A Family Christmas in Poland

December 14, 2019

There is a magical, almost fairy tale-like atmosphere in Poland in winter time.
I absolutely adore the whole build up towards the festive period. It has a certain charm with the whole bustle of preparations, Christmas menu planning and wrapping presents with a special themed wrapping paper, finished with a shiny ribbon.

It is a big family affair this year. We are shortly leaving Rome for Poland with a large artisan panettone from my favourite shop which hopefully fits into the overhead locker on the plane.

There is nothing that can compete with the scene of a countryside shrouded with fresh snow and separate dwellings decorated with christmas lights. The cities are equally appealing with the shop windows and almost all of the main buildings elaborately embellished for the festive occasion. I would always await the time of the day when it starts to get dark and the romantic atmosphere of flickering candles and decorative lights sets, which was never a very long wait with the shorter days of this time of year.

I am looking forward to enjoying with gratitude the traditional Polish and our family’s speciality Christmas dishes.

In Poland Christmas Eve is a special, very important, sentimental and one of a kind family gathering.

We don’t eat meat on that day. I know that my mother has already prepared pierogi, Polish dumplings with a sour cabbage and mushroom filling. She always prepares them earlier and keeps in a freezer until needed, making her big dinner cooking easier and perhaps less stressful. I believe many households share the same practice as we always prepare so many different dishes to laden the table with, also for the following Christmas Day, when we eat meat.

I have always loved yeast cakes. A poppy seed cake makowiec is one of a kind, but I eat it only at home. Main reason being is that I have never had a better one anywhere else. It is soft, moist,its flavours very well balanced, poppy seeds are cooked through and minced with a special care.It requires some time and patience which defines the end result. I have never made one yet, maybe it is about the right time to start?

Traditionally my father and I were responsible for going foraging for our Christmas tree and decorating it just a few days before Christmas Eve.The traditions should be cultivated and that is exactly what we are going to do this year. An activity that I take great pleasure in. The Dègustateur will be responsible for keeping our two little dogs and cats away from the shiny, very attractive and tempting Christmas bowl ornaments. There is a little damage every year.

But before all that happens, we will host a pre-Christmas convivial meal here in Rome. A meal that brings the friends and close ones together before everyone breaks up and departs until New Year.

Chatting, laughter, lovely simple food and a good wine is what a successful party is all about.I will prepare a couple of salads using seasonal bitter greens: radicchio, chicory and puntarelle (puntarelle alla Romana with an anchovy, garlic and vinegar dressing).
Some raw sweet langoustines drizzled with some olive oil and lemon juice are always a special treat. An egg pasta tossed with porcini mushrooms or with exquisately scented truffle shavings since it is the season. I like to spoil us every so often and Christmas seems to be a perfect opportunity and excuse for it.

I will also make the cotechino, a slow cooked pork sausage served on the bed of lentils, traditional fair at Christmas and New Year. There is a small twist that I particularly like from the “Polpo” cookbook where as a sharp condiment to cut through the fattiness of the sausage mostarda is used (mustard fruit). The last time I made it was still in London, our last Christmas there before moving to Rome. I feel it is about time to have it again.

The Christmas themed dolci are the ones that are particularly requested.
Luckily none of them is time absorbing or difficult to make. We will have our ever favourite hazelnut and chestnut tart, where I use hazelnut flour bought in Alba. The hazelnuts from the region of Langhe in Piedmont are particularly flavoursome and delicate, famous and appreciated also beyond Italy.

Crema di marroni, a sweetened chestnut purèe is one of those ingredients that I relish and truly enjoy during this time of year and indeed, it is very evident in my “festive bake off”.

In Rome from 11am onwards the smell of roasted chestnuts from the street vendors spreads deliciously around which only adds to the atmosphere. We buy a portion of them and snack on them still warm walking home during the cold months (bizarrely they are sold during warm months too, somehow they don’t taste the same for us). There is no other method that can compare to roasting the chestnuts using wood and an open fire apart from cooking them in red wine. But a ready made chestnut cream of a good quality does the magic especially when a to do list seems already long enough.

It is really not a holiday without chocolate. The answer to it is a combination of melted dark chocolate, hazelnuts and chestnut purèe cake. A delicate and moist cake focusing only on just those three ingredients (there is no flour). I am planning on making Tronchetto di Natale a sponge cake rolled with a filling of your choice, covered with a chocolate spread (most likely ganache will be my choice) resembling a wood log. Dust it with powdered sugar and decorate with sprigs of rosemary or thyme or whatever takes your fancy.
A turamisù is always a lovely suggestion to make, bringing another texture onto the table. A snowy or frosty like accent could add pavlova, decorated as generously as your creativity can take you.

I will laden the table with Christmas decorations, walnuts, chestnuts and especially with clementines having a symbolic meaning to me.

Panettone, a traditional Italian Christmas cake that is more like a bread, we will have for a lazy breakfast the following day after our feast. I love panettone and it is such a lovely present to give, packed in a big box with a ribbon. It originates in Lombardy but nowadays you can buy it literally everywhere. It has become extremely popular and sold the whole year round. I like mine simply wrapped, prepared just for the festive period (which means without added flavourings and preservatives so that the cake can last longer) and coming from an artisan bakery. For a good quality panettone you have to pay a bit more, simply because of the ingredients: candied fruit, butter etc. But why would you have an inferior quality especially when only enjoyed during such a short period?

Very rarely can Rome be enjoyed just for yourself. Gradually the low season is disappearing with the month of January being a benchmark. The pre-Christmas period however, is when I love Rome the most. Almost deserted museums in late afternoons, no queues, a frosty air and cosy shimmery streets that I could amble through almost for ever.

Buon Appetito e Buon Natale.