Christmas Eve in the Orthodox church is a strict fast day. Christmas Eve in the Orthodox home is celebrated with a traditional dairy-free meal referred to as Holy Night Supper. It is the tradition that nothing gets eaten on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky, which is symbolic of the star that led the Three Kings to the newly born Jesus. The meal begins with the lighting of a single, tall, white candle, placed in the center of the table, which represents Christ as the light of the world. The tablecloth is white, symbolizing the baby Jesus's swadling clothes. Hay is often displayed to symbolize the poverty into which he was born. Twelve courses are served, one at a time, in a common bowl, which symbolizes the twelve Apostles. The supper begins with the father of the family leading the family in saying the Lord's Prayer, followed by a greeting and a response, "Christ is born! Glorify him!". The selection of foods served varies from region to region, household to household and cook to cook, with one common denominator: the meal is meatless and prepared without using dairy products (which includes chocolate)!
The meal starts when a loaf of flat lenten bread (rectangular or round in shape and resembling a thick pizza crust) is brought to the table. It is rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt, broken (not sliced), and passed to everyone at the table. Each person dips their bread into a common bowl of honey. The garlic symbolizes the bitterness of life while the honey symbolizes the sweetness of life, and, to newcomers at this celebration, this combination of bitter garlic and sweet honey is a surprisingly delightful way to start this meal!
Quite frankly, once you get past the basic rules and regulations (plus the ones instituted by your family or your host family), there is room for creativity with this meal. If you are on your own, have never done this before and wish to start your own tradition, here is a list of approved ingredients (if I've left anything out, feel free to let me know and I'll add it to the list):
barley, beans, beets, cabbage (or sauerkraut), carrots, celery, fish, fruit, garlic, honey, horseradish, mushrooms, nuts, oats, onions, peas, potatoes, rice, seeds, turnips and vegetable stock. Ingredients can be either fresh, dried, canned, bottled or frozen. You can use sugar, flour, salt, pepper (and all fresh herbs or dried spices), yeast, cooking oils and/or margarine. Wine, along with alcohol, coffee and/or tea is allowed (thank you Jesus)! My grandmother allowed eggs, because they come from chickens and that means they are not dairy, so I do too... your grandmother might not agree if she considers chicken a meat and eggs come from chickens, etc. You can chop, slice, dice or mince. You can braise, roast, toast, simmer, saute and even deep-fry or grill if you want to!
As long as you come up with twelve courses, you can use these ingredients singularly or in any combination or manner that you like, for instance: my grandmother always served pirogi (potato stuffed dumplings), while yours always served parsley potatoes; my mom serves sauteed mushrooms as a course, while I'll serve mushroom soup; my dad doesn't like fish, so my mom doesn't serve any at all, while I'll serve a nice pan-fried or baked fish course; my son Jess doesn't eat fruit at all and dislikes most vegetables, so if he ever cooks Holy Night Supper for me, I won't be a bit surprised to see some sort of deep-fried fish and French fries on his table. I think you get the idea. Have fun and make your own tradition!!!
Onto the making of the Christmas Eve bread: The following recipe is/was my Baba's (my maternal grandmother). When she could no longer do the bread baking, she hand-picked me to do it, because I baked bread with Baba all the time and was well-trained by her personally. A couple of years later, in 1996 to be exact, I took it upon myself to adapt her recipe so I could quickly make the dough in my Cuisinart DLC-X Plus food processor. Christmas is a super-busy time for all of us and my "modern" method takes most of the time and labor out of the process, and, produces really, REALLY great bread. Baba tasted it, gave it her seal of approval and I've done it this way ever since. I hope you will give my new-fangled approach a try!
10 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
6 packages granulated dry yeast, NOT rapid-rise
3 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 extra-large eggs, at room temperataure
8 ounces margarine (2 sticks), melted (Note: If you are not making this recipe for Christmas Eve, by all means, feel free to substitute butter!)
2 cups hot tap water, plus some additional water
no-stick cooking spray
3 tablespoons corn, peanut or vegetable oil, for preparing baking pans, the choice is yours (Note: My grandmother used corn oil and so do I.)
8-12 very thinly sliced/shaved garlic cloves (about 1 head of garlic)
~ Step 1. In microwave, melt the margarine in a 1-quart measuring container. Remove from the microwave and set aside to cool, about 10 minutes.
Note: the alternative is to melt the margarine on the stovetop.
Whisk in the eggs, and 2 cups of hot water, plus just enough of additional hot water to total 4 cups of liquid. Set aside.
~ Step 2. In the work bowl of a large food processor fitted with a steel blade place all of the dry ingredients: the flour, yeast, garlic powder, sugar and salt.
Note: If you do not have a large capacity food processor (mine is 20 cups), you can make half of this recipe, using 2 large eggs in place of 3 extra-large eggs.
Using 5-10 rapid on-off pulses, combine all of the dry ingredients until they are just combined. Do not over process.
~ Step 3. With processor motor running, slowly and in a thin stream, pour the margarine/egg mixture through the feed tube, until...
... a large ball of dough forms. Continue to knead in the processor, about 30 seconds. This means the ball of dough will actually pull away from the sides of the work bowl and rotate around in the processor for 30 seconds.
~ Step 4. Spray the inside of a 2-gallon food storage bag with no-stick cooking spray.
Carefully remove the dough from the processor. The steel blade is very sharp, so please be careful not to cut yourself.
Close the bag and allow the dough to rise until doubled in bulk...
... about 45-60 minutes. Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut the bag open.
Isn't this dough a beautiful sight? And, how easy and quick was that?!?
Note: Even if you are not making dough in the food processor, "the food storage bag" is a great method for rising any type of yeast dough.
While the dough is rising, oil each of three 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" baking pans with about 1 tablespoon of corn oil.
~ Step 5. You will have about 5 1/4 pounds of dough. Using a kitchen scale, divide dough into 3 equal parts, about 1 pound, 12 ounces each. Place dough on prepared pans and let it rest for 10 minutes.
~ Step 6. Pat, press and push two pieces of dough evenly into the bottom and toward the sides of each pan. Unlike a pizza crust, this bread will be about 1/2" thick throughout with no high "sides" being formed.
Divide the third pice of dough into 40 equal-size pieces, each one weighing about 3/4 of an ounce. Roll each piece between the palms of your hands to form a ball. Place balls, slightly apart, on prepared pan as you work.
~ Step 7. Cover bread with a large, dampened, cotton kitchen towel and rise until doubled in bulk, about 45-60 minutes. While dough is rising, slice the garlic cloves.
~ Step 8. Bake loaves on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, 18-22 minutes, or until bread is lightly browned and has a hollow sound when tapped lightly with the knuckle of your finger. Remove from oven, and, using a large metal spatula, immediately tranfer to cooling rack(s) to cool completely. Using the tines of a fork, lightly prick the surface of the two flat loaves, about 12-16 times each. While the bread is still very hot, randomly and evenly distribute the sliced garlic across the surface of the pricked loaves. Allow bread to cool completely, then gently rub the softened/slightly steamed garlic over the top of each loaf. The garlic cloves can be left on the bread or removed from bread at serving time (I prefer to leave the garlic slices on the bread):
Orthodox Christmas Eve: Lenten Bread & Biscuits: Recipe yields 2, 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" flat, freeform loaves and 40 biscuits.
Special Equipment List: 1-quart measuring container; whisk; large-capacity food processor; 2-gallon food storage bag; 3, 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" baking pans; kitchen scale; large cotton dish towel; cutting board; paring knife; 3, 13 1/4" x 9 1/4" cooling racks; large metal spatula; fork
Cook's Note: In my family, the lenten flat breads are referred to as Pipowcha. I have also seen them referred to as Pagash (although in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, Pagash is similar to a double-crust pizza that is stuffed with potatoes and cheese or cabbage). Russia is a very large, diverse country, so I'm betting there are even more names attached to this delicious bread. If you know of one, I'd love to hear from you! As for the biscuits:
My family refers to these as Babalki and I've not heard of any other name attached to them. If you have one, I'd love to hear from you! My grandmother always placed them into the bowl with her piroghi then tossed them both with melted margarine and sauted onions. Other families toss them with sauerkraut, and others toss them with poppyseed and honey!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010)