Wigilia: Traditional Christmas Recipes From Poland

December 13, 2014 Updated: March 12, 2018

Katarzyna Bosacka, wife of the Polish Ambassador to Canada, recently introduced me to the Christmas feast of vigil, or Wigilia, observed by most Poles all over the world. The recipes below are her creations.

In a very ancient tradition, sheaves of grain stand in the corners of the room in a silent prayer for the next year’s harvest. Santa Claus has already come on Dec. 6, the name day of St. Nicholas. In many homes, the Christmas tree is decorated on Wigilia Day, Dec. 24.

Nowadays most Polish people put straw under a white tablecloth for Wigilia, symbolizing the manger in Bethlehem. Traditionally, a place is set for a stranger and a candle gleams in the window. When the first star of the evening appears, the host breaks the “oplatek,” a large unleavened wafer of flour and water stamped with scenes of the Nativity. Twelve meatless dishes—one for each of the Apostles—are served, such as herring, pike or carp, noodles with poppy seeds, mushrooms, beet soup, vareniki, fruit compote, and honey cake. Gifts are opened afterward. Wigilia ends at midnight when church bells ring.

Herring in Lemon Boats on Red Onion Jam

5 lemons
1/2 kg of herring in oil
4 medium red onions
15 to 30 ml (1 to 2 tbsp) honey
50 ml (4 tbsp) balsamic vinegar
25 ml (2 tbsp) Greek yoghurt
25 ml (2 tbsp) mayonnaise
2 ml (1/2 tsp) sugar
1/2 bunch of dill
25 to 40 ml (2 to 3 tbsp) onion jam (recipe below or available at European delis)

Cut lemons in half lengthwise, remove the flesh and freeze the lemon cups. Cut herring into 2.5 cm (1-inch) pieces. Very slowly, stir-fry the chopped onion in a pan with the butter. When the onions are soft, add the honey and the vinegar. Mix the mayonnaise and yoghurt with the sugar and chopped dill and put herring inside. Place a little cold onion jam in the frozen lemon halves and then top with the herring.

Red onion jam: Fry finely diced red onion very slowly and then add honey and balsamic vinegar and cook until the liquid evaporates. The jam can be put in jars and kept for a few months.

Cream of Beets with Port and Orange Juice

1 kg (2 lbs) beets
25 ml (2 tbsp) canola oil
750 ml (3 cups) homemade chicken broth
250 ml (1 cup) orange juice
Glass of port
Pepper, salt, marjoram to taste

Brush the beets with oil, bake for 1 1/2 hours at 170º C (335º F). Remove the skin and mix in a blender along with the broth to a smooth cream. Add orange juice, port, and spices. Serve with a piece of Polish bread, pumpkin seeds, or almond flakes.

Beet and Herring Salad

4 to 5 herring in oil (available in jars in Polish stores)
3 to 4 beets
3 potatoes
1 red onion
3 to 5 cucumbers (pickled in water and garlic)
1 large apple
40 ml (3 tbsp) mayonnaise
Salt, pepper and sugar

Boil potatoes with skins on. Brush beets (skins on) with a little bit of canola oil and bake in a 170º C (335º F) oven for 90 minutes. Cool the vegetables, peel the skins off, and cut into cubes. Cut the herring and the onion into small cubes and dice the cucumbers. Peel and cut the apples. Mix together, add mayonnaise. and season with a little salt, pepper, and sugar to taste.

Meringue Poppy Seed Cake

25 ml (2 tbsp) butter
500 ml (2 cups) flour
2 ml (1/2 tsp) baking powder
250 g (1/2 lb) butter
4 egg yolks
6 egg whites
500 ml (2 cups) sugar
1 can poppy seeds prepared with sugar, nuts, and raisins (available in Polish stores)

For the crust, mix the egg yolks with the flour, baking powder, and butter. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form and then add the sugar. Grease a pan with butter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Press the crust into the bottom of the pan using your fingers. Cover with the poppy seed filling and then the meringue. Bake approximately one hour at 170º C (335º F). To protect the meringue loosely cover with aluminum foil.

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among others. She is currently the European editor of Taste & Travel International. Email: hallett_susan@hotmail.com