By the time you read this, I will have met a huge literary deadline. Hopefully, I will have done my dishes, too.
It’s been difficult letting go. There are real people in this book, real histories, real memories. I coddled them and held them close and polished them until they gleamed.Now, the book goes off into the world.
And suddenly, it’s time to begin cooking for the Christmas Eve meal. Yup, you read that right. Not a typo. January 6th. Christmas Eve for all kinds of folks ( East Europeans, Greek Orthodox…) all over the world. This feast is observed according to the Julian Calendar, invented by Julius Ceasar, so it’s way old.
Until I was fourteen, my family celebrated Christmas on the 25th (Gregorian calendar). Then, my father decided we’d change to the 6th, so as to be more patriotic Ukrainians. I attribute every last bit of my yearly Christmas angst to this switcheroo!
As an adult I’ve switched my allegiance back to Pope Gregory, but this year I was split. I was travelling to much to organize a decent Ukrainian Christmas Eve meal on the 24th, so I opted to invite my friends for a January feast. The tree will stay up, and we’ll sing a Ukrainian carol or two to end the season of darkest nights and celebrate the return of the light.
Ukrainian Christmas Eve demands a complicated ritual meal with twelve dishes. One year, I tried to do it all myself, the way my mother does. I shopped, prepped, cooked and cleaned for three solid days. I was faint with exhaustion, and rigid with resentment by the time the first guest arrived.
Since then, I have changed my ways. I email the invited guests with a list of the ritual dishes, placing asterisks next to the ones they may choose to make or purchase. Recipes are sent to those brave enough to attempt borscht, fruit compote, or green beans with prunes.
My friends pretend to complain about the exacting nature of this dinner, and the stress that accompanies their trip to the deli or the Jewish bakery, places they may never have visited before. There are always stories to tell: the harrowing process of making sugar syrup for the compote, and the terrifying way it solidified in the fridge; the formidable ladies that work the counter at the Polish deli on Roncesvalles, with their thick, strong arms, their impatient glares. Someone pours me a glass of wine as I lean against the kitchen counter, listening. This ritual is now owned by all of us.
Laurie has bravely offered to make kutya, a compote of wheat, poppyseed, walnuts and honey, which symbolizes union between the living and the dead. Margaret will bring her borscht, Terri will tackle the perogies again; Cheryl, who’s vegan, will toil at green beans with prunes and garlic. Judith will head to the Polish ‘hood in search of poppyseed roll. I’ll be making cabbage rolls, mushroom sauce, and fried fish. Maybe orange compote, too.
Veselex Sviat y Schaslevoho Novoho Roku.
Happy new year.
Terri’s Transcarpathian Perogies
[Loosely based on Imogene Citrak, “Favorite Recipes Collected by St. Mary’s
Ladies Guild,” St. Mary’s Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church, Endicott, NY,
1984, p. 259.]
Have all ingredients at room temperature. (Just sit all the ingredients on the
kitchen table and tune-in to whatever is on CBC for half an hour while you
set a cauldron of water to boil, bring out 3 bowls, a big pastry or
cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, some clean tea towels, a couple
of cookie trays, a big serving plate and spoon).
Prepare your filling first:
1 T. raw onion, grated
2 T. butter
2 cups mashed potatoes
1 cup old cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and pepper to taste.
Mix the onion, butter, and cheddar into the warm mashed potatoes. The filling should be thick enough to hold its shape.
Then make your dough.
In a bowl, toss and mix:
3 cups of flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Make a big, floury mound on the pastry board, dig out a well and pour in
the following mixture in four parts, each time tossing the floury edges into the
middle with a fork, until the mass is kneadable:
1 cup whole milk, warmed
5 Tablespoons sour cream
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
Knead the dough for 5 minutes, sparingly, then place in a
Bowl covered with a clean tea towel to sit for 10 minutes. Aim for a medium-soft dough. Divide the doug into 4 parts and roll out one at a time while the other balls stay covered
in the warm bowl. Roll dough very thin, about 1/8″ and use a wide mouth jar to cut out circles about 3” in diameter.
Put a dough circle in your palm and press a spoonful of filling onto one half of the cut-out circle. Then, fold the other circle over the filling and put it on the floured board. Close the edges firmly shut with the tines of a fork. (Sometimes you have to wet the edge to stick, or use a little whisked egg white as glue. You will see. But you have to shut them completely or the filling squishes out when they boil).
Dust the varennyky with flour. Place the finished pieces onto a clean
tea towel so they won’t stick to the plate or pan, and then cover them
with a second clean tea towel to prevent drying too much.
Drop about 6 varennyky at a time into a large quantity of rapidly boiling, salted water for 3-4 minutes. Stir very gently to prevent sticking to bottom or each other.
They will become puffy and float to the surface when they are ready. Use a slotted spoon to remove them. Drain in a colander. Place into a wide-bottomed serving dish and sprinkle with melted butter. Gently shift them to distribute butter so they don’t stick to each other.
Serve warm, with sour cream and sautéed onions on the side, if you wish.