Sometime in the far gone past, the Christian Orthodox Church refused to accept the Gregorian calendar. So, the Bolshevik October Revolution happened really in November, Christmas falls on January 7th, and the New Year makes its grand entrance at the stroke of twelve on the 13th of January. While everyone else has already put away their ornaments and taken their sad trees to the curb bleeding needles and icicles, our home is still a-twinkle with lights, garland, and fake snowflakes hanging off the window-frames. The stores are filled with pink and red hearts, and flaxen-haired California girls are seriously thinking of abandoning their Uggs for designer flip-flops. It seems that everybody is on the welcoming committee for spring. But in our Orange County home, the winter holiday season is still going full blast.
We were not raised with religion, but many Serbian traditions and rituals are intertwined with Christianity. Christmas Eve brought a breath of mystery, a whisper of ancient Slavic rites, and a sense of belonging and connection to a world much older than us. We did not follow the forty-day period of Lent that precedes Christmas, but on Christmas Eve, we would abstain from dairy and red meat. At dusk, deda-Ljubo would light the cresset hanging on the wall, illuminating the icon of St. Michael, the saint-protector of his family and the house. He would burn little rocks of incense from Smyrna and envelope the house in the heady, exotic, and somehow solemn smell. In the meantime Njanja would caramelize sugar for the hot slivovitz* and pour the amber liquid into the special thick glasses. The radio was softly playing Serbian music from between two World Wars, the songs celebrating friendship, love, and good times. The table was set with several bowls containing dried fruits and nuts and we would gather around, inhaling the essence of the East and tasting the sunshine of the past summer banked in the dates, figs, and raisins, while the northern winds howled and winter tried to sneak its freezing fingers underneath the doors.
I carried those traditions with me when I crossed the ocean. There is an icon of St. Nicholas, the saint-protector of the Popovic family, hanging on my wall, with a red cresset set just underneath. It ties me to my homeland, my family, and an old Slavic tribe whose god the Christian saint replaced. This Christmas Eve, it was Father who lit the cresset, while my oldest daughter burned the incense from Smyrna. Following the tradition and the ritual, there was no dairy, eggs, nor red meat at the dinner table. I made Pam‘s light and airy Artichoke Dip for the appetizer. Paris Mushroom Soup was earthy, rosemary and thyme playing nicely with white wine. Pan-fried California Trout held court, flanked by a simple potato salad, dressed with a vinaigrette and a lot of red onions. The flickering light was dancing on my girls’ faces and I enjoyed their exuberance and vivaciousness, my fingers sticky from cleaning the bones of several fishes.
After all the dishes were put away, we sat down to play a game of whist, with platters full of dried fruit and bowls full of nuts on the table, Serbian music from the 30s playing in the background. I made some Turkish coffee and Father started caramelizing the sugar for hot slivovitz. The smells of plum brandy and strong coffee magically invoked the memories of my Grandparents’ house and for a moment I was a teenager again, given a thick glass only half full of the potent beverage, allowed into the world of adults, trying awkwardly to bridge the gap between the exotic past and ever-changing present.
*Hot Slivovitz is very popular in cold winter months. It is a potent and great-tasting combination of caramelized sugar, plum brandy, and water.
Paris Mushroom Soup is the first recipe for January that our French Fridays with Dorie group is preparing from Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table. I have been making cream of mushroom soup for years with a tried and true recipe, but this newcomer may just usurp the veteran, and appear in our soup bowls at least half of the time. The herbs add another layer of depth that complements the essence of mushrooms. I can only imagine the intensity wild mushrooms would bring. And even though I am not a fan of raw fungi, I enjoyed the added texture of the heat-softened salad of sliced mushrooms and scallions that Dorie suggests we put on the bottom. The only thing that I would add is a tablespoon of cognac, dry sherry or Marsala, for yet another subtle layer of flavor.
If you are interested in reading an fascinating discussion about this recipe, head over to French Fridays with Dorie.