Christmas comes but twice a year

My Polish Grandparents (Babcia and Dzadzio) came to England after the Second World War and settled in Cambridge, where my Dad was born. The rest, as they say, is history. I love being half Polish, especially when it means that I get two Christmases a year! We celebrate our Polish Christmas (Wigilia) on Christmas eve and then have a full traditional English Christmas on Christmas day…the best of both worlds! Wigilia is traditionally a 12 course meal but thankfully for our waistlines we only have 5, which is still more than enough. Babcia used to do most of the preparation and cooking for our special meal and make it look easy. She gradually handed over the pearls of her wisdom and we have learnt how to prepare the dishes ourselves. She sadly passed away a couple of years ago but we are very proud to be able to carry on the traditions as she would have wanted. The main dish that has become my responsibility is the uszka (which actually means ‘little ears’ in Polish). Uszka are mushroom filled dumplings a bit like tortellini or ravioli. We serve them in barszcz (beetroot soup) as the first course of our Wigilia feast. They are quite time consuming to make but freeze very well so can be made in advance and are definitely worth the effort. Uszka are very popular with my family and so I have to make a LOT! This year I’ve made about 50 and there are only 5 of us eating them!

To start with I make the filling so that it has time to cool…

80g (ish) of dried porcini mushrooms

1/2 packet fresh chestnut mushrooms (approx 10), chopped finely

1 small onion, chopped very finely

2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs

1 egg, beaten

salt and pepper

My measurements may seem a bit vague but you can have a bit of artistic licence with the filling. Some people only use dried mushrooms, some use only fresh ones but I, maybe controversially, mix it up a bit and use both as I think they each add texture and taste to the filling.

Cover the dried mushrooms in boiling water and leave to soak until hydrated and pliable. When they’re ready carefully lift them out of water, so as not to disturb any grit that may have settled at the bottom. The liquid is great to use for the barszcz or a yummy mushroom risotto. Chop the mushrooms finely and set aside for the time being.

Melt the butter in a large frying pan and fry the onion until translucent, then add both the rehydrated and fresh mushrooms and cook for about 10 minutes until the fresh mushrooms have cooked down, any liquid has evaporated and the mixture has started to sizzle a bit.

Transfer the mushroom mixture to a bowl and add the breadcrumbs and egg to make a firm paste. Now’s the time to season your filling, add salt and pepper to your taste and leave to cool.

To make the dough…

2 cups plain flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 large egg, beaten

3 tbsp water (you might need more so add as necessary)

Put the flour in a large bowl with the salt. Make a well in the centre and add the liquid ingredients. Knead until a smooth dough forms, don’t panic if it doesn’t look like it’s going to come together just add more water and keep kneading…trust me, it will become smooth before long! Wrap the ball of dough in clingfilm and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it’s very thin (1-2mm). Cut it into 2 inch squares and put a small pile of the filling in the middle of each one…

Using your finger or a small pastry brush, moisten two sides of each square with water and fold in half diagonally to make a triangle, pressing out any air from around the filling…

Dab one corner with water and loop around to overlap the other corner, then press them together like this…

Once you’ve mastered this, repeat over and over and over…you’ll soon be a pro…

Put a large saucepan of salted water to boil. Drop a few uszka at a time into the water and cook at a simmer for about 10 minutes or until the dough is tender (like al dente pasta). Drain them well… 

If you are making them in advance, let them cool before layering them up with greaseproof paper in a plastic container ready for freezing. 

On Christmas eve I’ll have defrosted my uszka, my Dad will have made his own secret recipe barszcz and I’ll just warm the uszka through by simmering them for a few minutes, until they float to the top of the pan and are warmed through. We serve about 10 uszka in each bowl of barszcz but that’s because we’re incorrigible gluttons 🙂 

It all may sound a bit weird and wonderful to those unaccustomed to Polish food but all I can say is…don’t knock it until you’ve tried it…

Writing this post has made me even more excited about Christmas now…I can’t wait!

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