It is fitting to me that my first blog is about the most important of Serbian traditions, Slava. Slava is unique to Serbian people. Instead of celebrating birthdays or name days, every Serbian family has a patron saint that they believe protects and guides them, and they in turn celebrate his life on his birthday. Slava came to being when our ancestors became Christians in the 9th Century. Tribes or families replaced the pagan gods with a Christian patron saint. The date of their baptism determined the patron saint. Historically, Slava gave hope and courage to the Serbian people during their long-suffering and turbulent history.
My family Slava is Saint Nicholas, or Sveti Nikola. Sveti Nikola is celebrated by many Serbs all over the world today, December 19. Sveti Nikola is well known for his many miracles and generosity, especially to children. The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas is a result of his, and the Three Wise Men's, benevolence. He is known in other parts of the world as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and San Nicola, to name a few.
Now some of you may argue that St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6 every year. That is correct, if your religious calendar is determined by the Gregorian Calendar (decreed by Pope Gregory in the 16th Century). The Eastern Orthodox Church's liturgical calendar follows the original Julian Calendar, approved by none other than Julius Caesar himself. The thirteen day lag affects the date of our Christmas as well, but we'll discuss that on January 7th!
It is a great time of excitement for us as Slava approaches. My family, with my parents as hosts, prepares a feast including zito (koljivo), a mixture of wheat berries, walnuts, sugar, vanilla and sometimes dried fruit and honey. Zito is symbolic of death and resurrection and is prepared at every commemorative event. The Slavski Kolac is a bread decorated with a wreath, the cross, wheat, grapes, the Serbian seal and a dove, symbolic of Jesus Christ, health, growth, harmony and prosperity. Traditionally, the priest comes to the home and leads the family and friends in a short ceremony. At one point, he cuts the underside of the bread in the shape of a cross and sprinkles it with wine, a symbol of Christ's precious blood. After the solemn portion of the evening comes the joy and merriment as we eat, drink and dance to variations of the Kolo.
3 cups water
This is how you make it:
The proofed yeast
In the meantime, mix 3 cups water, margarine, 4 tablespoons sugar and salt in a glass measuring cup. Microwave until margarine is melted and the mixture measures about 115F.
With the paddle attachment on the mixer on low speed (or by hand) add about half of the flour to yeast, then quickly add half of the water, more flour, the rest of the water, and end with the flour. Mix until all ingredients are combined and you have a sticky mass.
Grease a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl and flip it over so it is completely covered with oil. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and allow it to double in size in a warm area of your kitchen. This will take between one and two hours, depending on the yeast you used (it will rise faster with Rapid Rise Yeast).
When double in size, 'pour' the dough onto your well-floured surface and re-knead, adding more flour, a little at a time. It will be very soft, so knead it until it is no longer very sticky. Shape it in a round flattish ball and cut it into quarters. Grease a 9 or 10-inch baking pan with high sides (mine is 4 inches high) with olive oil. With greased hands, take one of the quarters of dough and shape it into a ball. Place it next to the side in the pan. Repeat with two more quarters and nestle them in with the first ball. You should have three balls, side by side. Cover the pan with a kitchen towel and allow it to rise until it almost reaches the top of the pan (about 30-40 minutes). Preheat the oven to 400F, with rack towards the bottom third.
Waiting for the wreath and other accoutrements.
In the meantime, make the embellishments for the top of the Slavski Kolac, with the remaining quarter of dough. You will make a braid for the wreath, a dove, a cluster of grapes, a cross, and the Serbian Seal. Add more flour to the dough to make it easier to shape and knead for a few minutes. Cut three pieces for the braid and roll each one in the palms of your hands until you get a long string, about 18 inches long. Place side by side on the counter and pinch the three ends together. Braid the dough to the ends. Even off the ends. Use remaining dough for the cross, etc.
When the dough has risen, carefully place the braid along the circumference of the dough/pan. The dough for the cross goes in the middle. Please refer to the photographs for the placement of the rest of the decorative elements. Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. If the bread is well-browned at this point, cover it loosely with foil. Reduce the oven to 350F and continue to bake for about 35 - 45 minutes more. When done, place pan on rack to cool for 15 minutes. Remove bread from pan display proudly!