After my mom married my stepfather, I was introduced to a new-to-me family tradition: The annual Ukrainian Christmas Eve.
Christmas is celebrated on January 7th each year in Ukraine. Why? I’m not sure. All I know is that the night prior is Ukrainian Christmas Eve. The ‘Sviatyi Vechir’ or ‘Holy Evening’ centers around a feast I never want to miss out on again. Consider me Ukrainian.
My stepbrother Alex and his wife Brittany have assumed the hosting mantle from Alex’s aunts, so we all visited their NJ home this past January 6.
While Ukrainian Christmas Eve is packed with traditions, we pick and choose the ones to adhere to.
There’s also a tradition about throwing a spoonful of kutia on the ceiling?… We skipped that one. A loaf of bread should be present but uneaten on the table. We had the bread. We ate it. The meal should start when the first star appears in the sky. We started later, with ample time for cocktails and some belated gift giving from ‘the usual’ Christmas.
The menu traditionally includes 12 pescetarian dishes. The dishes we keep on the menu are:
- Kutia: a sweet mix of wheat berries, poppy seeds, and honey
- Pickled herring
- A fish entree, like stuffed salmon or broiled white fish
- Holubtsi, or stuffed cabbage
- Varenyky, or PIEROGIES!
- Dried fruit compote alongside dessert
My favorite part: we all rounded out the rest of the 12-course menu, potluck-style. Joe and I volunteered two dishes: Vegetarian stuffed cabbage and crescent cookies.
Here’s how we made them the Friday night before the festivities. You can find our full recipe for vegetarian stuffed cabbage that we improvised at the very bottom of the post too.
Making Dishes for Ukrainian Christmas
Vegetarian Holubtsi, or Stuffed Cabbage
Most vegetarian stuffed cabbage recipes seemed rather bland; rice, salt, pepper, butter was the popular stuffing. So we beefed up the umami flavor with a sautéed mushroom mixture. Check out how the colors — and flavors — deepened as we cooked down the mushrooms, onions, and thyme with a ridiculous amount of butter.
From there, we combined the mushroom mixture with rice cooked in whole milk — another flavor booster. Our favorite part was rolling the cabbages up like mini burritos.
We let the rolled cabbages sit overnight. You should do this because the cabbage leaves soak up the flavors and the rolls keep their shape. We did it because we drank too much wine, were running late, and didn’t want to put this in the oven for two hours starting at midnight. Learn from our mistakes.
The stuffed cabbage was finally ready to go after a long, two-hour bake the next day in doctored-up tomato sauce. Mmm…
Joe is an incredible baker, so I basically let him do his thing making these lemony crescent cookies.
He did a roll-y, punch-y motion for ten minutes. Edit: Joe said this is kneading.
Then he let the dough hang out overnight because it looked so pretty. Edit: Joe says this is because the cookie dough had active yeast in it and needed to rise, which is unusual for cookies!
The next morning, we rolled the balls of dough in ground almonds. I tried to help by shaping them into crescents. I failed. Then they turned into little pillows of light, lemony cookies that we doused in powdered sugar. Yum. Edit: Joe says this is all accurate.
Vegetarian Stuffed Cabbage
This vegetarian stuffed cabbage gets its savory flavor from the mushrooms and rice cooked in whole milk.
For the Tomato Sauce
- 1 28 oz can tomato sauce
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- salt and pepper
For the Stuffed Cabbages
- 1 whole green cabbage, core removed
- 1 cup uncooked white rice
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 medium onion diced
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 16 ounces various mushrooms diced
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
- 4 tbsp butter
To Make the Tomato Sauce
Add tomato sauce to saucepan over medium high heat.
Add brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, salt, and pepper.
Bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
To Make the Stuffed Cabbage
Fill a large soup pot 3/4 full of water. Place over high heat until boiling.
Turn off the heat and add the cabbage. Place a heavy plate over the cabbage, so it's fully submerged in the hot water. Cover and let soak for 30 minutes.
Cook rice according to instructions, but replacing the water with whole milk.
Meanwhile, add 2 tablespoons of butter to a large pan over medium heat.
When butter is foaming, add onions and garlic. Sautée until translucent, 5-7 minutes.
Add mushrooms and thyme. Cook until the mushroom's water has evaporated and the mixture is browning, about 10 minutes.
Add remaining two tablespoons of butter. Let melt and stir to incorporate. Turn off heat.
Combine your mushroom mixture with the cooked rice.
Season liberally with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Remove your cabbage from the pot. Peel and dry each leaf. They should be soft and malleable.
Select one leaf. Place ~2 tablespoons of the rice mixture on the surface closest to you.
Fold into a dumpling: Fold the sides and then tightly roll the leaf away from you. Place the dumpling seam side down in a single layer within a casserole dish.
Repeat until you've finished the stuffing. Reserve unused cabbage leaves.
Optional: Refrigerate one hour up to overnight, to let the flavors marry.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour the tomato sauce over your rolls.
Place extra cabbage leaves across the top of the sauce in a single layer.
Bake, covered, for 1.5 hours. Uncover, and bake for 30 minutes more.