My Italian husband balks at food that isn’t red or green. When I brought him to his first Polish Christmas Eve supper, he looked at our food, exclaiming, “Everything is brown!” We surveyed the landscape of our table — a sable sea of black mushroom soup steaming in Grandmom’s tureen, an amber knoll of sizzling pierogi, a tawny marsh of kapusta, a russet hill of fried smelts and on the sideboard, golden pyramids and snowcapped mountains of cookies and said “So?”
Whether you’re of Polish, German, Italian or any European background, chances are you share the same custom of a meatless Christmas Eve dinner. Italians call it Night of the Seven Fishes or Vigilia. Poles call it Wigilia (vee-ghee-LEE-a) for vigil.
Vigil has a history that predates Christmas by many centuries. Falling on winter solstice, it honored the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, whose fairness inspired forgiveness and sharing. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin — with bread — and illustrates a custom unique to Poles.
The hostess greets you on Wigilia with Oplatek, a flat bread wafer. You share it with other guests and family, signifying that none of you will let the others go hungry in the coming year. Whether Poles live in Bisbee, Brisbane or Bialystock, they mail the wafer to each other to stay in communion with far away loved ones.
As if mindful of the snow that blanketed Bethlehem that first night of the Christian era, milky damask covers Polish Wigilia tables. Tucked beneath the cloth, strands of hay symbolize the manger. Icy silverware and crystal stemware spike each place setting. Your senses, rattled perhaps by last minute shopping and preparations, are assuaged as you run a fingernail across the crisp cloth to release the comforting aroma of boiled starch. There is always a moment before the meal is lain as silent and thoughtful as the last swirls of a snowfall.
Supper begins when the youngest children, called the Starwatchers, sight the first star. They yell “Jest, jest,” (is, is) and the kitchen bustle goes from simmer to roiling boil.
Dried mushrooms gathered in Poland’s birch forests star in this meal. The best, Borowiki Bialy (bore-owe-VEE-kee bee-AH-wee), are white-capped mushrooms far more pungent and meaty-tasting than morels. And more dear too. Running about $100 per pound in the states, it’s no wonder Polish travelers hazard smuggling them back with them. Once, our aunt lined her girdle with plastic sheathing and stuffed two pounds of broken-up mushrooms into it. She flew back to JFK with them poking her ribs. They made the best soup we ever had.
In a train station in Poland’s Silesian Mountains one recent late summer, I saw dozens of flannel-shirted, unshaven men disembarking with heavy baskets. They were filled with a treasure of fresh mushrooms to be dried and strung for export or sold by the roadside. For $30 I successfully smuggled in about a $100 worth this year and we will make our soup and sauerkraut with them. I don’t know how good they will be. I just brought them over in my handbag. I don’t wear a girdle.
Depending on the region of Poland you come from, the meal must have seven, nine, eleven or even twelve dishes — the more, the better the year has been to you. If this sounds daunting, you don’t have to do the whole thing yourself. Busy working families can make an easy version of this meal with made ahead soup and smoked fishes, pickled herring, and homemade pierogi, kapusta and other holiday fixings, purchased from shops in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond section.
However you celebrate the holidays, I hope you find a way to experience that lovely, communal moment that eases us from the hectic world to the private cheer of our family and friends. Wesolych Swiat — Peace to the World.
Here are my recipes for two of the most iconic Polish Christmas cookies:
Polish Tea Cakes (Ciastka z Konserwa)
1 C butter
1 C sugar
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
2 egg whites, slightly beaten
2 C flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
Finely chopped walnuts
2 or 3 kinds of preserves, plum, cherry, apricot, or raspberry
In a mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks. Add flour sifted with the salt until well blended. Chill mixture until very firm. Roll dough into small balls and drop into egg whites. Place walnuts into deep bowl. Lift out balls one at a time and drain off egg whites. Drop them into the nuts and roll the bowl around to coat them. Remove and reroll to press nuts into the cookies. Place into a pan that will pack them in snugly. Take the end of a round chopstick or narrow pen and press a hole into the center, taking care not to let the dough break through the coating. Chill again.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 325°. Place cookies on greased sheets an inch or more apart and bake for five to ten minutes. Remove and press holes again, plumping up sides of cookies that may have spread too much. Bake for at least another 15 minutes until the nuts are a light golden brown. Remove from oven, place on racks to cool and immediately begin filling with half teaspoons of some of each of the preserves. The heat of the cookies will cook and gel them as they cool.
Pastry Fingers (Paluszki)
1 lb. Butter
1lb cream cheese
4 C. flour
½ tsp vanilla
Have butter and cream cheese at room temperature and beat in electric mixer until fluffy and creamy. Add vanilla and slowly incorporate flour on low speed until incorporated. Divide dough into four portions, flatten and wrap each in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 30 minutes or overnight. Remove dough from refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Roll out between sheets of wax paper until approx 15 to 18 inches long and about 9 to 12 inches wide. (Release the wax paper and smooth it when it gets wrinkled) Slip dough (still in paper) onto cookie sheet and refrigerate while rolling out the remaining sections. Sprinkle large work space with flour. Take out coldest section, release one side of waxed paper and flip onto floured surface. Remove remaining paper. Sprinkle dough and rolling pin with flour and roll flour out thinner into a larger rectangle. (Do not worry if it rips and tears, you can patch it, feathering the patch with your fingers.) With the yardstick, measure 3×3 inch squares. Fill pastry bag with filling and squeeze out about an inch diagonally across the center of each square. Fold the squares into triangles, fold each end of the filling in and roll the dough up into a crescent, pointed edge of dough should go down on ungreased cookie sheet. You can cover them and leave them overnight in fridge to bake the next day. Bake at 350° for 20 –25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on racks. Sift powdered sugar into deep bowl and drop a few cookies in at a time, tossing to coat.