Lithuanian Christmas Eve Biscuits | Kūčiukai [Recipe]
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.
Notes on ingredients:
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.
The description of kūčiukai on Wikipedia says that they are made with leavened dough – that is, that the dough has been risen with yeast or some other raising agent. All recipes I found either in books or online included yeast. I made many batches of kūčiukai while developing this recipe and only one batch rose significantly. That batch included more water and the final biscuit was not as crisp as I would like – it was more like a bread than a biscuit. My final recipe still includes yeast as it impacts both the flavour and the texture, but don’t expect the dough to double in size as you would with yeast bread. It may rise slightly, or not at all. However, allow it to rest for at least one hour before baking to allow for fermentation of the sugars which will improve both the texture and flavour of your final biscuits.
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 all supermarkets, but they currently available in Lidl and should also be available in Health Food stores or in Polish or Lithuanian supermarkets, if you happen to live near one.
Lithuanian Christmas Eve Biscuits | Kūčiukai
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INGREDIENTS: 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. METHOD: Preheat the oven to 180˚ C (355˚ F) 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. 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. 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 1-2 hours to rise and ferment. (Note that the dough will not rise significantly in the same way as yeast bread. However, allowing the dough to rest for 1-2 hours will greatly improve the final flavour & texture of the biscuits.) After 1-2 hours, transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and cut into 4 pieces. 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. Cut each roll evenly into 2 cm pieces. You should get about 25 pieces per roll. 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. 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. Cool on the baking sheet before transferring to an airtight jar or biscuit tin. Enjoy with a cold glass of milk or with your favourite coffee.