December 24, 2002
Christmas Eve Dinner

Christmas Eve dinner is a big deal for us Ukrainians. It's very traditional and requires a great deal of preparation, which means that the three or four days leading up to Christmas Eve are incredibly busy. Granted, modern conveniences like Cuisinarts and standing mixers make the whole business much easier than in the olden days ... and the local availability of fresh ingredients no longer means that the carp needs to be purchased a week in advance and kept live in the bathtub until it's served for dinner. But on the other hand, few people nowadays have access to grandmothers with years of culinary experience under their belts and an instinctive feel for varenyky dough. It's really hard to know if you're preparing something correctly when the only comparison you have is a vague memory from last year's Christmas. Nonetheless, I think dinner this year turned out quite well. Here is a brief rundown of the traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner, in all its twelve-course glory. You can also read more on the Ukrainian Embassy's web page.

1. Prosfora (blessed bread) and honey are first served by the head of the household to each member of the family, from eldest to youngest.

2 and 3. The next two courses, borscht and ushka, are served together.

Because Christmas Eve dinner is meatless (more on this later), getting flavor into the borscht takes a bit of extra effort. Instead of adding meat bones or sour cream for body and flavor (as can be done throughout the year), my mom relies on a combination of vegetables, beet kvas, and the soaking liquid from dried mushrooms. Having only watched my mother do this (I've never made a good borscht by myself), I can't provide a recipe ... and even if I could, I'm sure it would be a family secret. But personally, I think the beet kvas is key to developing the slightly sour tang of a good borscht. Unfortunately, you may have to find a grandmother for this part, which requires fermentation (via wet beets and bread sitting around in a crock for a week) and may result in mold. While beet kvas recipes abound on the web, I fear that encouraging kvas-making among the good readers of may leave me open to liability.

Ushka are essentially little mushroom tortellini. They're filled with a combination of dried (and reconstituted, obviously) and fresh mushrooms, chopped fine and sautéed with a bit of onion. The dough is the same dough that's used for varenyky, but instead of being cut into circles and folded into half-moons, it's cut into small squares and folded into ear shapes (hence the name ushka, which literally translates to "little ears").

4 and 5. Typically, two fish courses are served on Christmas Eve. While fish in aspic is traditional (those Ukrainians and their gelatin!), my mom opted for a more modern poached whitefish, served with Sara Moulton's delicious olive dip. The second course was lemon sole, dipped in mayonnaise and bread crumbs and pan-fried. I know the mayo breading sound weird, but it's a surefire trick for adding flavor and moisture to chicken cutlets and fish fillets.

6 and 7. My favorite courses -- varenyky. While varenyky can be made with a variety of fillings, from meat to kasha to sauerkraut, my two favorites (potato and cabbage) also happen to be the Christmas standards in my family.

Both fillings are very delicately flavored and can be prepared in advance if you don't want to be working on the varenyky for 24 hours straight. The cabbage filling is made from steamed or boiled green cabbage, which you must first squeeze the moisture out of, and then sautée till golden with some onions and oil. The potato filling is made by mixing riced or mashed potatoes with sautéed onion and (for the unholy) farmer's cheese. Of course, the addition of cheese to the filling means this dish is not strictly Lenten, but it adds so much flavor ... and it also makes us feel less bad about serving dollops of sour cream at the table.

The most difficult part in making varenyky or ushka is getting the dough right. Many people say that a single recipe cannot provide you with perfect varenyky dough, because the result varies immeasurably with the weather, the type of water used, the kind of flour, or even the temperment of the cook. And often enough, old family recipes written down on scraps of paper are no more informative than "Start with some oil, eggs, and water. Add flour till done." We use my Babtsia's recipe, which is slightly more helpful than the above but really requires a skilled hand (I'm getting there) to perfect. She calls for approximately 4 cups of flour, two eggs, the same volume of oil as eggs, and twice that amount of water (for example, if your two eggs measured out at half a cup, you'd add a half-cup vegetable oil and a full cup of water). I mix this up in a standing mixer and add flour as needed. The dough, which should be very soft, must rest for at least 20 minutes before being rolled out as thin as possible. Only when the dough is as thin as you can muster should you start forming the varenyky.

8. Holubtsi -- I made these just a few weeks ago, so hopefully my previous explanation will suffice.

9, 10, and 11. Uzvar (fruit compote), kutya (wheat berry porridge), and the kolach (braided bread, placed at the center of the table). Honestly, the kolach is more for decoration than for eating, and the uzvar is relatively simple to make (reconstitute a variety of dried fruit with water and a bit of liquor). Of these three, my favorite is kutya, which is arguably an acquired taste, and is made with tricky ingredients. You probably won't find wheat berries at your local supermarket, and you'll also have a hard time finding poppy seed paste, the other key ingredient in kutya. "No problem," you think, "I'll get the what berries at Dean and Deluca, and I can grind the poppy seeds myself!" Right on count one: many specialty stores now carry wheat berries. Wrong on count two: grinding your own poppy seeds seems simple enough, but it's not! In fact, grinding my own is exactly what I set out to do myself last year when making newfangled kutya for a New Year's Eve party. I first tried using the mortar and pestle, but my arm got tired by the time I was finished with the first batch. I then tried the Cuisinart, which couldn't quite catch the tiny poppy seeds enough to grind them open. Now I realize why grandmothers have a special tool for this task. I ended up settling for partly-ground poppy seeds and mixing them with honey, walnuts, and cooked wheat berries for a passable imitation of kutya. If anyone has any tips, I'd really appreciate them.

After reading this far, you may be too bored to notice that I've only listed eleven courses. Every single Christmas, my family sits around the table and counts all the damn courses of the marathon we've eaten, trying to come up with a total of twelve. Every year we do this, squabbling and arguing as we go, and every year we're surprised to be missing one or two courses. In the past, we've counted salt as a course to make twelve; when my cousins were younger we used to joke that ketchup was the twelfth. I've come to think that some families have three fish courses instead of two, or two kinds of holubtsi, or three kinds of varenyky, or a nalysneky (crepes) course to make up for this deficit. Me, I consider dessert to be the twelfth course. It's hardly traditional, as my family serves cookies and cakes and rum balls and meringue mushrooms and chocolates, but it's a fine ending to an immense meal. After all, what meal is really complete without chocolate?