Prof. Elena Bertoncini Zubkova (Istituto Universitario Orientale)
Christmas Eve is a very special day in Slovakia, the most beautiful holiday of the year, and the most intimate, involving only the close family. Many traditions and rituals have been connected with it in the past, especially in the countryside, and some of them survive until now even in the towns. What follows is a personal account, but it is not different from what happened (and happens) in other families of the capital Bratislava.
About two weeks before Christmas my mother starts preparing cookies, tea biscuits and other sweets, leaving for the last days pastry and two kinds of cake. All together the sorts of sweets were well over a dozen and in large quantities, as they had to last at least until the New Year, eaten by the family and by many expected visitors. Everybody was involved in this 'sweet' activity, busy cracking nuts, peeling almonds, grinding poppy-seeds, crushing spices in a mortar, beating egg whites, and especially mixing sugar with butter etc. (Nowadays food processors are a great help.)
The magic Christmas atmosphere is felt from about 3-4 p.m., at dusk. The shops close and the streets get empty as everybody hurries home. No more phone calls, no TV news or other distractions, only Christmas carols accompany the last preparations. Children are waiting impatiently for Infant Jesus to bring them the Christmas tree and presents. At the sound of a little bell the room with the Christmas tree is opened, but the presents should be unwrapped only after the dinner.
The dinner starts between 5 and 7 p.m. and contains always the same traditional dishes. When the candles are lit and the prayers said, it opens with special wafers (a sort of host, homemade or bought), eaten with honey and (optionally) garlic. (Try before grimacing!) One of three possible soups follows, but every family sticks to one, according to their (rural) origins: lentil soup, fish soup or sour cabbage soup (see the recipe). Then a fried carp or other fish, with potato salad and other side dishes. Optionally there is a special sweet dish (a sort of small dumplings covered with poppy-seed). A cake (see the recipe) and other sweets follow. At the end everybody eats a nut and an apple, other fruit is optional. If the nut is dry or wormy, it means an illness for the next year. The apple, cut horizontally, must exhibit the seeds forming a star. If they form a cross, it means death. (Shall I add that both my grandmother and my father found a dry nut and a cross on their last Christmas?)
[For the second part of the story please go to the recipe 'Veverickine Rezy/Squirrels' Cake']
5 eggs (yolks and whites separately)
14 dkg sugar
8 dkg flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 l milk
12 dkg butter
8 dkg sugar powder with vanilla
20 dkg sugar powder
2 tbsp rum
2 tbsp hot water
Mix the yolks with sugar, add the lemon juice and grated peel, flour, baking powder and at last put lightly into it whites of eggs beaten stiff. Pour in a round baking-pan, rubbed with butter and sprinkled with flour, and leave baking slowly in the oven (175°C). When it is cold, cut the cake into three slices and fill with the cream.
Stir the yolks with milk while cooking it in a bain-marie (i.e. over the boiling water) until the cream thickens. Separately mix butter and sugar, then add the cold yolk cream into it, slowly and stirring all the time carefully lest the butter curdles.
The cake may be decorated with this cream, or with a rum icing: mix sugar with rum and hot water, pour it on the cake and let it get cold and thick.
This cakes requires some experience because the cream curdles easily.