Growing up in a Slovak household, we had lots of unusual holiday traditions that seemed weird and embarassing when we were kids, but have evolved into cherished rituals. Since my entire family was together for Thanksgiving this year, my sister had the brilliant idea to prepare our Slovak Christmas Eve meal that same weekend.
Julia gets down and dirty with the dough
The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a simple, meatless meal, centered around fish, soups, and carbs in several formats. Our favorite part of the preparation was always making the ducks, which are basically dinner rolls where the dough is rolled and shaped sort of like a pretzel. One end of the pretzel is formed into a duck bill, with raisins for eyes. The other end becomes the tail. Back in the day, Grandmom Gallo presided over the duckmaking, awarding a shiny nickel to the "best" ducks. I have to say, my second cousin Julia (or is she my first cousin once removed?) shows enormous promise, even though this was her first year making ducks!
duckmaking is a family affair
who will win the nickel this year?
Julia brushes the ducks with egg before popping them into the over
The other part of the meal involving some artistry is the soup. We make big batches of lentil and mushroom soups. True to form, these are pretty simple dishes, but the basis of both is zapraska, the Slovak version of a roux, made from browned butter and flour whisked together over high heat.
Kathy and Mark rock out some zapraska
There's no recipe for zapraska, and even though I had lots of years apprenticing until my mother and grandmother, the first time I had to do it myself was pretty nerve-wracking. So of course this job has become a right of passage for non-native family members! Kathy and Mark did an admirable job, aided by just the right amount of wine.
Dad preps the fish
The meal is rounded out with fish. This was always reviled when we were growing up, but now it's something I actually enjoy eating. It's prepared with paprika and dried parsley, plus a generous amount of butter. There has been some disagreement in recent years about the specific type of fish to use; this year we went with pollock.
see, it's not so bad!
When we were little, the dinnertime ritual began with a procession where the grandchildren brought in key parts of the meal and presented them to my dad at the head of the table. As each child approached, he'd ask "What do you bring me?" and we'd answer something carefully scripted like "I bring you honey, for sweetness." This was abandoned shortly after the year I came up with "I bring you nuts, because you are what you eat."
Even without the procession, things progress in a very specific order:
1) Oplatky - a rectangular wafer similar to a Catholic communion wafer, but spread with honey in celebration of the joy of Christmas.
2) Soup - either mushroom or lentil or sometimes both! Delicious, and also useful for creating amusing flatulence later on during Midnight Mass.
3) Nuts - everyone selects one and cracks it open, and if you get a good nut, you've got a good year ahead.
4) Bobalky - a dish made with the other half of the bread dough, shaped into little balls and soaked in a mixture of milk, honey, and poppyseed. Supposedly this was sometimes served as a dessert but we include it with the main dish.
5) Fish, green beans, and ducks also come out at the same time as the bobalky.
6) Dessert of nut & poppyseed rolls (nobody takes any drug tests after Christmas Eve dinner!) and a selection of Christmas cookies. If we're lucky, someone makes kiffles -- folded pastries filled with jam and dusted with powdered sugar -- but because we did Christmas dinner a month early this year, sadly, no kiffles in sight.
And no holiday meal would be complete without the obligatory awkward shot of everyone stuffing their faces! Note the scary old Slovak lady photo in the background; I hope we've done her proud because she looks like she could jump straight out of the frame and kick all our asses.
Hop on over to Wanderlust & Lipstick's WanderFood Wednesday for more mouth-watering travel foodie posts.