Professor of International Business
CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS IN POLAND center around Wigilia, or Christmas Eve. Although women have been preparing food for days, the holiday officially begins with the appearance of the first star in the evening sky, reminiscent of the star over Bethlehem. Eager children search for the twinkling light of that first star, which signals the beginning of the festivities.
The Christmas Eve meal must include 12 dishes to represent the 12 apostles of Christ. In Poland, the karp krolewski, or royal carp, is the central feature of the meal. Other holiday fare includes herring, cabbage, sauerkraut, beets, potato and walnut salad, and dishes with dried mushrooms picked in summertime and saved for Christmas.
The meal commonly begins with borscht served with very small dumplings — the smaller the dumpling, the more admired the baker! During the meal, each person takes a Christmas wafer and shares a piece with family members, exchanging wishes and blessings for a happy year and good health.
JOANNA: When I was a child, the Christmas season was absolutely magical. Winters in Poland are dark and severely cold, and I remember the warmth of carolers coming to our door to sing and receive small offerings of food from the family. Though I may be biased, Polish Christmas carols are some of the most beautiful and original in the world.
When I close my eyes, I can recall the rich smell of vanilla all through the house, as my mother and grandmother made compote from white cherries and peeled pears. The children made paper chains and ginger cookies to decorate the tree.
I remember how busy the women were, preparing food for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — which everyone looks forward to because the Advent fast [observed with no eating on Christmas Eve until the sun sets] is finally ended — and how the women didn’t want men in the kitchen putting their fingers into the dishes! Christmas was a season for friends and family, and we’d go from house to house visiting and eating too much delicious food at every place.
Dried Mushroom Soup
4 ounces dried mushrooms, such as Polish borowiki or Italian porcini
3 1/2 cups hot water
3 quarts beef, chicken, or vegetable stock
1 cup rinsed and drained pearl barley, optional
2 cups sour cream, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup cooked kluski (egg) noodles, optional
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped parsley or dill, for garnish
Combine mushrooms and hot water in a large bowl. Let stand for 1 hour.
With your fingers, work mushrooms to release any grit. Let soak until very pliable, about 1 hour longer.
Lift mushrooms from the liquid. Cut mushrooms into large pieces and set aside. Reserve bowl of soaking liquid.
In a 5- to 6-quart pot, combine stock, chopped mushrooms, and pearl barley, if using. Pour the reserved soaking liquid into the pot, taking care not to disturb the grit at the bottom of the bowl.
Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, keep covered, and simmer, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms and pearl barley are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. If making the soup ahead, at this point cool, cover and chill, up to overnight. Reheat to simmering and proceed with the next step.
In a medium bowl, mix the sour cream with flour and temper by whisking a little hot soup into the sour cream mixture.
Pour contents of the bowl into hot soup, whisking constantly on medium-high heat until it comes to a boil. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
Remove from heat and ladle into warm bowls. Serve with kluski (egg) noodles, if using. Garnish with sour cream and parsley or dill, if desired.