly (I once tried to make this with a hand whisk and the cake didn’t fully rise :/) and use parchment paper or butter your pan. Due to a miscommunication with y diligent sous-chef and master table-setter/decorator, we ended up with an upside-down cake (which actually looked pretty nice with the layers of apple slices) that we then had to cover with confectioner’s sugar.
I don’t have a photo of the original, but this is what it looked like creatively repurposed for brunch the next day:
What a feast! So glad my husband and I had a Polish guest to share with. We followed my family’s tradition of waiting for the first star (well, maybe a little after the first star…), reading a passage from the Gospel about the Nativity, and sharing oplatek (unconsecrated wafer with Christmas designs on it. You take a piece and share it with your fellow diners, wishing them whatever you desire, and you break off and eat a piece of their wafer as a sign of accepting their wishes). We tried to have 13 dishes, we set a place for the unknown guest who might still arrive, we hid an almond piece in one uszko (supposedly the person who finds it will get married within the next year…), we played Christmas carols (they may have been in Brazilian samba style… here is a more traditional but still creative and beautiful Polish compilation of Christmas carols that I really liked), we shared our home with a friend, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
Wesołych Świąt to you and your loved ones! It’s only the beginning of the Christmas season!