Christmas in London with a Bulgarian Twist
Embracing our different cultures filled this past holiday season with fun, family and you guessed it ... FOOD. Check out how we celebrated below.
Just a few short weeks ago, Kalo and I were enjoying our first married Christmas and ohhh baby did we pull out all of the stops. We decorated a real Christmas tree, drank hot chocolate at least twice a week and even built gingerbread houses. We also braved the crowds to attend tree lightings and ate more sausages at the pop-up markets than I dare say. What's so special about all that, you ask? Trust me when I tell you that spending the holidays in London is a truly magical experience! The streets are illuminated, the shops are decorated to the nines and the Guinness at the pubs never tasted so good.
We made London our very own winter playground but I think having both of our parents visit really brought the festivities to life. Each day we bundled up and took them to different parts of the city from Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland all the way to Richmond for Christmas at Kew Gardens. But on the days we spent lounging at home, I got to do some serious cooking, especially on Christmas Eve.
I'm sure I've mentioned that my husband is Bulgarian and since meeting him I've been introduced to new traditions, interesting superstitions and a deliciously diverse cuisine. On Christmas Eve, I helped my mother-in-law make 7 dishes from stuffed peppers and cabbage, to bean soup and freshly baked bread. The whole day I couldn't stop asking questions like "what is that ingredient," "how do you say this in Bulgarian," "can I try that," "what is the significance of this" and "why do Bulgarians do it like that?" It was fascinating to hear the histories and even though I was more of a nuisance than a help in the kitchen, I'm happy I get to share a few fun facts with you all now.
Bulgarians celebrate Christmas on the same day Americans do, though this is somewhat unusual because Bulgaria is an Eastern Orthodox country.
Christmas Eve marks the last day of Advent fasting and for the final meal 7, 9 or 11 vegetarian dishes are prepared. I noticed that the meal is actually vegan so I'm thinking that all of the history books need to be rewritten ;)
Bean soup is served so the coming year will be fertile, abundant, and wealthy. Similarly, honey is always on the table so that life will be sweet.
Walnuts are cracked to predict success or failure in the coming year. If the nut you've chosen tastes good you will have a great year, but if it's bad you're in trouble.
Once the meal begins you are not to get up and the table is not cleared until Christmas morning to provide food for the ghosts of Jesus and family members. (When I heard this, I had a heart attack because I am a crazy clean freak but you can't not feed Jesus!)
I know the list above barely scratches the surface, but there is no way I can fit centuries of customs into one blog post. I did however want to tell you about one more holiday tradition. It's my favourite and of course the most tasty. On New Years Eve, Bulgarians bake fortunes into a feta stuffed pastry called banitsa. The pastry gets cut and randomly passed out at midnight. Fortunes range from money and travel to health and marriage. This year, I found the baby in my slice, so be on the look out for a big announcement! (Kidding!)
I hope you're still with me because I have something very special to share. Below is the recipe I wrote down while my mother-in-law was teaching me how to make banitsa from scratch. It was the equivalent experience of learning to make pasta in an Italian grandmother's kitchen. So now next year I expect to see photos of your own fortune filled banitsas. I promise that it doesn't get more authentic than this.
250 g (1/2 lb) Feta Cheese
12-16 Phyllo Sheets
Sunflower Oil or Melted Butter
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius (350 degrees fahrenheit)
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with a fork and mash in the feta cheese to create a loose paste.
Remove the phyllo dough from package and carefully unroll. Take one sheet of phyllo and place onto a kitchen towel. Lightly brush the sheet with oil or butter. Top with another sheet and again brush with oil or butter.
Spoon 3-4 tablespoons of the egg and feta mixture onto the phyllo sheets. Spread into a thin line, stopping about 1-inch from edge.
Roll into a log and place into 12-inch round pan.
Repeat steps until you've made a spiral. It's okay to scrunch to fit. Lightly brush entire pastry with more oil or butter.
Write fortunes on pieces of paper (get creative), fold then wrap in foil. Tuck the foil wrapped fortunes throughout the banitsa.
Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool at room temperature, slice and serve.
It's fun to look back at all of the exciting moments we had. Being married, I'm now part of a duo and I think it is important to make time for both sides of the family. Even more important you have to respect each other's backgrounds. When you do that you're able to deepen bonds and build stronger relationships with the ones you love. So next year I advise you to look within your own family to find new ways to connect. Try venturing outside your neighbourhood and get cooking to create some amazing memories.