November 01, 2002

A Sweet Holiday Treat ... From Wheat


avel Korin, whose work is featured in this issue, was enthralled by the majesty of the Russian Orthodox Church. He visited monasteries and cathedrals to study icons and frescos and sketched the funeral of the Russian Patriarch for his painting “Waning Rus.” So it’s appropriate that this month’s recipe is a ritual food that has largely disappeared from the contemporary repertoire. This is the special Christmas Eve dish called kut’ya. 

Every culture that celebrates Christmas boasts its own seasonal sweets. In the US, we hand out peppermint sticks; in Germany, it’s marzipan pigs; and in Sweden, crisp gingersnaps. In Russia, the tradition of serving something sweet to celebrate the birth of Christ and ensure a sweet new year dates back to pre-Christian times. The Russian word for Christmas Eve, Sochel’nik, derives from sochivo, a ritual food that was prepared with grain (traditionally wheat, but barley, rye, buckwheat, lentils, and later even rice could be used), honey, and almond or poppy “milk.” This dish came more commonly to be known as kut’ya. The Christmas Eve version of kut’ya was made without any dairy products, a last remnant of the great Nativity fast (the “milk” was simply water in which almonds or poppies had been soaked to release their flavor). On the second day of Christmas, after the long fast had ended, a rich “baba’s kasha” enriched with butter and milk was often served.

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