Christmas in Russia
Christmas in Russia is cold, quite different and there’s always snow. The season starts with the festival of St. Nicholas; legend has it that the 11th-century Prince Vladimir traveled to Constantinople to be baptized and when he returned, couldn’t stop talking about St. Nicholas of Myra & the miracles he performed. Russians honoured him from that day onwards; during communism, the saint was replaced with Grandfather Frost but when the iron curtain melted, Russians slipped into their faith with ease.
I realize you guys will be celebrating Christmas quite a bit later than we do, on the 7th of January, actually and to those of you who don’t know why: the Russian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar; Christmas is preceded by 40 days of Advent which begins on the 28th of November and lasts until the 6th of January, a day before the Russian Christmas. In the first week of December Russian children start getting ready for the festival of St. Nicholas which is so important in Russia that I’ve given it quite a bit of it deserves some attention but I need to point out one thing: even though the Russians were forbidden to worship during communism, many of them did at great cost to their own safety.
- 400 g wheat kernels, soaked overnight
- Full cream milk or cream
- 100 g honey.
- 200 g poppy seeds.
- 200 g walnuts.
- salt to taste.
- Pre-heat oven to 180 C.
- Check and sort the wheat kernels, wash them and bring to the boil and immediately remove from the heat, drain them and wash under cold running water.
- Now bring to the boil again in enough milk or cream to cover the kernels generously, cover the dish tightly and bake in the oven until soft.
- Remove from the oven and allow it to cool down.
- Wash the poppy seeds, scald them and then wash them again under cold running water and then grind them before adding the sugar, the honey and pinch of salt & stir into the wheat kernels; if it’s too dense, stir in a little milk or cream.
- Finally add chopped walnuts.
Since the fall of communism, Christmas may be celebrated and the official Christmas and new year holidays last from the 31st of December to the 10th of January; however, for the sake of conformity and because the Gregorian calendar is commonly used nowadays, many modern Russians have started celebrating on the 25th of December. Orthodox Christians fast on the day of Christmas Eve and will not eat anything until the first star appears in the sky. Sochivo or Kutia is the first thing eaten and everyone attends a midnight service at their local church. The following recipe is a super recipe and must be made with fresh salmon – it’s truly worthy of the occasion.
- 675 g fresh salmon, skinned and sliced thinly
- 450g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
- 500g good quality puff pastry
- 225g mixed basmati and wild rice, cooked (or whatever rice you prefer)
- 1 large onion
- 5g fresh dill, finely chopped
- 1 lemon, juice only
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Salt, and freshly ground black pepper
- 55g unsalted butter
- 1 large egg, whisked
- For the lemon and dill beurre blanc:
- 300ml good quality dry white wine
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 300ml double cream
- 3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
- 1 lemon, juice only
- Salt, and freshly ground pepper
- Preheat the oven to 200 C.
- Roll out a third of the puff pastry into a rectangle and put that pastry onto a non-stick baking sheet, pricking with a fork all over.
- Bake it for 12-15 minutes until it’s cooked and golden and set it aside to cool down, keeping the oven on at the same temperature.
- Combine the fish, the dill, the lemon juice and the olive oil in a bowl, seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste – be gentle with it so that you don’t break up the slices of salmon.
- Fry the onion in a little butter until golden and then add the mushrooms, frying until they are just cooked – set aside to cool.
- Now mix the cooked rice with the mushroom mixture, season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and also set aside.
- Spoon half the rice mixture over the cooked pastry base and then top with the salmon and dill mixture, finally spooning over the rest of the mushroom mixture and dot with the rest of the butter.
- Now roll out the rest of the pastry into a rectangle – it has to be larger than the base and big enough to cover the pastry that has just been topped with rice, fish and mushrooms.
- Put this new piece of pastry over the mixture as gently as possible, trim off the corners of the pastry (reserve for decoration) and using a palette knife, tuck the raw pastry over the base pastry as you would tuck sheets under a bed.
- Brush the pie with the beaten egg and decorate with pastry leaves that you’ve just made with the reserved pastry trimmings.
- Bake until the pastry is golden brown – the fish will be cooked, don’t worry about that.
- While it’s baking, make the lemon and dill beurre blanc by pouring the wine and the vinegar into a pan and bringing it to the boil – simmer until the mixture is reduced by half, add the cream and simmer on low heat for 2-3 minutes, mix in the chopped dill and season to taste with lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper - keep this warm until it’s needed.
- Serve warm from the oven with the lemon and dill beurre blanc.
Before communism, Babouschka brought gifts for the children of Russia; she’s a mythical old lady who roams the countryside looking for the Christ Child and visiting the homes of children, bringing them gifts. It seems she didn’t like communism because she fled during that era but today she’s back again, much to the delight of the little children. As could be expected, Christmas trees were banned outright by the communist regime but people carried on trimming their New Year’s trees. More often than not, a priest, accompanied by young boys carrying vessels of holy water, will visit individual homes to sprinkle holy water in each room.
THE TALE OF BABOUSCHKA
Once upon a time in a small Russian village, there lived an old lady called Babouschka. She was constantly sweeping, polishing, dusting and cleaning and her home was the tidiest & her garden the neatest & most colourful in the village. One evening she was so busy cleaning (yet again) that she didn’t hear the people in the village square chattering excitedly about a new star that had just appeared in the sky. She’d heard some rumours before but simply couldn’t understand why so much fuss was made about a stupid star. When a passing neighbour told her to look up, she replied that she was so behind with her work that she’d have to work all night & that was far more important than stargazing so she missed the extremely bright star that passed across the evening sky; she was so engrossed in her work that she didn’t even hear the sound of trumpets and beating drums or the near hysterical excitement of the villagers as they noticed some approaching lights. Speculating was rife but everyone agreed that it had to be an army or a large procession. She didn’t even notice the sudden hush or the sound of the
footsteps on the path to her door but she certainly didn’t miss the loud knock at the door. Irritated at the interruption, she opened it and to her surprise there were 3 kings standing at the door with one of their servants. When asked if they could rest there until the star re-appeared, she agreed and they were thrilled at the prospect of enjoying some of the freshly baked bread, pies and cakes as they were exhausted and hungry. As she served them, she asked them where they were from and where they were going and why: Melchior told her that a king had been born and Balthasar invited her to come with them to take Him a gift as well; she hesitated for a while and then remembered that she had a cupboard full of toys because her son died when he was very small. She’d been so busy since then that it had slipped her mind as she went back into the kitchen to wash up and but soon became so engrossed in her cleaning that she convinced herself she had been flippant. When they left, she greeted them cordially and promised to come with them after she had tidied up. As soon as she’d finished, she went to the small cupboard and because the toys were filthy, started cleaning them first. Exhausted she fell asleep. By the time she woke up, it was dark outside and she pulled on her cloak, packed the toys in a basket and ran down the path the kings had taken; to this day she wanders around, a basket filled with toys on her arm, looking for the baby Jesus.
- 200 ml sour cream
- 150 g butter
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 500 ml all purpose flour
- 250 ml chopped lightly toasted walnuts
- 125 ml seedless raisins
- 8 generous tbsp raspberry jam
- ½ lemon
- 3 tbsp oil for brushing
- 4 tsp sugar
- Ground cinnamon
- Combine all the ingredients in a food processor, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
- You will need to divide it into 4 sections.
- Preheat oven to 180 C.
- Roll out each section of dough into a rectangle, as thinly as possible and brush lightly with oil, spread with jam, sprinkle with lemon juice and add the raisins and the walnuts before rolling each one up, remembering to close the sides well, then brush the outside with oil again dust with sugar and cinnamon.
- Place on baking tray and bake until golden, serve whilst still a little warm.
Christmas in Russia brings many special traditions from both the Christian and non-Christian past.
- Sometimes groups of people, masquerading as manger animals, travel from house to house singing songs known as kolyadki, nowadays more often the children; some kolyadki are simply pastoral carols to the infant Jesus, while others are carols to the ancient solar goddess Kolyada who’s responsible for brining sunshine in winter. Curious that.
- The singers are given treats and coins in gratitude for the songs but probably, also to get rid of them.
- After the Christmas Eve service, Christians carrying torches and homemade lanterns walk around the church; it’s known as the Krestny Khod procession & is led by the highest-ranking member of the Russian Orthodox Church and then everyone is free to go home for dinner.
- Meat isn’t eaten at Christmas Eve but dinner is glorious nevertheless. Kutya is eaten from a communal dish but the menu, as everywhere else in the world, depends on individual family traditions and how much money is available.
- On Christmas day, typically, hot roasted pirog, pelmeni and salmon in some form or other will be served.
- On the 1st day of Christmas, homes are blessed by the local priest and children go from home to home, singing carols and expecting sweets.
Russia is beautiful at this time of the year because it’s cold and it snows so there’s always a white Christmas (well, almost). Because meat can be eaten the day after Christmas Eve, I thought that this recipe for golden meat parcels would be winner because it’s absolutely delicious and perfect for a celebration of this nature.
BLINCHIKI S MYASOM
- 400g lean minced beef
- 2 tbsp Smetana, (or substitute equal parts of plain yoghurt and double cream)
- 50g butter
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste
- salt, and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small lemon, juice only
- 1 tsp fresh dill, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp soured cream
- 8 ready made crêpes
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, for frying
- Sour cream
- Fresh dill
- Fry the minced beef in half of the butter until well browned and then stir in the onion and the garlic, continuing to stir-fry over low heat for 30 minutes – it’s very important to fry meat first always – when one fries the onions first, the meat often becomes grey and soggy.
- Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt, freshly ground black pepper and lemon juice to taste, allowing to cool first before adding the Smetana, dill and sour cream – mix everything well.
- Take a crèpe and place a heaped tablespoon of the meat mixture into the middle, wrapping it up to form a neat parcel.
- Fry these meat parcels in the rest of the butter until they are golden and heated through, serve immediately with soured cream and fresh dill to taste.