Why am I rolling out cookies immediately after throwing 3 dozen Christmas cookies away? Seriously- I just deposited about 50 various Christmas cookies into the trashcan before directly walking to the pantry to take out flour, sugar and nuts.
Mama has finally lost it. Or it’s just Christmastime alllllll over again.
“I don’t even want these cookies,” I tell myself, my neighbors and the people we play cards with on Friday night. But then I realize that:
1.) Nana’s kiffles are better than the other brown, crumbly cookies I just dumped. (I also realize that I should have put these cookies outside for the birds to enjoy. Thanks for the awesome guilt trip, mom.)
2.) As I share these cookies with a fellow Ukrainian at Canasta group, I realize that these cookies are something special. “Can you make these for my birthday this year?” My Canasta friend asks. My first inclination is to yell, “Hell, no!” and shove a nut kiffle into his nostril. But then I realize that I am actually spreading joy with these cookies, and who would put a stop to that? The cookies are tradition. They are part of who I am and where I come from. And they are helping me connect with “my people,” if you will.
This year I have to explain to my youngest daughter, who hasn’t been to church in years, that we will celebrate another kind of Christmas Eve and Christmas on January 6 and 7 – one without presents. And that is not an easy concept for a 7-year-old to understand.
“This Christmas dinner is about who you are and where you came from,” I tell her. There is minimal spark in her eye about this statement as she is otherwise consumed by the impending doom of eating the kale on her current plate. My husband is an outspoken atheist, so I tread carefully when I speak to our daughter so that he can’t muddy the waters I am trying to clarify. “We sit down to dinner with nana on this day so that we can learn from her about our heritage.” I focus on tradition and ancestry when I talk about our Greek Orthodox holidays- which is really the part I need my girls to understand.
“Your religion is all about eating,” my father complained to my mother yesterday. Mom pursed her lips and turned away from him- he’s the son of a Southern Baptist woman and a basic God-fearing man. We don’t go to church on “his Christmas” either though. Unfortunately, I agree with dad even though I know he was just throwing out that comment to piss off my mom. Our religious holidays have changed since nana can’t attend church anymore. Instead, we turn to our traditional food and the gatherings that go with them.
Christmas Eve, or Holy Night, is a fasting day, but is the most important meal of the holiday. It takes about five years to make. (Or roughly four days worth of solid cooking in layman’s terms.) I started with the kiffles on Thursday and finished them Friday. This year they are nut, raspberry (my teenager’s favorite), and lekvar (a plum filling. Okay, it’s prune, but plum sounds so much more foodie.) Monday we rolled pirohi and filled them with potato, but made a few lekvar for nana and me. When nana told me the dough was good, I almost cried. And not one pirohi broke after boiling, so I knew that what nana said was absolutely true.
I have been trying to learn this dinner from nana for years, and there are always bumps with each component. For the past two years, we have had to scrape the bottoms of the bread balls for the babalky because I burned them. This year, the bread balls came out of the oven perfect, like little golden puffs of joy. These will sit in a colander tonight, awaiting a pot of boiling water to be poured over them. Then they will be tossed into a mixture of popyseed, honey, butter and milk.
Nana and I high-fived. Twice. But we still have the three soups to make tonight- mushroom, sauerkraut and butter bean. We serve them over fluffy, mashed potatoes and we mop up the rest of the bowl with a crusty bread. The carb-load on this dinner will give you the energy to run a marathon, but we use said energy to tackle the mounds of dishes created because every food is made from scratch. While the soups are extremely simple in nature, my cooking style seems to rebel against their rules of preparation every year. In an age where I can peruse any given mustard section of the grocery store for about 20 minutes, I can get tripped up when technique trumps ingredients to produce a specific flavor.
Point in case- nana usually uses a meat grinder to make the nut filling for the kiffles. I threw the whole bag in my vitamix and realized that I had created the most texturally-unsound nut filling for a kiffle ever known to man. It was just… weird. I realize that I probably need more instruction to ensure that future Holy Nights don’t go down in a pandemonium of sauerkraut-riddled flames. But now that I’ve finally got the pirohi and the babalky dough under my belt (not to be cocky or anything,) I’ve got my mind set on doing the soups just right this year so that they do not end up going the way of the brown, crumbly Christmas cookies I threw in the trash. (Birds don’t eat soup as far as I know, mom)
My goal is to present my nana with a Holy Night she can be proud of- one that she has secured through my own education and the education I will pass on. So as I move on to making the soups tonight with fingers crossed and sauerkraut juice at the ready, I wish you all a Happy Eating Christmas, filled with tradition and the capacity to embrace who you are and where you came from. Baby Jesus would want it that way. 😉