Christmas is a fantastic time of the year. I love that it brings everyone together, it calls for gathering with friends and family and spending time with our loved ones. In Bulgaria, Christmas Eve is a big thing and though we also celebrate Christmas Day, most of my childhood memories of Christmas are all of family dinners on the 24th.
Traditionally, it’s all based on religious customs (Orthodox Christianity). December would be a period of fasting and the 24th is the last day of it. Because of this, a traditional Bulgarian Christmas Eve dinner would only include food that’s free of meat produce, practically all vegan. Though I’m not religious, and most of my family is not very strictly religious, to this day every year we keep with the traditions and cook authentic food for Christmas Eve.
Here is what a traditional menu would include:
- Bean soup/stew or lentil soup;
- Stuffed peppers;
- Stuffed pickled cabbage leaves;
- Stuffed vine leaves;
- Variety of salads: such as roast pepper salad; bean salad; potato salad, pickled cabbage salad and etc;
- Pickles and olives;
- Traditional round soda bread – Pitka (which also has a coin hidden in it).
Furthermore, there are certain rules that have to be followed. There has to be an odd number of dishes on the table and the bread has to be broken by the ‘head’ of the table/family.
Here are three traditional recipes that we usually cook every year for Christmas Eve:
Stuffed Peppers with Rice
Serves 8 as part of a bigger meal| Prep 20 minutes | Cook 2hrs
Easy | Vegan | Dairy-Free
Tip: You can do Step 1 the day before.
- 8 peppers (red, yellow and orange) – their tops and seeds removed;
- 1 cup long grain rice;
- 1 onion: finely chopped;
- 4 garlic cloves: finely chopped;
- 1 carrot, grated;
- 4 tomatoes chopped or 1 can chopped tomatoes;
- 3 bay leaves;
- 1 tsp sweet paprika;
- sunflower oil;
- plain flour (or gluten-free plain flour)
- Make the rice stuffing. Wash and rinse the rice under cold water until water is clear. Heat a few tbsp of the oil (enough for it to be well covered) in a deep pan. Add the onion, carrot and garlic and cook for one minute, stirring. Add the rice and stir well, reduce the heat to low. When the rice starts becoming transparent, add 1/2 tsp salt and the paprika and mix well. Add one cup water and cook under a lid until the rice absorbs the water. Note: the rice should not be fully cooked at this point and it should still be a bit ‘tough’. Take off the heat.
- Fill each pepper with the rice mixture until they are about 2/3rds full. Don’t overfill them as this might cause them to burst in the oven when the rice expands. Sprinkle a bit of flower on the top of each pepper.
- When ready to cook the peppers, heat the oven to 180C fan. Spread the tomatoes in a very large and deep roasting tin (or two medium ones), add 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tbsp oil; and the bay leaves and mix well. Add about 1 cup of water (the tin should be about half full with the water). Place the peppers in the tin making sure that they are slightly laying down (so water can go in them). Cover with foil and bake for about 90 minutes, removing the foil in the last 30 minutes. Check the peppers after about 45 minutes. If the rice is almost cooked you can reduce the cooking time slightly.
Serves 8 as part of a bigger meal | Time: About an hour, plus overnight soaking
Easy | Vegan | Gluten and Dairy Free
- 1 cup white beans;
- 1 carrot, finely chopped;
- 1 onion, finely chopped;
- 1 red pepper, finely chopped;
- 1 tsp dried mint;
- 1 tsp sweet paprika;
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme;
- 4 tbsp sunflower oil.
1. Soak the beans in cold water the night before. When ready to cook, drain the beans wash it and put in a large pan filled with water. When the water boils, drain the beans and repeat. This will ensure that the beans are easier to cook.
2. When you have boiled the beans twice, you are ready to start making the soup. Add the beans and a 1,5litres of water to a large pan. When the beans boil, remove the white foam with a spoon and let the beans boil on low heat. It’s very important that you DO NOT add any salt until the very end of the cooking process.
3. Cook the beans for about an hour until they have softened. Add the chopped vegetables, dried herbs, spices, oil and salt to taste. Leave to cook for another 10 minutes or so and then remove from the heat.
Round Bread “Sun” (Pitka)
Makes 1 | Time: 1 hr + 1 hr rising | Difficulty: A bit of effort
NOTE: This is dish is not suitable for vegans.
This is probably the hardest dish to make on the Bulgarian Christmas Eve table. It requires more hands-on time than other dishes and bread always requires a bit of effort and patience! However, I can assure you that it’s worth it at the end.
- 15g easy yeast
- 3/4 cup lukewarm milk + extra for kneading
- 500g strong white flour;
- 1 tbsp sugar;
- 1 tsp salt;
- 2 eggs, 1 separated;
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil;
- Butter, for spreading.
- Mix the yeast with the lukewarm milk to activate the yeast. Reserve the egg yolk from the separated egg. Mix the flour, sugar, salt, egg and egg white, milk with yeast and the oil (you can do this in a bread machine as well or by hand. Knead the dough for about ten minutes on a floured surface, it should have a good spring to it when pinched. If it is too dry you can add more milk, or more flour if the dough is too wet. When the dough is ready, transfer to a greased clean bowl and cover with greased cling film. Leave in a dark, warm place to rise. Take out when it’s doubled in size (should take about half an hour).
- Grease a large round tin and put a bit of flour in it. When the dough has risen, cut out a ball about the size of your palm and put it in the centre of the tin. The rest of the dough is split into two.
- Roll out both halves into medium-large circles and make sure they are both the same size. Spread some butter on one of the dough circles and then place the other one on top. Press them together and roll out to a larger circle. Spread with more butter.
- Cut into 12 triangles (First into quarters, and then each quarter into three). Roll each triangle from the large side to the triangle tip like a croissant.
- Put the roll-ups around the dough ball. Leave the dough in a warm, dark place to rise a bit more (leave for around 30-40minutes). Meanwhile, heat the oven to 190C fan.
- Mix the remaining yolk with a few drops of water. Spread the yolk over the risen dough then bake for about 20 minutes or until a skewer inserted in comes out clean.
Sour cabbage leaves stuffed with rice
Serves 6 | Prep 10 minutes | Cook 1 hr
A little effort | Vegan | Gluten and Dairy Free
- 4 tbsp sunflower oil;
- 2 onions, chopped;
- 200g long grain rice;
- salt, black pepper;
- 1 tbsp savoury;
- 8 – 10 sour cabbage leaves + extra for the pan. Reserve any juices from the jar. (you can find them in middle eastern shops)
Heat the oil in a deep pan. Add the onion and fry until softened. Add the rice and stir well. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan then season with salt and black pepper to taste. Add the savoury. Cook until the water is absorbed by the rice.
Add 2-3 tbsp of the rice mixture in the middle of each cabbage leaf and then fold over each side making a parcel. Put aside any leaves that have too many holes inside – you can use those for the bottom of the pan. Repeat until you have run out of leaves and rice. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, put the remaining leaves in the bottom, covering the whole area. Carefully place the stuffed cabbage leaf parcels on top. Cover with the water from the jars and enough cold water to just cover everything. Cook for about 1 hr on low heat, until the rice has cooked through.
So here we are. Three fantastic recipes from the traditional Bulgarian Christmas Eve table. You can also make the potato salad from the “Swedish meatballs with potato salad” recipe I posted earlier. I will post more Bulgarian recipes on the blog for you next year!
Happy holidays everyone 🙂