European Dishes Part 1: The Festive Flavors of the Balkans, the Baltic and the British Isles
The Christmas meal is among the most cherished of traditions during the Yuletide season. Across cultures, this feast is made special because it is shared in a warm gathering with family and friends.
Not only is it a joyous occasion, it is a delicious one, too. In this Balsam Hill series, we’ll take you on a journey of discovering Christmas feasts as they are prepared around the world. Get ready to sit down to 25 distinct meals and traditions, and have the chance to taste them for yourself with helpful recipes included from every region.
The Balkan Peninsula
Balkan people sit down to their Christmas Eve feast on January 6th, in keeping with the Julian calendar, which the Orthodox Church follows for Christian traditions. During the season, local communities gather in great numbers in open spaces and celebrate with festive bonfires and large feasts. Homemade bread (called pogacha or cesnica depending on the country) is baked with a coin in it, and whoever gets the hidden coin can look forward to good fortune for the next year. Orthodox Christians refrain from eating food that comes from animals—meat, milk, and eggs—before Christmas, which means that their meals during the eve of the celebrations consist of vegetable pastries and pies, nuts, fruits, and beans. During Christmas Day however, meat is allowed, and among the most popular dishes are pecenica (roasted pork) and sarma (cabbage stuffed with rice and ground meat).
Zelnik (Filo Pastry Pie)
Flour (8 cups)
Beaten eggs (2 large)
Vinegar (1 teaspoon)
Oil (1 tablespoon)
Salt (1 teaspoon)
Chopped onion (1, large)
Trimmed & chopped leeks (2)
Minced garlic (4 cloves)
Smoked & chopped bacon rashers (8)
Crumbled feta cheese (1 ½ cups)
Roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley (1 handful)
Salt and pepper to taste
Cooking instructions: Make a soft dough using flour, vinegar, salt, oil, and half the water. Add the remaining water as necessary and turn the resulting dough on a lightly-floured surface and knead for a few minutes until soft (not sticky). Cling wrap the dough and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.
In a pan, sauté the onions, garlic, leeks, bacon and onions in oil or butter over medium heat until slightly golden. Add the feta cheese and parsley and season. Transfer this to a bowl to cool and set aside as filling for the zelnik.
Roll the dough into sausage shapes and cut into 10 pieces. Take one piece and restore the remaining 9 in cling wrap to retain their moisture. Roll the dough piece into a rectangle stretching it until it is thin enough to see your hand on the other side of the film. Brush this filo sheet with melted butter or oil and cover with cling film. Do the same for the rest of the dough, and place every sheet directly on top of the last one until you have 10 layers. Keep replacing the cling film as you add layers to keep the preparation moist.
Trim the edges of the layered filo to create a neat rectangle. Using a spoon, place the filling on one edge of this filo rectangle. Roll the layered filo sheets into a tight sausage, with the seam underneath. Then coil the sausage into a tight ring, forming a round pie-like shape. Place this in a buttered, oven-proof dish or pan.
In an oven pre-heated 425°F, bake the pie for about 20 minutes, regularly brushing the top of it with melted butter. Sprinkle the top with a little salt and pepper. Remove and bake for another 20 minutes at 250°F. Let the pie rest for 15 to 20 minutes before serving the zelnik, sliced into wedges.
Montenegrin Krofne (Doughnuts with Jam)
Active dry yeast (1 package)
Sugar (2 tablespoons)
Salt (1 teaspoon)
Warm milk (¼ cup)
Warm water (¼ cup)
Flour (3 ½ cups, plus some for dusting)
Milk (half cup)
Water (half cup)
Canola oil (¼ cup)
Canola oil (enough to fill the frying pan 1 ½ inches)
Cooking instructions: Combine the yeast mixture ingredients and stir well. Set this aside. The mixture should activate in around 10 minutes and bubble.
Beat the eggs and mix it with the dough ingredients along with the yeast mixture. After mixing it thoroughly, place it in an oiled bowl and cover this with cloth or plastic wrap. The mixture will rise and double in size within 60 minutes. Punch the dough and let it rise again for 30 minutes.
Spread the newly risen dough on a flour-dusted work surface. Stretch the dough with a rolling pin to a 1 centimeter thickness. Then use a circular cookie cutter to create round shapes. Using your finger, create a hollow on top of each round piece as where the jam filling will be placed later on.
In a small frying pan, fry the doughnuts in canola oil in medium heat for approximately 2-3 minutes each side, until it is a golden brown color. Place the fried doughnuts on a paper towel and fill the hollow of the dough with jam. Sprinkle the doughnut tops generously with icing sugar. Serves 12.
Prebranac (Baked Beans)
Butter beans or Lima Beans (1 pound)
Yellow onions sliced into thin ribs (5-6 medium)
Sunflower oil (1 cup)
Sweet Hungarian paprika (1 tablespoon)
Minced garlic (2 cloves)
Bay leaves (4)
Salt and pepper to taste
Cooking instructions: Use beans soaked overnight in plenty of water. Drain, then set the beans in a pot and cover with water (3 cups water for every 1 cup of beans); bring to a boil in medium heat, then simmer in low heat until the beans are very soft.
In a large casserole, sauté onions in oil, then and add the beans, garlic, paprika and bay leaves. Add 3 cups of water or until the beans are covered in water. In an oven preheated to 375oF, bake the casserole and its contents for about an hour and a half, making sure that the beans should never be completely dry by adding water as necessary. The result should be a casserole with a top layer of beans caramelized, with the beans underneath having a creamy, moist consistency and flavoured with onions.
Cool the prebranac before serving at room temperature, letting it rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Serves 12.
The Baltic States
The Baltic is filled with ancient Christmas traditions. In Estonia, broomsticks are kept clean during the winter to keep witches and spirits from riding them. Latvia has the claim of having the first documented use of an evergreen for a Christmas tree in history–in the town square of Riga in 1510. While the region’s food staple includes fish due to their closeness to the Baltic Sea, Christmas Eve meals are meaty feasts consisting of hearty dishes like gray peas in bacon pork sauce, fried goose in apples, blood sausages accompanied by sauerkraut, potato salad, beets, fruitcake, and gingerbread.
Pipparkogid (Gingerbread Cookies)
Light corn syrup (¾ cup)
Sugar (1 cup)
Ground cinnamon (2 teaspoons)
Ground cloves (1 teaspoon)
Ground cardamom (1 teaspoon)
Ground ginger (1 teaspoon)
Ground allspice (½ teaspoon)
Ground nutmeg (½ teaspoon)
Butter (1 cup)
Eggs (2 large)
Plain flour 4 cups)
Baking soda (2 tablespoons)
Cooking instructions: In a saucepan, mix syrup, sugar and ground spices and bring to a simmer. Stir in the cubed butter. When the butter melts, remove the pan from heat and cool. Add the eggs, one at a time, and stir vigorously. Mix in the flour and baking soda, then add in the syrup and sugar mixture set aside earlier. Knead thoroughly until the mixture thoroughly combines. Wrap the resulting mix in cling film and refrigerate for a few days.
Make the cookies by dividing the dough into equal, bite-sized portions. Roll each chunk into a ¼ inch thickness on a floured work surface then transfer to a cookie sheet.
Bake at 400 oF for 6-9 minutes until entirely cooked. Make a thick, glossy glaze by mixing 1 egg white with icing sugar. Place the mixture into a piping bag, and decorate.
Sweet Sautéed Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut (7 cups)
Water (8 ½ cups)
Lard (½ cup)
Sugar (½ cup)
Cooking instructions: Using a colander, drain the sauerkraut then place in a large saucepan. Add water, and bring to a boil. Simmer for one and a half hours in reduced heat. Then drain the sauerkraut in a colander.
In a large frying pan, gently stir in sugar into melted lard until it browns. Add the sauerkraut into the sauté, and cook. Occasionally stir for 10-15 minutes until golden.
Christmas in the British Isles is varied amongst its regions, with pagan traditions underpinning Christian activities. England’s “kissing bough” is an ancient ritual of hanging part of a tree upside-down in the home to remind families of spring in the midst of winter–a practice that has evolved into the Christmas tree. Scotlanders bake a bean into the Twelfth Night cake, and the one who eats the slice becomes the Lord of Misrule or the King of the Bean–crowned as the master of ceremonies who will give silly commands to guests which they have no choice but to obey. Mince pies–tiny tartlets often served with mulled wine–signal the beginning of the Christmas season in the British Isles, popping up in offices, restaurants, shops, and homes. Roast turkey has long replaced goose as the main course. It is accompanied by starters such as smoked salmon and trimmed with roasted root vegetables and Brussels sprouts. Christmas pudding, a round pastry filled with fruit, nuts, butter, and alcohol is served as dessert, along with brandy.
Chipolata sausage recipe
Pork shoulder (2 pounds)
Pork belly (6 ounces)
Hog sausage casing
Ground coriander (3 ½ tablespoons)
Nutmeg (3 ½ tablespoons)
Honey (¼ cup)
Breadcrumbs (1 ½ cups)
Cooking instructions: Remove excess fat from both pork shoulder and belly. Process the meat through a meat grinder, and place in a large, deep mixing bowl. Add in the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
Place the hog casings in cold water with 2 pinches of salt. Using special machine attachments, feed the casing onto the nozzle onto the meat dispenser. Take care not to tear the casing, and tie one end of the casing in a knot.
Feed the prepared meat into the casing, making sure the filling pushes tight into the container by pulling the meat towards the knotted end.
Once the casing is filled, remove it from the nozzle and tie the open end. Measure 2-inch lengths along the sausage and twist twice or thrice to achieve chipolata sausage sizes. Refrigerate and let the sausage rest for at least 15 to 20 minutes; for best results, allow it to settle for half a day.
Don’t forget to click through the scrumptious Christmas dishes in this article to discover recipes that will get your taste buds to explore festive feasts around the world.
There are more tastes and traditions to explore across the Atlantic; read through more of them in European Dishes Part 2: Cuisine in the Caucasus and Central Europe.