Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Strudel

In honour of Christmas, I wanted to write about Christmases past, and the traditions that make make the season so special.

I’ve read that people are losing the skill of cooking.  In this age of prepared, pre-packaged, pre-washed fast foods, a lot of the dishes our grandmothers made have been lost to us.  No where is this more apparent to me than in some of the dishes I remember from Christmases past.

My great-grandparents and grandparents emigrated from Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, lured to Saskatchewan on the Canadian prairies by the promise of free land and a better life.  They were Germans who had never lived in Germany, having been born in Galacia and Bukovina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but now part of Poland and the Ukraine.  They were simple farmers who arrived in Canada without much except a desire to own their own land and to grow their own food.

Their desires were fulfilled on both counts. In my childhood, Christmas was a time of church and food, with the emphasis on food.  I remember gathering at my grandmother’s tiny house with my aunts and uncles and cousins on Christmas Eve.  We’d arrive after the church Christmas concert to open presents and to eat.  My maternal grandmother learned the recipes of her German heritage while living in Canada in a German community.  She was a marvelous cook and took offence if every morsel wasn’t gobbled up.  No one came away hungry from Granny’s table.

Christmas at Granny’s house wouldn’t be Christmas without two things:  cabbage rolls and strudel.

Strictly speaking, cabbage rolls, or halopchi, are thought of as a Ukrainian dish, but everyone in my family and community made them and ate them when I was growing up, even though we were of German descent.  Though the Ukrainian version are often meatless and are filled with rice, my grandmother’s cabbage rolls were made of a hearty combination of ground pork, long grained rice, and diced onion spiced with salt and pepper. The meat mixture was then rolled inside a leaf of sour cabbage and gently boiled on top of the stove until the rice was soft.  Granny’s cabbage rolls were the best.

The Christmas strudel was usually made long before Christmas and then frozen until the holidays.  Granny had a wooden table in her living room that folded into a compact two feet by three feet when not in use, but could be extended with leaves to become eight feet long.  I have memories of my grandmother, my mother and my aunts gently pulling the strudel dough across this table until it stretched from one end to another, all the while taking care not to tear the delicate dough.  Once it was stretched to near transparency, my grandmother would cover the dough with slices of apple and raisin, dot it liberally with butter, and sprinkle the whole thing with sugar and cinnamon.  Then the painstaking job of rolling the strudel would then begin.  Each aunt would take her position at one part of the strudel and they would roll in unison until they reached the end.  This long roll was then cut into sections and distributed among the aunts.  When baked, the result was a flaky, fragrant, delicious concoction that melted in the mouth.  I looked forward to it every Christmas.

When I give you the ingredients for Christmas strudel, it comes from my memory of the taste and what I remember seeing.  As far as I know Granny had no written recipe.  She could barely read and write, at least in English.  I have no idea how that flaky, phyllo type dough was created.  I know my mother never made strudel on her own after Granny died and as far as I know, neither did my aunts.  When Granny died, the Christmas strudel died with her.

Fortunately, the cabbage rolls fared better.  My mother and aunts, and now me, my sister in law and cousins, all learned to make our family staple.  I still don’t have a written recipe, instead preferring the tried and true method of mixing ingredients until it feels and tastes just right.  This Christmas my daughters and I will get together around the kitchen table and roll dollops of meat and rice inside leaves of cabbage and debate who rolls the prettiest cabbage roll.  It just wouldn’t be Christmas without them.


  1. Hi, Jana--Oh, my gosh! Cabbage rolls. My Aunt Sissy made cabbage rolls when we went to visit. They were very poor, worse off than we were, but she went all out with that huge roaster full of cabbage rolls, simmering in a tomato sauce. Mother never made them, because Daddy didn't like anything "mixed" together. He wanted one piece of meat and everything separate.
    But I adored those cabbage rolls as a kid, and as a young married woman, I tried so hard to re-create them. But like your mother, the way of the cabbage rolls died with her.
    Now you have me all nostalgic.
    Merry Christmas to you and all your family-Celia

  2. What great memories of your family Christmases, Jana :) And it's 10:30 in the morning and you've made me hungry for both strudel and cabbage rolls.

    My MIL makes cabbage rolls - being from Scottish decent, such fare was not in my vocabulary until well into my 20's! I've tried, but lack the patience and, perhaps, skill. So (and Celia might want to try this), I make lazy cabbage rolls. Shredded cabbage in the bottom of a roaster then topped with the meat and rice mixture which has been cooked on the stovetop then topped with cans of tomato soup (or a homemade tomato sauce if you have time). In the oven for about an hour and Viola - cabbage rolls.

    I'll make a big pan of them and peroghy on the 12th Night - Christmas according to the Julian Calendar. It's become our tradition.

    Merry Christmas, Jana :)

  3. Jana, what a lovely post. I'd never heard of cabage rolls, but they sound good. Like Janet, my mouth's watering at the thought of that strudel.
    I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas.

  4. Celia, my cabbage rolls aren't anywhere near as good as my mother's or grandmother's were. I don't make them often enough to get good at it. Unfortunately this year the girls and I didn't have time to make any (I wrote the story a couple of years ago). My oldest daughter flew in from Toronto, and then we all drove to Saskatchewan (about 600 km)to be with family over Christmas. What a whirlwind! But I did get to sample my sister-in-law's cabbage rolls. She's a fabulous cook and her cabbage rolls are to die for!

    I make Lazy Cabbage rolls (see Janet's comment). Far easier!

  5. I hope you had a Merry Christmas, Janet. I've been hearing about all the storms and rain down east. Hope you haven't been washed away!

    I tried making perogies once and gave up on it. Way too time consuming. I'll just pop down to the grocery store when I want some. There are also many Babas in Winnipeg who make and sell them if I want the homemade kind. Congrats on making them yourself.

    I'm a big fan of Lazy Cabbage rolls too. Much the same taste without the hassle. But I do love the rolled kind, just the same.


  6. Hi Sherry,
    I think every region in North America has their own special dishes that makes Christmas special. When it comes to Christmas food traditions, it's all about what you grow up, and what your parents grow up with. Those dishes always mean Christmas.

    Happy New Year!