Holidays can be exhausting. Especially if you -- like me -- are determined to celebrate them all. And when you do, come January, when all the hoopla is over, you feel as if you need another holiday, and another vacation to recover.
But wait, it is not yet over!
Imagine what happens if you -- like me -- belong to that unfortunate cohort of Christianity who had misplaced their calendar, and therefore celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the arrival of the New Year in January, when pretty much everyone else has bid farewell to the holiday spirit and checked into a detox.
For those like us, another batch of roasts and holiday cookies is on its way. Another round of breads, pies, pastries, and celebratory dishes that make us sign up for those New Year's resolutions to begin with.
I am happy to report that we've made it half way through the Serbian holidays and are still alive. Last Saturday, on January 7, we celebrated Serbian Christmas. As the ancient tradition requires, we made: pork roast (basted with honey, yes, yes yes), ajvar, prebranac, caramelized saurkraut, and gibanica (Serbian cheese pie). But wait, it is not yet over. We also baked apple pie and vanilice, and most importantly (!!!) česnica, our glorious coin bread. (In case you are wondering, Miss Pain got the coin, with a minimum amount of cheating.) And, to make the ceremonial table complete, we also had the noodles.
Before I tell you about the noodles, let me also say that we are now cooking full speed for the Serbian New Year's Eve celebration on Friday, January 13. And that means: pork roast (basted with honey), ajvar, prebranac, ... You can figure it out from here. Yes, it'll be exactly the same. And no, we do not mess up with ancient traditions. They date back all the way to our pagan roots, when those dishes were cooked as offerings to the mighty pagan deities, the gods of fire, wind, thunder, and lighting. One does not goof with such characters, they expect to get their share of offerings. Therefore, the table remains the same.
Now let me tell you about the noodles.
Growing up, I could not decide which part of the Serbian holiday meal I liked the best. That was one tough choice. Throughout the earliest childhood, I leaned heavily towards česnica, because my grandmother always made sure I got the coin. When I was 11 years old, my Dad discontinued the practice. "She should not get used to winning all the time," he argued with Grandma. "Plus it is unethical." Once my objectivity was not clouded anymore, it was really impossible to pick a favorite. That is until I came to the States.
For my very first Serbian Christmas in the USA, I invited a dozen of my non-Serbian buddies for dinner. I cooked the dishes. I served the dishes. They loved the dishes. I cut česnica and did the coin part. Česnica scored high, but many nations in this world have a similar concept, so we got only 3 points out of 5 for novelty. (We did get 5 for taste.) Then I served the cookies. And the pie. And I prepared the table for the noodles.
"What's this?" my friends asked.
"It's a very old Serbian dessert we make for the holiday," I explained.
They looked at me suspiciously.
"You serve pasta at the end of the meal?" (All of them in unison.)
"All right, guys. It works like this," I began, realizing that my holiday tradition needed some explaining. "First of all, let us not call it pasta. Let's stick with noodles for the moment. They should be wide and made with eggs. We cook them and dust them with toasted farina."
More looks followed.
"Then we put them on the table, accompanied with little bowls with various toppings. Ground walnuts and sugar are the must. But that's for beginners. Real players also add raisins, poppy seed filling, honey, chopped dates, and jam."
(Eyes opening really wide.)
"You take a little bit of noodles, and dress them up with the toppings of your choosing."
A couple of folks reached out. The others were still looking at the bowl. I could see that they were conflicted. Politely, they gave the noodles a shy, conservative try. They took a bite. And another. And all of a sudden, hands started flying around the table, and the noodles were up in the air and the toppings were exploding like fireworks.
My friends never had so much fun; because they discovered what I had known for years. That process of mixing things up -- picking your toppings, trying it out, and then peeping at your neighbors' plates to see what is that they've come up with -- that's one big bowl of magic!
The following year my friends called before the holiday. They invited themselves over. And they wanted to make sure that I will be making the noodles.
"Please don't worry about the rest. We want the noodles. Only. Noodles are fun."
Some of my best parties here in the States, non-holiday ones included, happened over that bowl of noodles. These are the moments I will remember forever; for no particular reason, except that we were happy. So if you ask me to pick a favorite from the Serbian holiday table, I think you know the answer.
Serbian Sweet Noodles (Noodles with Walnuts)
In Serbia, this dish is known as rezanci sa orasima (noodles with walnuts). That's the bare minimum. Once you have noodles, walnuts and sugar, you can stop right there. But who can resist adding a raisin or two? A fig. Or honey? Poppy seed filling + raisins is to die for. Poppy seed filling + raisins + walnuts is to die for and go to heaven. Jam? I never liked it, but it was my mom's favorite. So go ahead and find yours.
* 1 lb dried wide egg yolk noodles (such as Pennsylvania Dutch Extra Wide)
* 1 1/2 cups farina (Cream of Wheat works great)
* 3 - 4 cups ground walnuts
* 2 - 3 cups crystal sugar
* 2 cups raisins
other options (in the order of their importance, according to QueenSashy)
* 1 1/2 cups poppy seed filling (you can make your own, see the recipe below or buy canned one in the supermarket. If you are using canned filling, dilute it with some warm milk so that it is creamy.)
* 1 1/2 cup honey
* 1 cup chopped dates
* apricot jam
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the farina until it becomes golden and strong nutty flavors take over the kitchen.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook according to the instructions on the box plus a couple of minutes more. (No al dente here folks, the noodles should be cooked well. Again, no al dente.)
Drain the noodles and discard the cooking water. Return the noodles to the pot, pour in the farina and mix well, so that the noodles are completely coated with farina. Transfer the noodles into a large serving bowl and let them cool. You will be serving them slightly warm.
Pour each topping into a separate bowl, and arrange them all on the table. Bring out the noodles, and let your guests assemble their own dessert.
Serves 6 - 8
Poppy Seed Filling
* 1/2 lb poppy seeds
* 1 1/2 cup milk
* 1 cup sugar
Grind the poppy seeds in a mill or coffee grinder. Combine the milk and sugar in a saucepan. Cook on low heat, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves. Add the poppy seeds and stir well to blend. Cool on low heat for two to three minutes, then remove the saucepan from the heat and let the filling cool before using. If the filling is too thick, add a bit more milk, as you want it to spread over the noodles easily.