Celebrating With Food in Central Europe


Christmas in Central Europe is nothing short of a magical affair. From Austrian mountainsides dappled with tufts of fluffy white snow, to the sweet refrain of carols ringing through cozy, quiet villages, to the glimmering bustle of the region’s many historic Christmas markets, Central Europe offers a feast for the senses during the holiday season. While impossible to top the real thing, the Wirth Institute hopes to capture the festive spirit of Central Europe in our annual Christmas concert and Christmas Market installation. Safety permitting, we hope to invite all of our loyal readers to visit us in Convocation Hall once again this December! But for now (and we know it’s a little early) indulge us as we conclude our virtual exploration of Central Europe’s culinary treasures with our final chapter: Celebrating With Food in Central Europe.

What makes Christmas the most wonderful time of the year, you ask? The food, of course! Family, friends and togetherness are at the heart of the festive season and what brings people together in the spirit of holiday joy better than the special meals that come around but once a year? Perhaps it’s a dish that your beloved grandma used to make, or a recipe handed down through the generations, or even just the sheer sensation of being stuffed to the gills, celebration and food are so innately linked, it’s impossible (at least for this writer) to imagine the former without the latter. Just think of your favourite holiday treats. The scent and taste of these dishes are so evocative that just a single bite of your favourite Christmas cookie can light up your inner child. Speaking of cookies, let’s start our holiday tasting menu with some baked goodies so delicious, you won’t even want to share with St. Nick!


Delicate, buttery, and scented with vanilla, the melt-in-your mouth Austrian Vanillekipferl will surely push plain old shortbread down a few pegs in your Christmas cookie roster. These crescent shaped biscuits beloved throughout Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, have graced the cookie platters at our Christmas Concert year after year. Their rich flavour but delicate texture is owed to an abundance of butter, the addition of ground nuts, and the absence of egg. Shaped by hand into crescent moon forms, the cookies are also double-dusted with powdered sugar — once when hot and once when cooled — giving them an almost ethereal sweetness (and making it easy to find evidence if someone has been raiding the cookie jar).


During the holiday season in Poland, you would be hard pressed to find a home without a stash of makowiec — Polish poppy seed roll — ready to enjoy. The perfect accompaniment to a hot mug of tea or coffee on a frosty winter morning, this pastry features a delicious filling of ground poppyseed, encased by a soft, yeasted dough. Some recipes call for the addition of honey, fragrant orange peel, and even rum-soaked raisins to play off the sweet nuttiness of the ground poppy seed (a common ingredient in Central European baking). The beauty of the makowiec is that it isn’t overly-saccharine so it is perfectly suitable to enjoy as a drugie śniadanie or second breakfast. In Hungary, a cousin of the makowiec, the Hungarian beigli, or Christmas poppy seed and/or walnut roll cake, takes rather the same form and flavour notes, but with the addition of lard to the dough and a pinch of cinnamon to the filling. It can be made with either a poppy seed or walnut filling, both equally delicious. Not to be outdone, Slovenians have their own yeasted nut roll to enjoy during the holidays — potica! It is traditionally baked in a special cake pan called a Poticnik, but a standard bundt pan works just as well and will bake your roll cake into a round shape that looks beautiful as you slice it. If poppy seed isn’t your cup of tea, why not take a bite out of the Czech vánočka (Czech Christmas bread)? This braided enriched bread is studded with rum-soaked raisins, topped with toasted almonds, and finished with a generous dusting of powdered sugar. The design of the loaf is meant to convey the image of the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes. The proper way to enjoy it is sliced with butter and jam, accompanied by a cup of Czech hot chocolate. We think there’s no better way to start Christmas morning!


While we’re on the subject of warm beverages, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the famous Austrian glühwein. Really, there is nothing cozier than strolling through the twinkling stalls of an outdoor Christmas market with a warm mug of this mulled wine to keep your hands warm and your insides toasty. This delicious seasonal brew is made by simmering a whole bottle of red wine with sugar and a selection of warming spices like cinnamon, star anise, and clove, and some citrus peel for added fragrance. A word of caution: it is imperative to prevent the wine from coming to a boil, otherwise you risk cooking off all of that delicious alcohol. For extra insurance, though, it’s customary to top off your mug of wine with a shot or two of brandy, amaretto, Grand Marnier, or another liqueur of choice. Enjoy responsibly. ‘Glühwein’ translates to ‘glow-wine’ for a reason. If red wine isn’t your cup of tea, check out our companion recipes for more tasty beverage ideas, like the ultimate après-ski beverage, the Austrian jagertee. This little number is similar to glühwein but swaps the cabernet for black tea and rum. Mmm!


In a world where we are almost never truly offline, cooking holiday meals with loved ones (or even just to treat yourself) is a cherished ritual that invites us to slow down, reflect, savour, and treat each other to some edible love and kindness — a practice that shouldn’t just be reserved for the holidays! It can bring us back to cherished memories and moments long ago and far away, to hold in our minds (and tummies) just a little longer. Some holiday rituals, though, are stranger than others. For many families in Central Europe, preparing Christmas dinner can get a little… fishy. No, we’re not simply talking delicious seafood dishes (we’ll get to that in a bit), but something a little more outlandish. Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, doorbells and sleigh bells and… carp in the bathtub?! You read that right. Forget turkey with stuffing or a holiday ham with all the trimmings, carp for Christmas is du rigeuer — especially in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. In a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, eating fish for Christmas Eve dinner became customary as part of the Catholic practice of fasting during advent. With fish being a permissible food to consume during such a fast, and with carp being particularly abundant in supply, so began a centuries old tradition of a fishy festive feast. Now if you think the menu itself is the strangest part of this fish-tale, you’d be mistaken. According to tradition, the carp must be procured a few days before Christmas from one of the many fish-stalls that can be found across cities in the region. Being that most households are short of a small-scale aquarium, the carp must temporarily be housed in… the bathtub. Naturally, you can imagine that this practice runs the risk of developing attachments to the new freshwater family pet — and subsequent trauma — so many people nowadays choose to buy their carp already prepared for the freezer. If you haven’t already lost your nerve and are keen to try it, the Christmas carp is traditionally prepared by brining the fish in cold, salted water for a couple of hours, then drying it and dredging it in flour, before frying it up in oil and butter.


Now, of course, there is more to Christmas dinner than just carp. In fact, Poles are known to enjoy twelve — that’s right, twelve — meatless dishes for their Christmas Eve feast, known as the Wigilia supper. (Note: many of these dishes we have covered in our previous posts!)

  1. Pierniki - Polish Gingerbread
  2. Barszcz Czerwone z Uzkami - Red Borscht with Mushroom dumplings
  3. Kapusta z Groszek - Cabbage with Split Peas
  4. Jarzynowa Sałatka - Vegetable Salad
  5. Karp - Carp, fried or baked in Aspic
  6. Mushroom and Cabbage Pierogi
  7. Rice Stuffed Cabbage Rolls - Gołąbki
  8. Challah - Plaited Jewish bread
  9. Sernik - Polish Cheesecake
  10. Kutia - Wheat-flower and Honey Dessert
  11. Makowiec - Poppy Seed Cake
  12. Kompot - Smoked Fruit Cordial

One lovely Polish Christmas Eve tradition includes arranging an extra place setting at the dinner table for any unexpected guest. With such an incredible menu, any wanderer would surely feel welcome at the holiday table!


While we cannot hope to capture every single dish that makes the holiday season special in Central Europe, we would be remiss not to include a few more palate pleasing suggestions! In keeping with tradition, these dishes are also fish-based or meatless. In addition to enjoying fried carp, Croatians also favour serving bakalar — a salted cod and potato stew, flavoured with garlic, onion, and lemon — on Christmas Eve. Hungarians, of course, spice things up with paprika and Hungarian hot peppers in their Hungarian Fisherman Soup, halászlé. The exact recipe varies between regions and while most often features carp, it can sometimes include catfish and pike. Vánocní rybí polévka — Czech Christmas fish soup — offers yet another variation on a carp-based soup, this time featuring the addition of root vegetables like carrot, parsnip, and turnip, with extra flavour and umami provided by the addition of fish roe, lots of onion, and a dash of nutmeg. This soup is traditionally served alongside fried carp and potato salad and garnished with buttered croutons and parsley. And, lastly, for those among us who are not fans of fish, we would suggest whipping up a batch of Polish mushroom pierogi, or uszka, to serve with borscht. Flavoured with onion and a mix of dried and fresh mushrooms, these delicious dumplings are added directly to bowls of deep purple borscht to make a filling and vegetarian-friendly Christmas dish!


We hope these recipes will give your Christmas spirit an extra boost this holiday season! We thank you for joining us over these past twelve weeks and hope you have come to know a little more about Central Europe through its food, drink, and culinary culture. As a special treat, we have an exciting announcement coming your way! If you have yet to try out any of our featured recipes, keep an eye on our Facebook page for some extra incentive to get cooking — Central European style!

As always, happy cooking… and even happier eating!

Companion Recipes & Resources


















Croatian Christmas Stew - Bakalar




Hungarian Fisherman Soup - Halászlé




Czech Fish Soup - Rybí polévka





















Austrian Christmas Cookies 







Polish Grzaniec (wine and beer)




Austrian Glühwein











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