Holiday dinners. Most likely your family sticks to what they have always done because – well, it’s tradition. My family too has its 10 staples and while they’re always good, sometimes it can be a bit…familiar. If marriages can experience the seven-year-itch, I imagine taste buds can too. But unlike marriages, our taste can survive a little deviation. So this holiday season, inject a little spice into your holiday table and switch things up. Take your cue from the following international staples from holiday dinners around the world.
Kutya – Ukraine
In Ukraine, Christmas is celebrated according to the Julian Calendar, so Christmas Day falls on Jan. 7 and Christmas Eve, which they call Sviaty Vechir (Holy Evening), falls on January 6.
Christmas Eve is celebrated with a ritual meal always featuring 12 dishes, which symbolize the 12 apostles that gathered during the last supper. The meal usually opens with everyone passing around a bowl of Kutya and taking three spoonfuls for luck. Kutya is like a pudding of sorts, made up of cooked wheat berries, walnuts and honey. The wheat berries symbolize hope, while the poppy seeds and honey symbolize happiness and success.
Try out this dish at your next holiday gathering for a new tradition! Traditionally it’s served cold, but my host family loved to warm theirs up the next morning for breakfast – like a poppy seed oatmeal. You can find wheat berries in the organic food section; just look for Bob’s Red Mill products.
2 cups wheat berries
4 quarts water
1 cup poppy seed
1/3 cup honey
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup walnuts
Soak wheat berries overnight in four quarts of water. The next day, bring the wheat berries and the soaking water to a boil and then simmer for four to five minutes, stirring occasionally. The wheat berries will burst when ready and the water will thicken up. Grind the poppy seeds in a food processor or with a mortar or pestle (fancy!). Mix the hot water, honey and sugar, then add the poppy seeds and walnuts. Mix this with the cooked wheat. Refrigerate overnight.
Panetonne – Italy
Holiday desserts in The States often involve more sweet fare than savory puddings. Think pecan pie, pumpkin pie, cakes and cookies. But, in Europe the concentration is more on glacé and fruits, injecting the little morsels into cakes like the Germans do with stollen. However, fruit cakes, never really caught on in America, unless you’re talking about gag gifts.
However, the term “fruit cake” is too aptly applied. After all, the slightly-sweet, buttery, domed shaped Panetonne bread from Italy is often referred to as such here, but is no such thing! This confection of cake-like-bread can be found in the windows of delicatessens around the world during holiday time and its popularity can be traced back through the centuries.
The birthplace of this tall cake is invariably always referenced as Milan. The origins of the bread date back to Roman Empire when the ancient Romans would sweeten their leavened bread with honey. It’s where the name derived from that the arguments begin. The most benign state that it is derived from is the Italian word “panetto” (small loaf bread) and the addition of “one” at the end changes the meaning to “large loaf bread.”
Others state that a nobleman fell in love with a baker’s daughter, Toni, in the 15th century and created the bread to impress her. When the wedding was held the Duke of Milan served the cake-y bread and christened it Pan de Toni, or Toni’s bread.
Whatever the case may be, making it at home is a hard sell. It’s a laborious process, but one that results in a preservative-free bread worthy of being proud of. However, if yours simply comes out of one of those red-dome boxes from World Market consider your secret safe with me.
Serve it like the Italians do, with a glass of Moscato d’Asti and some mascarpone spread. Use the leftovers to make French toast or bread pudding.
1 cup golden raisins (5 ounces)
1/2 cup sweet Marsala
1/2 cup warm milk
2/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons active dry yeast (two 1/4-ounce packages)
3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large eggs at room temperature for 30 minutes
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for buttering cans
1 cup fine diced candied citron (6 ounces)
For egg wash
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
You will need: A stand mixer with a paddle attachment, two 10-15 ounce, clean, metal coffee cans, and parchment paper.
In a small saucepan, simmer the raisins and marsala for two minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.
In the electric mixer bowl, add the two teaspoons of sugar and the warm milk. Sprinkle the yeast over the mixture and allow to rest for five minutes (it should foam up).
When it is foamy, add 1/4 cup flour and beat at medium speed until combined. Then add whole eggs, yolk, zest, lemon juice, salt and the remaining 2/3 cup sugar; beat until incorporated. Put speed on low and add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time. When incorporated, put speed back to medium-high and add butter, a few tablespoons at a time. Mix until dough is shiny for five minutes.
Drain the raisins and add to dough, which will be sticky, as well as candied citron. Then spread dough into large greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk—two to three hours.
Prepare the coffee cans by greasing the side and lining with parchment (remember to put a circle of parchment on the bottoms).
When dough has risen, punch down with floured hands and turn out on floured surface. Put half the dough in each coffee can, lightly pressing to remove any air bubbles. Cover again with greased plastic wrap and let rise (again!) until doubled, about two to three hours.
Finally, brush the top of the bread with the egg wash and bake in a 375°F oven 35-40 minutes. Bake until deep golden brown. Remove from cans (by tapping on the bottom of the can) and allow to cool to room temperature.
Hoppin’ John – Southern United States
New Year’s on the strip of road where my family lives (we’re talking a road filled with multiple aunts, uncles, cousins, my parents and my grandparents) is always spent at my Nonnie’s house eating a bowl of Hoppin’ John—or, black eyed peas. As often happens with traditions rooted in childhood, I didn’t quite fathom until I was older that customs such as this one aren’t practiced worldwide. In fact, the southern tradition of eating Hoppin’ John at New Year’s as a token of good luck in the upcoming year dates back to the 18th century. Slaves probably brought the dish, which is very similar to a rice and beans dish common throughout West Africa, and the tradition with them to this area.
The first reference to the dish called “Hoppin John” was in the 19th century travelogue of Frederick Law Olmsted’s A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, in which he states: “The greatest luxury with which they are acquainted is a stew of bacon and peas, with red pepper, which they call ‘Hopping John’.”
Nowadays, traditions and recipes involved with this dish vary. In my family we put a coin in the pot and whoever finds it (and doesn’t choke) will be wealthy in the New Year! My little sister eats her’s with mayonnaise (Paula Dean would be proud) and my Papa with rice. Do with it as you will, but in the South, it must be done.
1 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
3 cups cooked black-eyed peas
1 cup chopped cooked ham
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
salt to taste
In a large saucepan sauté chopped onion in bacon drippings until tender. Stir in black-eyed peas, ham, and cayenne pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes; season to taste. Serve with rice or cornbread—or both!