Season stirs warm memories of soup, sweets

Mushroom soup was always a part of Christmas Eve celebrations for the writer.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Mushroom soup was always a part of Christmas Eve celebrations for the writer.

Categories: Celebrate, Food

As a child growing up and even now, there are sights and smells that remind me of the holidays, including Christmas Eve dinner.

My roots are in the Southern Tier of New York state, mainly the greater Binghamton area, where my lone surviving aunt and other family members still reside.

It is in that house, on Dimmock Hill Road in Binghamton, where MaryAnn Samsonik creates one of the most memorable meals of the year.

The night — which included my parents and my cousins, followed by their future spouses at “the kids table” through the years — featured a feast of Russian, Polish and Slovak items.

After the traditional cocktail hour and the passing of several pounds of fresh shrimp procured by my father in Honesdale, Pennsylvania — his traditional contribution to the evening — we gathered at a long, multileafed dinner table in the family room.

In my younger years, there was a large card table reserved for myself and my cousins. Over time we were lucky enough to graduate to the adult table.

The meal began with a blessing from then-patriarch Lou Hudy; after his death, the duty passed to my aunt MaryAnn.

More from Celebrate 2020

Growing up Catholic, this was a way to share in the Eucharist as one family on Christmas Eve, each of us eating a thin oplatki — a Christmas wafer, often white or pink.

The meal kicked off with a once-a-year personal favorite: a sour mushroom soup.

This is not a creamy, thick, opaque mixture that can be found on any store shelf. This is a warm, broth mixture created out of a generations-old family recipe with handpicked, dried popinki mushrooms, the Polish or Ukrainian name for honey mushrooms grown behind the Samsonik’s house each year.

The 12-quart recipe includes six pounds of sauerkraut and half a head of shredded cabbage, along with five chopped onions.

The soup was a favorite of my father, who tried to reproduce the recipe out of season because he missed it so much.

He swore he followed the directions exactly, but it wasn’t earthy enough for him.

When talking to MaryAnn about the recipe, he said, it called for half a can of mushrooms. Lost in translation was that it should be one-half of a distinctive, one-pound tin Charles Chip can made since 1942.

The soup must be an acquired taste that never crossed over to the newly invited. As the future spouses attended Christmas Eve dinner, the “swap” was invented. Each seat received a bowl of soup, and as the immediate family children finished one bowl, the empty was swapped onto the future spouse’s place without hesitation, making MaryAnn pleased that the new family members apparently, too, liked the soup.

Next was the breaded fish entry. Often in Polish households the tradition is carp, but our family always opted for cod or haddock.

The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a meatless affair as the fish entrée provides the protein, but the Hudys of the older generation (Lou, Teresa, MaryAnn, Betty Jane and my father, David) were all hearty eaters.

Next came two types of kielbasa, a smoked ring and a fresh ring, with a rich, garlic flavor. Also paraded out were slices of ham for those family members not partaking in the kielbasa.

No major meal is complete without the appropriate side dishes. Pierogi is a staple. The fillings ranged from traditional cheese and sauerkraut, to the favorite of my mother, Rose — she was the only one — lekvar, a prune filling.

Next came the bobalky, small dough balls baked, then fried in butter and onion before being covered with a ladle of a cooked white bean sauce.

Once the family pushed away from their respective seats — some slowly, others anxiously — gifts were exchanged as the coffee percolated in MaryAnn’s small kitchen.

After gifts and laughs, the groups would return to the large table. Sometimes children would sidle up to a parent as the cookie trays arrived before the groups departed.

More from Celebrate 2020

The kolachky cookie remains my favorite, a dough cookie often rolled up with apricot preserves, a nut filling or, of course, lekvar. The short, stubby confections were always topped with sprinkles of powdered sugar.

Also available that night — and again the next morning — was a poppyseed or nut kolac, a type of pastry that holds a portion of filling surrounded by a puffy dough.

Before the final hugs and kisses of the night, each family had a bag from MaryAnn — a quart of mushroom soup, at least one kolac and that precious, decorated tin box of cookies: kolachky, thumbprint cookies and jelly-filled pressed cookies.

It’s been more than a decade since I enjoyed that wonderful meal on Dimmock Hill, eight years since my father passed and one year since I lost my mom, but I can place myself at that table at age 8, 12, 18 — and then with my wife, Reda, introducing her to that magical night of family, friends and food.

MaryAnn, the last surviving Hudy of that generation, will again be in that small kitchen this Christmas week. She will make one meal for her youngest, David, my cousin, and his family to share the weekend before, with help from her oldest son, Stevie.

Through the years, the gathering has grown smaller, but the memories, shared by multiple generations and the people with whom we spent those Christmas Eves, remain forever in our hearts.

MaryAnn’s Mushroom Soup (sour)

Makes 12 quarts

Ingredients

  • 3/4 pound dried peas
  • 1/2 pound barley
  • 6 pounds sauerkraut (set juice aside)
  • 1/2 pound of dried popinki (honey mushrooms) — formally measured in a Charles Chip can
  • 1/2 head of cabbage, shredded
  • 4 to 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 large bay leaves crumbled
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. peppercorns
  • 2 tbs. salt (more to taste)
  • 1 heaping tbs. sugar
  • 1 quart tomato juice

Zaprashka (a roux of butter, onion, flour)

  • 1 lb. oleo (butter)
  • 1 huge onion chopped
  • 1 heaping wooden spoon of flour
  • Warm on stovetop until nutty brown, add 1 tbs. water as needed to make roux

Steps

Cook peas separately. Chop sauerkraut. Soak mushrooms, wash several times and then chop.

Place barley, drained sauerkraut, onions in large pot. Add garlic, bay leaves, allspice, peppercorns, salt, sugar, and tomato juice.

Bring to a boil and simmer, then add zaprashka. When sauerkraut is almost tender, add cabbage and cook until tender.

Add reserved sauerkraut juice to taste.

Leave a Reply