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In the intro to this blog, I wrote about how my family was the root of my love of cooking, and no time is more filled with that feeling than these last days of December. Therefore this post will be a little less about recipes, and a little more about the tradition that is our Christmas Eve family meal.

Christmas is my favorite holiday because of the family reunion when we all meet at one table to share special food. I know that a lot of people complain about the commercial part of Christmas, but once you put that all behind you and focus on all the smells and noise coming out of the kitchen, you know it is worth all the effort and wait. I think I became particularly sentimental when I left Poland and missed some of the Christmas holidays with my family in my grandma’s house with all the cousins and aunts and the delicious food that you just wait all year long to eat. Even though there might be new cousins and new members added to the family, the food always tastes the same! And even though we hear the same stories every year from our 98 year old grandma about war and how she ran away and was hiding from the Nazis and silly stories from our childhoods, that is the real charm. We all looked through our grandfather’s diary from the time he was a military medic who wandered around Poland and neighboring countries between 1934-1937, and every year we find something new in it.

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So wherever we go I try to keep up with my family traditions and make all the same food that my mom and my grandmother and my aunt make.

Let me tell you, Christmas Eve is no joke in my family! There are always 12 traditional dishes that symbolize 12 apostles, and not one of the 12 dishes served that night has any meat. I think my husband couldn’t believe that you can eat dinner without any meat until he got stuffed with 4 types of pierogi, including a deep fried dessert version with apples and cinnamon. But that comes later.

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To start the feast, Christmas Eve dinner begins with a special soup that we only eat at Christmas. It’s similar to Polish Zurek, or sour rye, soup. It’s made with fermented rye flour, garlic, and spices, and it has onion, barley, wild mushrooms that were hand-picked and dried by my family, and tiny dumplings called “uszka” or “ears.”

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The food list continues with pierogi. There are two types; one filled with wild mushrooms, and one filled with sauerkraut.

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They “swim” in a special cold pressed canola oil only available at local markets for Christmas, and are accompanied by fried onions.

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The fourth “apostle” is cabbage with mushrooms and peas. These aren’t “peas” in the sense of green peas, but are larger white beans mixed with cabbage that is cooked similarly to bigos, but without the meat.

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The fifth dish begins the fish course. Carp is the main attraction, and you can buy them live all over towns in Poland at this time of year. The carp is pan seared in oil and butter, and served with locally made fresh bread. It’s a simple dish, but one that has been substituted in the past with different types of fish, depending on how much money was available at Christmas.

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The sixth dish is cold, and it’s herring marinated in oil and onions. Another variation is the seventh dish, which is herring in sour cream and onions, apples, and spices. Generally, this in on the table throughout the entire meal, rather than served in any particular order. The next fish dish is carp in jelly. This is a special presentation, as it is an entire fish from head to tail served on one plate. The last fish course is our ninth dish, which is white fish in tomato sauce and onions. Regardless of the exact type of fish for this dish, it’s important that it is a salt water fish, not a fresh water fish.

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Once the fish has been served, we move onto desserts.

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The tenth dish is the deep fried pierogis with apples and cinnamon that I mentioned earlier. These are great while they’re still hot, and sprinkled with powdered sugar that melts onto them.

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The other fried dessert and eleventh dish is a deep fried yeast doughnut called “racuchy”. These are made by taking clumps of yeast dough and dropping them in hot oil, resulting in all kinds of delicious shapes, which are also then covered in powdered sugar to finish. In order to digest all of this better there is always the “twelfth apostle” on the table, namely dried fruit juice, generally made from prunes, apricots and apples.

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There are additional desserts which are not part of the 12 dishes, but which we eat all day with coffee to keep us going while we’re cooking. My mom makes her specialty that is a poppy seed cake called “makowiec” with marzipan and apples. She also makes “karpatka” cake which is basically a giant fluffy cream puff made into a sheet cake. There will be a cheesecake made with syrup peaches. My aunt will make a “Napoleonek” or “Napoleon” layered cake with cream filling, a sponge roll with chocolate, a gingerbread cake, another poppy seed, which is a simple cake made using poppy seeds and raisons which are placed over a flat sheet of dough and rolled, like a jelly roll, and a special cake that reminds my aunt of a homemade Snickers bar.

In our family we leave an empty chair at the table. Tradition dictates that we always be prepared for unexpected guests, be they people who could not make it home to their families, those who were stranded in bad weather, or those less fortunate who had no one with whom to share this holiday.

What I really like about the morning of Christmas Eve is all the fresh, homemade dishes being made at the last minute in my mom’s tiny kitchen. And by last minute I mean little tiny dumplings (uszka) stuffed with wild mushrooms that will be served in the evening with the special soup.

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She also makes an additional 200 pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut and wild mushrooms. These will be eaten along with some vodka as a snack later on Christmas Eve night when we open all the presents, or as a late night snack with some more vodka before going to bed, and on Christmas morning for breakfast.

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That’s why you always need back up pierogis in my family :)

From my family to yours, a very Merry Christmas filled with warmth, happiness, family, and wonderful food. Wesolych Swiat!

4 Comments

  1. Hi Magda,

    Enjoyed reading about your traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Sounds like great family time and yummy food. No wonder you like to cook so much. I hope you and Martin are having a wonderful time in Poland celebrating with your family.

    Gayl (Lindsey’s Mom)

  2. Thank you! We did have a great time. It’s always nice to spend Christmas with family. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas! All the best in the New Year!

  3. This brings back memories of my trip to Szymbark, Malopolska and Kraków a couple of years ago as I spent Christmas and New Year with my relatives and friends. It was very memorable because I felt that this was how my mother and father and their families celebrated the great holiday many years ago.. The meal served in courses…..the food cooked that day….. not too many people are aware of Uszka…..which I love in the beet soup …carp is very special….. I could on and on……but, I enjoyed your story of the Wigilia in Poland…………Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku !!!

  4. Bernadette wszystkiego dobrego w Nowym Roku! You are very right, Wigilia dinner is very special and I wait for is all year long! I will be making beet root soup with uszka soon so look out for the recipe :) All the best!

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