Friday, December 30, 2011

An Automaton Nativity Scene

After a hearty Christmas meal (or three days later, depending on how well your stomach handles the twelve obligatory courses) it's time to take a walk.  If you're in Warsaw, head to the Old Town, where, even on a snowless winter, everything looks magical and festive. As I already mentioned, one of the traditions is to visit the many churches in that historical part of town in order to see the various Nativity scenes.

But if you only visit one, it should be the automaton Nativity at the Capuchin Church on Miodowa Street.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene
The Nativity in its full glory. Upper right: the Holy Family, left: the Pope and Vatican. Far right: Old Town Warsaw.

The Capuchins are a jolly bunch, being part of the Order of Friars Minor- Franciscans, those most humble of monks. And quite creative, too. It was St. Francis who invented the creche, or nativity scene, and Capuchins all over the world follow well in his tradition every Christmas.

But the nativity on Miodowa street is quite special. In 1948, so very shortly after the War that left Warsaw in ruins, brothers Pius Janowski and Konrad Wyczawski began to build their famous mechanical Nativity. The baroque church itself was not yet fully rebuilt. Originally constructed in 1683 by King Jan III Sobieski expressly for the newly-introduced Capuchins, it had been burned not once but twice during that war, once in 1939, and once in 1944.

In fact, Old Town Warsaw as it is depicted in the Nativity stands rebuilt, proud and colourful, but at the forefront are ruins, with a soldier in the broken window, aiming his rifle, and in the street, the figure of a young scout insurgent, his helmet too large for his brow, holding a sealed message- or perhaps a grenade.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

Although the mechanism, once set in motion by hand, now runs on electricity and has recently been fitted with low-energy LED lighting, all of the original characters and decor have been preserved. A sneaky look behind the scenes reveals a complicated system of tracks, wheels, pulleys and levers which make the horses prance and the musicians play.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

Each character is double-sided, as it moves along a looped track that winds all through the set, and so must be presentable from all angles. A closer look dates the automatons well- the painted clothes are a memory of the fourties, the horse-drawn wagon a reminder of how, not so long ago, even a short journey could be as harsh as a pilgrimage.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

But not far behind rides the founder of the church, King Jan Sobieski, followed by two winged hussars- the legendary romantic ideal of Polish cavalry.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

Although my favourites were always the camels.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

This Nativity has a definite patriotic theme, with a parade of characters important to Polish history peeking out from behind the buildings. They change and vary from year to year. Last Christmas, just  after we lost ninety six of our countrymen, including the Presidential Pair, in a plane crash, the monks placed a model of the destroyed airplane in the foreground.

The Nativity can be viewed every day from 10 am til 6 pm, from Christmas Day until February 2nd. Admission is free, but there is a collection box and gift shop. The proceeds go, of course, to the upkeep and renovation of the Nativity.

Below is a short video of the mechanism in motion. :)

Meta information:

Wikipedia entry on Capuchin church in Warsaw (Polish only)

Wikipedia entry on the Order of Friars Minor

Saturday, December 24, 2011

How to make a real Christmas borscht: part 2

You thought I'd left you hanging with that borscht, huh? All those beets, getting pretty smelly in their jars...

Click here to see Part One of the recipe, which should have left you with jars full of beets.

Making borscht
Remember, the longer the wait, the more acidic the soup. These jars have been sitting here since December 7th.

And the truth is, when you open these jars, you will get a nasty surprise.

Making borscht

Mold! Nasty, horrible, green mold! Oh god and skies alive, what went wrong?

Nothing. This is exactly what was supposed to happen. Fermented beet juice. Trust me, I've eaten borscht acidified with sourdough bread all my life and I'm fine. 38 million people living in Poland are fine. And awesome. Beet borscht makes you awesome.

But, of course, we don't want to be eating the mold. Blech. Scoop it out. Yuck yuck yuck. That's your bread, and what's left of the garlic. Into the bin it goes. Forget you ever saw it.

Making borscht

Next, to make perfectly sure no nasty stuff remains in our soup, place a sheet of gauze over a thick sieve and pour the beet-water through.

Making borscht
Clean gauze, of course.

Making borscht
Wear an apron. Beet splashes are hard to wash out.

Making borscht

The gauze and the sieve will catch all the bad bits, leaving you with a pot full of gorgeous, red liquid.

Making borscht
Clean, gorgeous, magical.
This is not yet borscht.

A step I have permitted myself to skip, because I assume everyone knows the basics, is making a large pot of broth. For Christmas Eve, it should be vegetable (no meat allowed) but on any other day you can use chicken, beef, or whatever your pleasure is.

Just in case you forgot how to do it, here's a quick reminder: chop up some vegetables (absolute standard are carrots, leek, parsnip, celery root, onion) and dump them in a pot of water. You can add some butter, too.

Making borscht

Simmer until vegetables are soft and soup is tasty.

Making borscht

Take vegetables out. You have broth.

Now, take that amazing red beet water and pour it into the broth.

Making borscht

You can throw away the beets that were in the jars, by the way, they're useless to us now. However, you should take two or three fresh, raw beets, peel, and chop them.

Add them to the broth, too. They won't do much for the taste at this point, but they will continue bringing out the colour.

Making borscht

Now, this is important- let the lot simmer, but never boil. If it boils, it will lose that gorgeous colour. Keep an eye on it and let it cook slowly on a small flame until the fresh beets sink down to the bottom of the pot.

Taste it. It should be strong, acidic, strangely exciting. If for some reason it fails to arouse your tastebuds, season it to your liking. And voila. Your borscht is ready.

Remember to serve it with boiled mushroom uszka!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Polish Christmas Necessities

Is a Polish Christmas really all that different from an American or British one?

Well, yes. Yes it is. Mainly, Poles celebrate Christmas Eve more festively than Christmas Day.

Here are a few things worth knowing about Christmas in Poland.

The first star

Christmas Eve is a day of fasting. You're not supposed to eat anything until the big evening meal, which begins once the sun has set and the first star has appeared in the sky. This is a good way to keep kids busy as lookouts...

Especially in the city, one must look out for the star.  An illustration of mine for "The Star of Betlehem"

Christmas is also often referred to as 'Gwiazdka', or 'the little star'. This is a pretty name which everyone has adopted in good spirit, but its origins actually lie in the ploys of our socialist government of 1952-1989 to secularise the seasonal celebrations. The Polish term for 'Christmas' is 'Boże Narodzenie', quite literally, The Birth of God.


 Before the meal, the family gathers around to share opłatek. Opłatek (pronounced op-wah-tekk) named from the latin word 'oblatum' meaning 'offering'. It is just like communion wafer, except rectangular, embossed with Nativity imagery, has not been consecrated and thus is not sacramentally the body of Christ. It is typically made by nuns, and always blessed by a priest. Charities and churches distribute it in exchange for a donation.

It works like this: you take a piece of opłatek, then go around the room, hugging and kissing each guest in turn. He or she will take a small piece from your opłatek, and you must take a piece from theirs. Then, you exchange best wishes for this Christmas and the upcoming New Year.


Opłatek is an extremely important tradition in Polish culture, extending even beyond Christian households as a way of acknowledging each of our close ones individually, if only that for that one brief moment every year. If you don't have any handy, break some bread together, for as the saying goes, enemies will not sit down to a meal together. Therefore, anyone you share bread with is your friend.

The Christmas Eve table

There is a very particular set of rules regarding the setting of a Christmas table. Hay must be placed under or on the tablecloth, as a reminder of the manger that Jesus was born in.

Hay on the table
Hay on the table, a baby Jesus figurine dating back to my childhood, and, of course, one extra place setting.

There must also be one extra place setting, no matter how crowded the dining room. This place setting is meant for the Weary Traveler, whomever he may be- whether a lost soul, a loved one who could not make it home that year, or Jesus himself. In theory, anyone who seeks shelter and company on that night should be invited to share the Christmas meal with the family. In practice...well, some people are more welcoming than others.

The animals

Twelve dishes take a long time to consume, so once the meal is over, there is a small window of time in which people usually sing carols and exchange gifts. Children have another reason to be excited- legend says that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals speak in human languages. One should be cautious, though. Many is the story of the landlord who crept into the barn to listen to his horses and cattle speak, and overheard them talking about his own death. Though they are not mentioned in the Bible, common faith has it that the ox and the donkey were the first and last at Jesus's birth- they often know more than we do.

Guinness under the tree
My parents' dog, Guinness, probably has a lot to say.

The Shepherd's Mass

But alas, few people hear the beasts speak, for midnight is the hour when Shepherds' Mass begins. Bellies full and mouths yawning, people flock to the churches to witness Christmas Eve turning to Christmas Day. It is during that mass that they will first see the nativity scenes unveiled, with the baby Jesus in place.

Each church must have a nativity scene, and while some parishes are content with the traditional figures...


 ...many go out of their way to create an original and sometimes philosophical setting for the baby Jesus' arrival.

361/366: Baby Jesus
The Word became Body, and lived among us- the baby Jesus lies cradled in an open book at the Artists' Church.

An unforgettable icon in Polish history, and symbol of the Church's involvment in the defeat of communism was a nativity scene where the baby Jesus was placed inside the trunk of a car. This was a reaction to the brutal murder of a Solidarity activist priest, Jerzy Popiełuszko. The Secret Service beat him to death, stuffed the body into a trunk and then dumped it in the Vistula river in October 1984. The film 'To Kill a Priest', starring Christopher Lambert, tells a fictionalised version of this story.

Photo used with kind permission of the author, Mark Carrot . The car used for the nativity was of the same make
and colour as the car in which Father Popiełuszko's body was transported.

I was only one year old when this happened, but for many years after that, crowds would gather at Popiełuszko's old church to light candles on the anniversary. My parents would take me with them, and I remember people crying.

After Midnight Mass, the family comes home. They may sleep in the next day, but Christmas Day, or as Poles like to call it, The First Day of Christmas, is usually celebrated by visiting relatives to sample leftovers from the previous night's feast. It is also the first time meat products may be eaten during the holiday, which many people look forward to. Those who did not attend Midnight Mass may spend Christmas Day strolling from church to church, taking part in Mass and visiting the nativities.


Carols, in Polish tradition, are not sung before Christmas, but instead all through the month of January. Think about it- carolers are not the ones who announce that Jesus will be born, but those who are passing on the joyous news that he has arrived!

We differentiate, as in English, between Carol and Christmas Song. The first is 'Kolęda', pronounced koh-len-da, from the latin calendae which signifies the first day of the month- January, in this case, when carols were sung. The second is 'Pastorałka', pronounced pass-toh-rahw-kah, from the Polish word 'pasterz' meaning shepherd. So, shepherd's song.

A kolęda will strictly tell the religious story; a pastorałka contains secular elements, and will never be sung at church during service.

Here is one of the most beautiful Polish Carols, set to a polonaise tune and written in 1792. Its text is based on a juxtaposition of opposites, and often called the Great Oxymoron. The song's title is often translated as 'God is born', but the actual tense of the verb implies that God is being born. The miracle of the birth is supposedly occurring during the song.

God is born, the might trembles
The Lord of the Heavens lies naked
The fire stills, the light darkens
The infinite one has limits.

Disdained, covered in glory
Mortal everlasting King
And the Word became the Body
and lived among us.

Bolding mine to emphasise the paradoxical contrasts, which I included in this literal translation but which are often omitted from the lyrical English version. The performance is by the world famous folk dance and song ensemble, Mazowsze.

In many regions, carolers will dress up as an array of characters symbolising various aspects of daily life and the Christmas story- traditionally the group might contain shepherds, kings, King Herod, an Orthodox Jew, angels, Death, various animals, a goat-like monster called the Turoń, and of course, the Star of Betlehem, carried propped up on a stick and often spinning like a pinwheel. Nowadays, especially in cities, it's rare to see such carolers.

A group of carolers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Fiberek.

So, it's the day before Christmas Eve.
I had planned to make a detailed tutorial on celebrating a Polish-style Christmas for you this year. Unfortunately I fell a little bit short! As it turned out, preparing such a celebration and documenting it at the same time is practically impossible.

We didn't cover all the recipes. We didn't talk about so many things that should have been mentioned!

That's okay. Christmas does come around every year, and I hope you'll join me for the next one. And don't forget, there are twelve days of holiday ahead of us.

Besides, today, I still need to write about how to finish your barszcz... you're probably really worried about it by now!

Meta Information

Photograph of the Popiełuszko nativity used with kind permission of the author, mr Mark Carrot. Thank you!
It can be seen here among other photographs of the mourning of father Jerzy Popiełuszko:
Photo of Carolers from Wikimedia Commons
Wikipedia entry on 'God is Born' carol
Wikipedia entry on opłatek

A bit of straw for your tree

Wow, who'd have thought that trying to prepare for Christmas and write about it at the same time would require bending time and space?

But amidst all the madness, I managed to find a very special treat for you. My neighbour and friend, Mariza, whose family has a long-standing romance with folklore and art, agreed to help me film a quick  little tutorial on how to make two traditional straw decorations.

You all probably have your Christmas trees already set up. I noticed that my American friends, for instance, put them up as early as December 1st...and get rid of them just before New Year!

This is a bit backwards, and not even according to Polish tradition- after all, those famed twelve days of Christmas start on December 25th. So there is no shame in still having your tree up in January! In Poland, that's normal, and what's more, the trees aren't usually brought into the house until a day or two before Christmas Eve.

355/365: Thank goodness for snow
This is why I like snow- it makes bringing the tree home easier.

But if you have a little time left over before the celebrations (I know I don't!) and maybe a bare patch on your tree, why not try this.

Straw and paper sculptures are a typical decoration across Polish folklore. One of the best-known forms is the elaborate 'pająk' (pronounced pah-yonk) or, literally, spider, an intricate construction meant to resemble the crystal chandeliers of upper-class houses.

Folk Museum in Łęczyca
A traditional 'pająk' on display at the folk museum in Łęczyca

They were made using straw, dried peas, beans, feathers, clay, and from the 19th century onwards, coloured paper and wrappers.

Don't panic- we won't be making anything as crazy as what you see in that picture. But what Mariza demonstrates in the videos below are actually basic elements which can be put together to make a larger construction. 

You'll see how to make a simple chain for your tree:


And then a single 'spider', with crepe paper flowers:


You will need:

some straw, which you should soak for a few minutes, so that it doesn't snap and break when you cut it.
Mariza often uses sheep shears, but your household scissors will do just fine. ;) You can keep the straw in the water as you work.


Don't bother with a ruler, for each individual decoration, use the first straw you cut as a guide.


These are all the straws you need to make one element of the pająk.


You will use crepe paper to make the flowers...


...and you'll put the whole thing together using a needle, some yarn or thick thread, and a long, thin wire with a flat hook at the end with which you will pull the yarn through the straw.


You can easily make that yourself.


Ready? Here are the videos.

Meta information:

Music in videos are CC-licensed instrumental versions of Polish Christmas carols by Paio

Thanks to Mariza Nawrocka-Teodorczyk for her help :)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Hanukah!

An interim in the Christmas series: today is the first day of Hanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. As you know, for centuries, Jews were a very significant community in Poland, and it breaks my heart every time I realise how few of them are left. But Judaism is still alive in my country, as proven by the many festivals and events, and the small but faithful communities who gather for the Jewish holy days.

Hanukah in Warsaw
Rabbi Michael Schudrich lights the first candle.

Today, head Rabbi for the Jewish Community in Poland, Michael Schudrich, lit the first candle on a large Hannukiyah set up on the Grzybowski square in Warsaw. The square is in a part of town that used to be populated mostly by Jews, and was closed in as the Ghetto during the war. Nearby is Próżna street, the only street in Warsaw where pre-war buildings remain on both sides, and the Nożyk synagogue- this area is nowadays the heart of Jewish activity in the capital.

As Rabbi Schudrich said, Hanukah is a commemoration of one of the first fights for religious freedom- a fight won by the Maccabees over two thousand years ago. He stated the importance of freedom, not only of religion but of expression, and recalled that Poland itself fought a similar fight only twenty two years ago.

I'd like to wish all my Jewish readers a happy Hanukah. Wesołej Chanuki! Chag Hanukah Sameach!

Hanukah in Warsaw
The Jewish Choir 'Tslil' sang a range of songs in hebrew, yiddish, and ladino

Hanukah in Warsaw
A hannukiyah made of candles on the sidewalk.

Hanukah in Warsaw
A variety of people showed up. In the background, note the Palace of Science and Culture, a Warsaw landmark.

Meta information:
Portal for the Jewish Community in Poland:
Wikipedia entry on Hanukah (spelling varies):
Official page for the Tslil Jewish Choir:

How to make Christmas Pierogis part 2

Yesterday, I showed you how to make the filling. Now that it's had its time to chill in the fridge, let me tell you about the dough.

But first, some more linguistics. As I mentioned earlier, pierogi is a plural noun, so while 'pierogis' is acceptable amongst foreigners, don't be surprised if you never see the term in Poland. The singular form is pieróg, pronounced pyeah-roog. Uszka, meaning 'little ears', is the plural for uszko, pronounced, respectively: oo-shkah and oo-shkoh.

Pierogi and uszka use the same dough. It's not too terribly difficult to make, but it does dry out very quickly, so don't even think about storing it. However, once you've filled and rolled the pierogis, you can freeze them. They will keep for months.

Darth Vader mug optional, but it seems to help. Click to enlarge.
Dough for Pierogis and Uszka

about 500 g of flour
1 egg (optional)
1 flat teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of oil (canola or sunflower is good)
about 250 ml of boiled water, or milk

Sift the flour into a little mountain on your work surface. Make a crater for the oil (and egg, if you choose to add it). Fold and knead, carefully adding water or milk as needed. You will have to try and keep the dough springy and stretchy, but not sticky.

(psst...we just tried doing it in the blender...that works too!)

Roll it out as flat as possible, and don't dawdle- it dries out fast. Keep any dough that you are not working with in a covered container.

If, by accident, the dough is just too dry for pierogis, don't worry. You can cut it into strips, then lay it out on a cloth to dry... and you have delicious homemade pasta!

Nothing gets wasted.

But, assuming your dough came out just right, cut circles into it with a glass. Bigger ones for pierogis, smaller ones for uszka.

Here is a helpful diagram showing the four stages of making an uszko. The third stage is pretty much where you stop to have a pieróg.

Still confused? Check out the video:

And that's it! Make many, lay them out on sheets, freeze immediately. When they're cold enough not to be sticky anymore, put them in plastic bags. They'll keep in the freezer for a long time- when you want to eat them, just drop them into boiling water and wait until they bob up to the surface.

348/366: Pierogis for Christmas
Storing your pierogis. Top shelf: waiting to harden. Bottom shelf: bagged and ready.

Pierogis are usually eaten by themselves, while uszka belong in your bowl of barszcz.  The picture below has it all wrong- but it was leftovers at that point and I couldn't be picky!

39/365: Red on red
Pierogis in the barscz? Blasphemy! Those should be uszka. But they're the same thing, just shaped differently.

Meta information:

Music in video: Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies (Tchaikovsky),  Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons "Attribution 3.0""

Sunday, December 18, 2011

How to make Christmas Pierogis, part 1

Technically, one should not pluralise 'pierogi', since it's already plural. But pierogis rolls off the tongue so much better. Mind, you will not want these to roll off anywhere except into your belly, because they're absolutely delicious, and in combination with that traditional barszcz which we will soon set boiling, they're the quintessential Polish Christmas Eve meal.

But how do you make them?

To avoid confusion, a small visual guide:

Pierogi comes from an old slavic word meaning stuffed dough. Uszka is literally 'little ears'. Well, just look at them!

The difference is in shape, and in the unbreakable rule which states that while pierogis may be stuffed with anything from potatoes to strawberries, uszka may only ever contain mushrooms as a filling. Anything else? Tortellini. And that's Italian, so none of our business.

The filling should be made at least one day before the dough. It tastes much better if it's left to sit for a while.

Today, we will be making two staple fillings: mushroom, and mushroom-and-sauerkraut.

Pierogi filling:

350 g of dried forest mushrooms (porcino are an excellent choice. Oh, all right, if you must, you can use frozen ones. )
2-3 onions 
2 generous tablespoons of butter
two eggs
2-3 tablespoons of breadcrumbs

All you need to make mushroom filling.

Wash the mushrooms, then heat them up in a small amount of water until they soften. Let them cool, then chop them up. Also chop up the onions. It's okay if the chunks are big, we'll stick the lot into the blender later.

Melt the butter in a pan. Add the onion and braise it. Then, add the mushrooms.


Once the lot has turned a pretty golden-brown, add the eggs. Stir well, season with salt and pepper, and lastly, add the breadcrumbs to thicken.


Let it cool a little bit, then stick it in the blender. Leave some chunks in- it tastes better that way.

Put it in a bowl, smooth it down with a spoon, and when it's cool, stick it in the fridge for the night.

Mushroom filling. Chunky! Crunchy! Yummy!

For the sauerkraut-and-mushroom filling, you pretty much take your mushrooms, and heat them up in a pan with some cooked sauerkraut before blending. Easy peasy!


Sauerkraut and mushroom filling. Notice the sauerkraut-to-mushroom ratio. This is why it is much smoother.

Tune in tomorrow for instructions on how to make the dough and the finished pierogis.