CHRISTMAS EVE, little Pennsylvania town, sometime in the '30s. The youngest child in the family scans the sky for the first star. When she spots it, everyone can sit down to eat. Why? Who knows. It's an old Polish custom.
This is how it goes at the dinner, or Vigilia: First the parents pass around oplatek, a holy wafer symbolizing the body of Christ, and everyone breaks off a piece to eat. Then the father makes a speech, something on the order of, "This may be the last time we're all gathered here together . . ." Then everybody cries (old Polish custom). Then they eat -- fish soup, lima bean soup, maybe some salmon croquettes. After that, dessert (candies, fruit and nuts), followed by midnight mass, followed by -- finally -- the unveiling of the Christmas tree, and presents.
"It was a very frugal meal--you were still fasting," says Marie Chaplin (ne'e Bzura), whose Polish immigrant parents kept the customs of the old country alive in the midst of the Depression. Ah, but Christmas Day was another matter.
Slavic Christmases, whether celebrated in good times or bad, are unabashedly sentimental celebrations of family and religion. Customs may vary from country to country, and they adapt to new times and places, but the family resemblance remains visible.
In the Old Country the Polish Christmas Eve meal traditionally revolved around fish and vegetables; the grand meat dishes were reserved for the next day. But somehow it grew lavish despite itself. Dinner began with soups steaming in two large tureens: the dark one, a clear beet soup, accompanied by small dumplings stuffed with saute'ed mushrooms, boiled and served with sour cream; and a light soup, very like a soft rice pudding, with almonds and milk. Then came the fish dishes: pickled herring and the traditional baked pike in a lemony sour cream sauce, or a stuffed long gray pike decorated with carrots and lemon wedges. There were fluffy cooked groats or buckwheat, and sauerkraut with cold mushrooms.
But they didn't stop there. The traditional Polish dish kutia was served, a sort of grain cereal cooked with honey and milk. There were homemade noodles served hot with a sauce of crushed poppy seeds and almond milk with sugar, especially loved by children. Platters of vegetable salads, too, were a part of the feast: cold vegetables in a mustard sauce with herring bits and black olives, decorated with hard-cooked eggs and home-grown parsley.
Finally it was time for desserts and surprises. The samovar was put on the table, the plates were changed, and in came the fruit -- grapes, oranges, apples, pears and tangerines--accompanied by a platter of ginger cakes, preserves and cheese.
That, of course, was just the "fasting" meal. At the Christmas evening meal, the culinary highlight of the holiday season, meats took the stage: beef bouillon with small, meat-stuffed pastries, and a huge ham wrapped in rye dough. Bigos, or hunter's stew, was served with boiled potatoes and buttered scallions. There were cold sliced meats, kielbasa, and the traditional goose, golden brown, stuffed with apples and prunes and sweet rice and decorated with tangerine slices. For dessert, an array of sweets: cold fruit compote, poppyseed strudel with raisins and citron, chocolate cake, fresh fruit, honey-spiced cookies, nuts. Yugoslavia
Christmas Eve in Yugoslavia was traditionally a fast day, too. When the pre-church supper finally began, fish soup and the traditional carp garnished with vegetables were brought steaming to the table.
After dinner, the children would line up according to age and the father would lead them, as if they were ducklings, through the living room, while tossing smoked plums, nuts, figs and grains in each corner of the room. This was a ritual for the blessing of the next harvest.
Then the children were given their presents, and sent to bed so that they could wake up in time for church at midnight.
Breakfast in the morning was fruits, sweets, strong coffee and a sweet rice pudding. But noon was the festive meal, to be shared by family and friends alike. Soups were served; then came roasts--pig, lamb or goose. There were many salads and vegetables and for dessert, pies and Christmas cookies.
The meal ended with a special sweet bread, chesnitsa, formed with a golden ducat inside and a depression on the top for candles. The family passed pieces of the bread around while singing carols, and the one who found the ducat returned the gold piece to the mother of the house (gold being very valuable), who gave the lucky one money and a good luck blessing. Czechoslovakia
In Czechoslovakia, too, the day before Christmas was a fast day. The dinner, a family affair, started with a special Christmas waffle, which resembled a thin, pale communion wafer shaped in the figure of Jesus Christ and served with honey. By tradition, there were nine kinds of dishes including dessert on the table when the family sat down.
The feast began with fish or lentil soup, or both; then came the "carp three ways:" breaded, poached and a dish called "black carp"--baked with prune juice, prunes, raisins, almonds and walnuts. Accompanying all this would be a potato salad and several vegetable dishes.
Then the table would be cleared and the traditional sweet Christmas bread would be served: vanuchaka, made with raisins and almonds. Also, there would be apple strudel, Christmas cookies, fruit cakes and fresh fruits. At the end of the feast, the family would gather together to tell the future: Unmarried girls would go outside into the snowy garden and shake the lilac trees to rouse a dog. If a dog barked from a certain direction, the young woman would seek her fiance in that area. Hungary
Christmas Eve dinner in Hungary, served before midnight mass, began with wine or fish soup. It was followed by carp and pike--stuffed and baked, or boiled or broiled. No meats were served before the mass, so the scant supper ended with beigli, a traditional pastry made of poppy seeds or walnuts, cakes such as the dobos, a seven-layer chocolate cake, and the traditional linzer torte. A chocolate covered confection, szalon, ended the meal.
Christmas day was the day for the relatives' visits. The main meal of the day was served at lunch, where traditionally it was chicken in the pot or a beef-based vegetable soup.
The goose was served with saute'ed red cabbage and potatoes, stuffed cabbage, a stuffed capon and more desserts.
The day after Christmas, friends and family would visit from house to house and village to village, consuming leftovers of the previous day's feasts. Russia
Russian Christmas was celebrated about two weeks after the traditional December Christmas date. On the day before Christmas Eve supper, in Russia, too, they fasted; in the evening, the priest from the local village would call on the family to take a cup of kvas, a traditional Russian drink fermented from black bread. Supper began after all assembled around a gaily decorated table, and the priest blessed the food.
The first course was sour shchi, a soup, served with sour cream. Then came platters of piroshki--small buns stuffed with a mixture of chopped egg, saute'ed mushrooms and onions--and side dishes of pickles, boiled potatoes, carrots, and beautifully arranged platters with soft herrings and fried smelts. Kutia, too, was served.
Then came the fish courses--baked skewered eels arranged with slices of lemon, sturgeon in aspic for the children, and caviar, gray, pearly and fresh. There were tureens of kasha mixed with small mussels and fried onions--a wonderful side dish--and baked mullet. Fresh horseradish was made with white or red beets and served with the fish.
Then flat platters with sweet cabbage pirog--a large pastry pie filled with cabbage, eggs and mushrooms--a traditional Christmas dish, were brought out. Noodles and a roast venison signaled the end of the savories.
The dishes were cleared and out came kisiel, a sort of soft transparent cream made out of cooked berries and served with compote, cookies and poppy seed cake.
Samovars were then placed on the table, and tea with all the embellishments was served. On the table were sliced halva, jellied fruits, homemade candy and preserves made out of wonderful things like raspberries, gooseberries, currants, quinces, rosehips and loganberries. There were small cakes resembling danish pastries with prune and cheese fillings.
After the tea, the Christmas tree was presented in the living room, where "Father Frost" waited with a bag full of presents.
Midnight chimes signaled the church service and the celebrants, wrapped in the wolf skins and bundled into a sled, made their way across the snowy fields.
On Christmas day, the mistress of the house laid out snacks, or zakuski, in anticipation of the bigger feast in the evening. At this dinner, not only was the family present, but the local gentry were invited to share the feast: a governor of the province, the local doctor, a judge, or a couple of high-ranking officers from the local garrison. The children's table was moved to an adjoining room; the adults ate in the dining room with tables arranged in a horseshoe.
Dinner traditionally began with red Ukrainian borscht accompanied by meat-stuffed piroshki. Then came the roast goose, ham, wild game jellied pork and kulebiaka stuffed with ground turkey and spices. An array of vegetables and fruits--marinated and salted wild mushrooms, loganberries, marinated plums and pears, mounds of sauerkraut, pickles, olives, green tomatoes and peppers--accompanied the meat. There were potato pancakes and noodle puddings, in addition to boiled potatoes.
Soon, big bowls of fresh fruit (especially imported for holidays) were placed on the tables. From the Caucasus came grapes, oranges, pears and apples, plus trays of dried figs, apricots, prunes, raisins and nuts.
At the end of Russian Christmas day, tea and pastries were served. The next few days were spent visiting and consuming the leftover food.
Below, some recipes for a Slavic Christmas. PALACSINTAK BARACKIZZEL (Hungarian Apricot Pancakes) (Makes about 14 pancakes) 3 eggs 1 cup milk 1/3 cup club soda, freshly opened 1 cup sifted flour 3 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 4 to 6 tablespoons butter 3/4 cup apricot jam 1 cup ground walnuts or filberts Confectioners' sugar
Beat the eggs lightly with the milk in a small bowl. Combine with the club soda in a large mixing bowl. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and sugar, then add the salt and vanilla extract. Continue to stir until the batter is smooth. Melt 1 teaspoon of butter in an 8-inch skillet. When foam subsides, ladle in enough batter to cover the bottom of the skillet. Tilt the skillet to spread batter evenly and pour out residue. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned, then turn and brown lightly on other side. When pancake is done, spread 2 teaspoons jam over it, roll loosely into a cylinder, then put in a baking dish in a 200-degree oven to keep warm until the pancakes are finished. Serve warm as dessert, sprinkled with nuts and confectioners' sugar. From "The Cooking of Vienna's Empire," by Joseph Wechsberg LOVACKI DJUVEC (Yugoslavian Hunter's Stew) (4 to 6 servings) 8 slices bacon, chopped 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic 1 cup scraped and sliced carrots 2 cups water 1/4 cup red wine vinegar 3 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes 1/2 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper 1 cup uncooked converted rice 2 medium-sized green peppers, with seeds and ribs removed and cut into slices 1/4-inch wide and 2-inches long (about 1 1/2 cups) 1 1/4 cups beef stock Salt Cook bacon over medium heat in a 10- to 12-inch skillet for 6 to 8 minutes, or until it has rendered most of its fat and is slightly crisp. Remove bacon and reserve it. Pour off all but a thin film of fat from skillet. Add onions and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until slightly translucent, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and carrots and cook for 5 to 6 minutes longer. Return bacon to the skillet, stir in water and vinegar, and add beef cubes, salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Reduce heat to its lowest and simmer, covered, for about an hour. Gradually stir in the rice, add sliced peppers and beef stock. Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce to low. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until rice is tender but not mushy. Taste for seasoning. Serve as main dish with mixed green salad.
From "The Cooking of Vienna's Empire, by Joseph Wechsberg POLISH DESSERT CAKE
This is a chocolate flat cookie-like cake served often for Christmas. For the dough: 1/2 pound unsalted butter 2 cups blanched, peeled almonds, ground in food processor 1 cup sugar 4 eggs, slightly beaten Grated rind of 1 lemon 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 cups sifted flour For the filling: 4 eggs, slightly beaten 1 cup sugar 1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate, grated 1 tablespoon flour 1 cup blanched peeled almonds, coarsely chopped
To make the dough, cream butter in a large bowl. Add ground almonds, sugar, eggs, lemon rind, vanilla and flour. Blend mixture thoroughly. Roll the mixture 1/4-inch thick on a flat, buttered baking sheet. Place into a 350-degree oven and bake until very light brown, about 25 to 35 minutes. Cool it, put aside.
To make the filling, beat eggs and sugar. Beat in grated chocolate. Add the flour and almonds, mix well. Spread the mixture over baked dough, in the buttered sheet pan. Place it in a 200-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes; watch that it doesn't brown too much or it will be too crunchy. Remove from the oven and let the cake cool. Then, with a sharp knife, cut about 1 1/2-by 4-inch strips. The Poles set this outdoors to chill before serving. CZECHOSLOVAK CAULIFLOWER SOUFFLE (4 to 6 servings) 1 cup butter Salt to taste 4 eggs, separated 1 cup sliced, sauteed mushrooms 2 cups cooked cauliflower, divided into flowerets 1 cup cooked and chopped veal or ham 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 2 tablespoons minced parsley 2 cups bread crumbs
Cream 1/2 cup butter; add salt and egg yolks; mix well. Add mushrooms, cauliflower, meat, nutmeg, parsley and 1 2/3 cup bread crumbs; blend well. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Pour into greased 2-quart souffle' dish, lightly dusted with bread crumbs. Bake in hot water bath in 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Brown 1/4 cup bread crumbs in remaining butter, sprinkle over souffle' before serving. From "The Czechoslovak Cookbook," by Joza Brizova PEAS WITH BARLEY (4 to 6 servings) 2 cups cooked, dried peas 2 cups cooked barley 1/4 cup lard 1 medium onion, chopped 8 to 12 slices fried crisp bacon (drippings reserved)
Mix peas with barley and lard in an oven-proof casserole. Set aside. Brown onion in bacon drippings. Sprinkle bacon and onion over peas and barley. Warm in 350-degree oven for 10 minutes; serve.
From "The Czechoslovak Cookbook," by Joza Brizova