Monday, December 22, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 22 - Lithuanian Christmas Eve Biscuits | Kūčiukai

June writes at My Food Odyssey, about her life in the Lithuanian countryside, her travels, but mostly about food. A supporter of using local ingredients and cooking from scratch, June was kind enough to share this recipe for traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve cookies for Day 22 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas.

Christmas is a time for tradition. What’s fascinating to me is how much those traditions vary from country to country and even from family to family. Some children post their letter to Santa up the chimney, some through the regular mail. Some leave out milk and cookies for Santa, but in our house it was a bottle of Guinness and a few mince pies. (Clever ole Dad!) Some traditions don’t believe in Santa at all.

Being somewhat food obsessed, to me the most interesting differences are centred round the foods we eat and how we prepare and serve those foods. In Ireland, the main Christmas feast is served on Christmas Day and typically includes roast turkey, baked ham, boiled Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes. Sweet treats include iced Christmas cake, brandy-laced Christmas pudding and mince pies. Most of these foods are not traditional used in Lithuanian Christmas cooking and in many cases are impossible to source here.

In Lithuania, the main celebration is on Christmas Eve. The meal, known as Kūčios, consists of 12 meatless dishes and typically includes herring, sauerkraut, potatoes, mushrooms, beetroot, carrots and stuffed eggs. For dessert there is a stodgy cranberry drink known as kisielius and bite-sized biscuits called kūčiukai (koo-chuck-ay) made with poppy seeds.

Kūčiukai are typically served with a glass of milk. Old traditions dictated that no animal products, including dairy products, should be consumed on Christmas Eve and so poppy seed milk was used in place of dairy milk. In many regions this custom has now petered out and dairy milk is used. In some homes the biscuits are soaked in milk before eating, in others the milk is served as a drink on the side.

Kūčiukai are widely available in the supermarkets here, but they are generally mass-produced and full of unnecessary ingredients. They are incredibly simple to make and only require a small number of ingredients so this year I decided to make my own. I always feel that the tradition of making the food is as important as the food itself. We always made our own Christmas cake and pudding and now that I’ve chosen to live here in Lithuania I want to start a new tradition of always making my own kūčiukai.

I use butter in my kūčiukai. Traditionally, only foods typically available during a Lithuanian winter could be used in preparing dishes for the Christmas Eve feast. To me, butter is one of the oldest and most natural cooking fats and fits well with this tradition. Many recipes I found both online and in books used butter as an ingredient. However, if you prefer to stay with the tradition of avoiding dairy products while still using traditional Lithuanian ingredients, I suggest replacing the butter in the recipe with 25 mls (2 Tbsp) of rapeseed or sunflower oil.

Note: Poppy seeds are widely available in Lithuania, particularly at this time of year. They also appear to be widely available in the US. In Ireland I’m not sure if they are available in supermarkets, but they should be available in Health Food stores or in Polish or Lithuanian supermarkets, if you happen to live near one.

Lithuanian Christmas Eve Biscuits | Kūčiukai

        Servings: About 100 biscuits
        Time: Prep 20 mins | Bake 18 mins
        Difficulty: Easy


250 g | 9 oz plain flour (all-purpose flour)
5 g | 1 tsp salt
7 g | ¼ oz fresh yeast or 3.5 g | ⅛ oz dried yeast
90 g | 3 oz sugar
20 g | 2 Tbsp poppy seeds
25 g | 2 Tbsp butter
90 mls | 3 fl oz warm water *
* The water should be just warm enough to touch with your finger for at least 10 seconds without feeling hot. I generally use 1/3 boiling water and 2/3 cold water to get just the right temperature.


1.    Preheat the oven to 180˚ C (355˚ F)
2.    Place the flour, salt, sugar, poppy seeds, butter and yeast in the large bowl of your food processor and mix on full power for about 20 seconds to thoroughly combine the ingredients and to distribute the yeast and poppy seeds.
3.    Pour the water into the food processor and mix on full power for about 1 minute. The mix should come together into a ball in about 20 seconds but continuing to mix for a little longer will help to knead the dough. After 1 minute the dough should be soft and slightly sticky to touch.
4.    Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and knead for about 1 minute to form into a smooth round. Place the dough in a lightly floured bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place for at about two hours to rise.
5.    When the dough has doubled in size (or when you run out of patience waiting!), transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and cut into 4 pieces.
6.    Roll each piece of dough into a long sausage about 2 cm wide. Ensure the dough is the same thickness along the full length of the roll so that the biscuits will all be a similar size and cook evenly. Note that the roll will end up being about 40 cm long so make sure you have enough space on your board. Alternatively, use your worktop to roll the dough or cut the dough into smaller pieces before rolling.
7.    Cut each roll evenly into 2 cm pieces. You should get about 25 pieces per roll.
8.    Transfer the pieces to a lightly floured baking sheet. Leave a small gap (about ½ cm) between each piece as they will expand a little during baking.
9.    Bake for 15-18 minutes until all the biscuits are golden brown and a little crisp. They will crisp further as they cool so don’t overcook them.
10. Cool on the baking sheet before transferring to an airtight jar or biscuit tin.
11. Enjoy with a cold glass of milk or with your favourite coffee.

Thank you to June, for letting me feature this recipe on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! (This article first appeared on You can also find June on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Tomorrow a trip to the Talinn and Rīga Christmas markets with Heather!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 21 - AUSEKLIS, AUSEKLIS – everywhere!

Day 21 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas is by my little sis, Z. Expert fashionista and working in the retail industry, she reports that this is indeed a very Baltic Christmas…

It seems that this design is everywhere you turn this season... If you’ve ever seen this symbol and thought “oh, what a beautiful snowflake,” you have underestimated the power and significance of the Auseklis

Auseklis was an ancient Pagan diety representing new life. He was a son of God, as well as the groom of Saules Meita, or the Sun's daughter.

The term auseklis is derived from the Germanic aus ('east') and the Latin oriens ('orient'); and the Latvian: sēkla - ('seed', 'semen'). For this reason, it has been identified as the morning, or rising, star. The auseklis symbolizes the victory of light over darkness; it is a symbol of hope. It is considered one of the most powerful symbols against evil spirits because it must be drawn in a single continuous line. The symbol was also adopted as the emblem of the third Latvian National Awakening. It was used as a summons to the Latvian nation: to never forget their roots, their nation’s history, their rich culture and folklore.

In the past couple of years, this symbol has become more and more popular in the fashion industry. It is used in a pattern most commonly known as “Fair Isle.” It is named after a little island lying midway between the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland in the UK, at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. It is not known exactly how this pattern originated. Most likely a passing ship from the Baltic nations traded a piece of patterned knitting in return for fresh food and water, which was a very common occurrence in the Viking era. The islanders then adopted this symbol and created their own unique pattern from it.

So the next time you see this symbol on a piece of clothing, or on a blanket, or a tablecloth, or fake nails (!), keep in mind that it’s more than just a beautiful snowflake!


Thanks Zinta! I love seeing the auseklīši everywhere; it really is a great marketing technique and a trend I hope continues. Tomorrow on Day 22 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas is June from My Food Odyssey with her recipe for Lithuanian Christmas Eve Biscuits - Kūčiukai.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 20 - Lithuanian Christmas cards

Nomeda Lukoševičienė, her husband Arvydas, and their three children Marius, Tadas, and Lukas have been living in Seattle for the last 17 years. “Even though our family lives far from our homeland, there is absolutely no doubt that we are 100% Lithuanian.” Today on Day Twenty of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas Nomeda shares some of her handmade creations.

It seems like people await Christmas as if it were the pinnacle of yearly celebrations. I often find myself wondering why that is, and no matter how many times I roll it over in my mind I arrive at the same conclusion; preparing for such a special holiday takes a lot of selfless compassion and kindness, a contagious force that grows stronger as it engulfs others. Decorating the tree, lighting up the house, cooking all the beloved traditional dishes, and of course, spreading the cheer far and wide with Christmas greeting cards!

Days before the eve, dozens of greeting cards would start to show up on the doorstep from every little town in Lithuania. Friends and relatives, greeting and wishing one another such basic but important things; health, serenity, and love. I remember excitedly opening various greetings and appreciating the beautiful cards along with their personal, hand written blessings.

For those who were the closest, we would hand-craft the cards using flowers we picked and dried in the summertime, going the extra mile for the people we really cherish. Our family maintains this tradition to this day! The Lithuanian community members of Seattle all have access to uniquely composed, personal Christmas greeting cards. (That is, if they are too busy with the festivities to make their own)  We are moving into a technologically enhanced era allowing word to spread further and quicker, but nothing compares to the emotional uplift of receiving a dear and loving Christmas card.

Thank you Nomeda! How beautiful to receive such a card in the mail. Your post brings to mind Daina’s mention that the Latvian artist Kalmīte used to send miniature watercolors as Christmas cards; these works of art belong on the wall! You can find more of Nomeda's creations on her website Nomedos Pieva/Nomeda's Meadow. Day 21 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas will feature my sister Zinta, I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us...

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 19 - Christmas at Kalnciems (or troll shoes, hemp and homemade honeycake)

Day Nineteen of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas is from Marianna of Hello, LatviaMarianna been slowly going native in the "motherland" Latvia for the last 10 years, after growing up in sub-tropical Brisvegas, Australia ... analysing the differences, advantages, life styles in both places. 

Christmas in Latvia (or I assume, in Europe) would not be complete without visiting a Christmas market. In Rīga this usually means trotting off in sub-zero temps to the old town, where the wooden booths set up in the dome square display the same wares they have been selling since, oh, the middle ages. Well, at least since the 1980s. Leather wallets and book covers, beeswax candles, home-knitted goods, some Lithuanian-made wooden toys, big gingerbread hearts with fancy icing. Mostly nice things - but kind of boring, if you are shopping there for the fifth year in a row. And desperately cold, when you take off your gloves to pay for something.

This is why I feel relieved and pleased in the last few years, that an „alternative” Christmas market has developed at Kalnciema Street, just down the road from our place in Pārdaugava. Around Christmas, our regular local craft market goes ballistic. There are so many stalls they overflow out of the yard and onto the sidewalk, and people come in droves to buy locally made food and craft in anticipation of the festive season.

I sauntered down there last Saturday and was surprised to see the range of Latvian products that have popped up recently. SO many beautiful hand-crafted things, made with imagination and precision. So without further ado, here’s a little peek at some of the things Latvians will be exchanging as gifts on Christmas eve:

Paper dolls named „Jānis” and „Ieva” - no more Jack and Jane for us.

Hemp seed products – products derived from traditional Latvian hemp butter – hemp seed pesto, hemp oil soap, different flavors and consistencies of hemp butter, raw hemp seeds.

Products based on Latvian ancient symbols – scarves, hats, wooden ornaments, glass decorative items, candles, children’s toys like domino, jewelry, reflective brooches, all sporting ancient Latvian symbols. Old standard symbols like Saulītes (the sun) and Auseklīši (the morning star) are no longer popular, giving way to the austras koks (tree of dawn) and ornate variations of the pērkoņkrusts (thunder god). Great to see the old symbols being wholly embraced and incorporated into contemporary designs.

Half of Latvia has lived and worked in Norway in the last ten years, I guess this might explain the locally-made troll-child felted clogs. That I want.

If your kids are bored with shopping, they can catch a bit of culture in the wine store.

Cake. Honey cake with cream and chocolate sprinkles. This is a bit of a family fave. May not last ‘till Christmas, though...

Lately, perplexingly, there has been a rush of local alcohol brewers/manufacturers – Latvian-made wine, moonshine, apple cider, fermented birch juice... every friendly vendor willing to have a chat and give you a sample. Can’t say I’m a fan of the wine, but moonshine... now Latvians REALLy know how to make good moonshine!

Raw milk! In these parts we all drink raw milk. Most people think it’s the healthiest thing for their children and families. No big deal. Even at Christmas.

Of all the stalls at the Kalnciema Christmas market, this one is my favourite, hands down. This lady and her vintage suitcase peddle small paintings, on ripped offcuts of particle board. Trained at the Latvian Academy of Art, this lady’s work reveal kitsch worlds featuring all manner of Latvian portraits and still-lifes. For two or three euros you can obtain your very own miniature Rainis in the moonlight, or Barona tēvs looking stern, or Aspāzija the crazy cat lady. Or a still life of a famous Latvian icon – a jar of pickles, or a jar of grandma’s jam. Kitsch and curious, but charming nonetheless.

Merry Christmas!

Thank you Marianna! I believe any one of these items would be welcome under our Christmas tree! And thank you Jeremy Smedes, for the beautiful photographs! Tomorrow on 24Days of a Baltic Christmas will be Nomeda Lukoševičienė and her beautiful cards made with pressed flowers.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 18 - Latvian Christmas Music

Day Eighteen of the 24 Days of Christmas features Heather MacLaughlin Garbes. Heather is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Mägi Ensemble, an eight-voice women’s vocal ensemble that focuses on performing and recording music from the Baltic region. She is also currently a post-doctoral researcher in Baltic music at the University of Washington, where she works the Baltic Choral Library collection.

When I was asked to guest write about Latvian Christmas music, I was both honored and a little overwhelmed because I realized that I didn’t know that much about the music traditions for Christmas in Latvia. I have a favorite choral CD that I listen to each year that is Latvian, but I really didn’t know much about the traditional repertoire.

There are so many creative and dynamic Latvian choral composers, but due to Soviet era restrictions and obligations of what subject could be used, songs written specifically for the Christmas season seem to be a more recent addition to the choral repertoire.

I talked with Ambassador Peteris-Karlis Elferts and Iveta Grenberga during the Ambassador’s visit to the University of Washington and asked them what were their favorite musical Christmas traditions. Both thought for a moment and then timidly replied, “ You can look at some solstice songs?”  The older Latvian Christmas tradition focuses on the celebration of the winter solstice: events that highlight the darkest time of year. Thinking about the wonderful connection of pagan and Christian traditions in Latvia, solstice songs would be an important part of the season.

From Lilija Zobens in the Musica Baltica collection “A Baltic Christmas”, she describes winter solstice celebrations as,

“Groups of masked dancers, or mummers, disguised usually as animals such as a bear, wolf or goat, or as gypsies, and lead by the budēļu tēvs (father of the mummers) would visit all the homesteads in their locality, singing and dancing to drive away evils spirits and bring good luck, happiness and prosperity to the homes they visited.”

Two examples of winter solstice Latvian folk songs that I found are “Duido” and “Kaladō”. “Duido” describes the arrival of Christmas with a feeling like the season is actually a person, arriving in a decorated sleigh. The home welcomes Duido with warm lights and an open door. “Kaladō” sets the stage for what happens as Christmas arrives: a spotted cow in the barn, a grey foal in a stable and a sack of sausages on your back. It tells of how if you don’t behave, you won’t get the special treats that are being presented for Christmas.

Both texts show the wonderful balance of nature and Christmas traditions and expectations (Budēļu tēvs = Santa Claus) which in turn, I believe, show that balance with Latvian Christmas music traditions overall.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my favorite Christmas CD is ChristmasJoy in Latvia: Latvian Christmas Cantatas (Ziemassvētki Sabraukuši) by the New York Latvian Concert Choir and their conductor, Andrejs Jansons.

It’s a beautiful mixture of the folk song feeling and style of singing along with lush choral singing and orchestration. The pieces on the recording are:

Vilnis Salaks (b.1939): Ziemas Svētku Vakarā (On Christmas Eve) 

Uģis Prauliņš (b. 1957): Ziemsvētki Jaunajā Pasaulē (Latvian Solstice in the New World)
Bruno Skulte (1909-2000): Ziemassvētkos (At Christmas Time)
Paul Dambis (b.1936): Nākat iekšā Ziesmassvētki! (Welcome, Christmas)
Juris Karlsons (b. 1948): Ziemassvētku Kantāte (Christmas Cantata)
Rihards Dubra (b.1964): In nativitate Domini

My absolute favorite movement is “Mans daiļais linu lauks” (My Lovely Flax Field) from Uģis Prauliņš “Ziemssvētki Jaunajā Pasaulē”. It has such a wonderful combination of the choral sound, but the starkness of winter with the very simple solo melodic line and then even the accompaniment is very simple and static which really paints an amazing picture of the crispness and bareness of the landscape in winter.

I also want to note the ages of the composers. A majority of them are still living and all of them are 20th or 21st century composers. I know that this is a small sample size, but I believe that it is telling about the lack of holiday music that was produced in earlier times.

I also came across scores for holiday compositions by Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) and Rihards Dubra.  Ēšenvalds composes with many different focus and his Christmas works are based on many different elements and text, including Gregorian chant (O Emmanuel). Dubra is known for his church choral compositions and his pieces represent elements of the Catholic church liturgy.  Both are quite popular in the international choral world due to their beautiful writing, but also that these pieces are in Latin or English which makes them more accessible to choirs worldwide.

This exploration into Latvian Christmas music was such an enjoyable journey for me. I continue to learn more about the rich history of Latvian traditions through the music and language and look forward to continuing my study for many years to come.

Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus!

Thank you Heather! Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus to you as well! I’m always excited to put on the Latvian Christmas music because it is so different than the holiday music we hear everywhere else this time of year. Tomorrow on Day 19 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we welcome Marianna from Latvija!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...