Christmas in Croatia with Tamara Novakoviç

christmas in a house in karlovac croatia
It's Christmas Eve in Karlovac, a small town outside of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. A brush stroke of browns and greens and grays cover the surrounding hills, as the bare trees shiver in the wind without cover from leaves or snow. In the valley, the Mrežnica River - a river of waterfalls – winds its way between neighborhoods and farmland, snaking through the town until roaring to an end with the rush of falling water feeding into the north-flowing Korana River.

The temperature dips below the freezing point unnoticed to the families gathered inside, as the aroma of honey gingerbread cookies (Medenjaci) warms each home. Children wait impatiently for the goodies to cool and harden, unable to decide which to eat and which to hang on the yet to be decorated Christmas tree.

honey gingerbread cookies - traditional croatia christmas cookie

Their attention and excitement suddenly shifts when their parents delicately hand them each a glass ornament to paint - a tradition passed down many generations. The house quiets with the children looking through the glass, imagining a colorful design that will stand out against the dark green of the Christmas tree, and be the pride of the their household.

silver christmas ball candles in a wreath

The anticipation of this night began weeks before when the Advent wreath of four candles was placed in the center of the dining room table. Before dinner was served on that first Sunday, one of the candles was lit to usher in the Christmas season. A season of love, peace, and baking. A season symbolized in the shape of a heart, in the edible form of a honey cookie called Licitar. The licitar cookie takes weeks to prepare - baking, coloring, decorating, and drying - before being gifted to family and friends, and adorned on Christmas trees.

As the sun sets on Karlovac on Christmas Eve, the children finish decorating the tree, placing their homemade ornaments as high as they can reach. In the kitchen, the cookies are set aside, and a rich, buttery, white wine sauce is prepared to serve with the Christmas Eve dish of dried codfish. The meal is placed on the table, where everyone peacefully sits, observing the flickering glow of the four Advent candles. A prayer is said, thanks are given for peace in the region, a feast is eaten, and memories and laughter are shared in celebration of tradition and family and Christmas.

picture of tamara from croatian food blog - bite my cake
"Croatians are quite big on Christmas traditions," shares Tamara Novakoviç of Karlovac. But she admits that many traditions are fading, like hand-painted glass ornaments, which are gradually being "replaced by cheaper plastic ones." Culinary traditions are also changing, influenced by the popularity of American Christmas goodies like Gingerbread Men and Gingerbread Houses. While Tamara welcomes many of these new Christmas food trends into her own kitchen, she never allows them to replace what is most important – carrying on her family cooking traditions.

On her food site, Bite My Cake, Tamara bakes and cooks many Croatian desserts and savory dishes, continuing many of the traditions passed down within her family. Literally passed down in the form of her mom’s recipe notebook. "There are so many wonderful recipes that represent our home and where we come from." And as the name of her website implies, Tamara is especially interested in continuing the tradition of baking – and eating – all the delicious traditional cakes and sweets that her mom, and grandmother, and many generations before created during Christmas and throughout the year. That comes as no surprise as Tamara and Bite My Cake are both “Powered by Lovely Amounts of Sugar.“

Tamara’s favorite sweet recipe from the notebook? Walnut Meringue Bars. “This is such a simple one, but its beauty lies in the combination of ingredients. These bars are always made during Christmas in my family since we are all big walnut and meringue lovers.”

walnut meringue bars recipe for christmas treats in croatia

what is sarma
Her favorite savory dish for Christmas, and throughout the winter? Her mother’s recipe for Sarma. “This dish invigorates you. It wakes up both spirit and body, and keeps you warm. It is a dish made of cabbage leaves rolled around a filling made of minced meat and cooked rice, slow-boiled for several hours.”

The notebook encompasses many traditional Croatian recipes, but is only an introduction to the cuisine of this small, but surprisingly diverse country. A country that many people are still unfamiliar with. “In my experience, most people haven't heard about Croatia, but they generally get the picture when you tell them it's near Italy (on the other side of the Adriatic Sea).”

On Christmas Day, one of many main dishes may be served depending on the region of the country. In the warmer, coastal areas of Croatia, like the region of Dalmatia, the traditional Christmas Day dish is Pasticada. “Pasticada is a stewed beef dish and almost every household in Dalmatia has its own original recipe. It requires marinating the beef in vinegar, lemon and rosemary for at least 24 hours. The marinated beef is then cooked with carrots, cloves, nutmeg, red wine and diced prosciutto, and usually served with gnocchi.”

brick oven bread for sale outside in croatia

In many central areas of the country, suckling pig is traditionally baked for Christmas, and in the mountainous central regions of Gorski Kotar and Zagorje (and Karlovac), baked turkey with mlinci is commonly served. “Mlinci is our folk-cuisine specialty. It’s a thin dried flatbread that is most often served by soaking the dried pieces in the juices of the roast meats, and then baked again.”

Similar to traditions around the world, Christmas in the Croatian kitchen is all about the desserts. From bundt cakes (Kuglof) to 'Bear Paw' cookies to walnut-raisin cakes (Orahnjaca). “Women usually bake up to 10 or 20 types of different sweets for Christmas.” Tamara confesses she can’t stop herself from baking all the Christmas goodies once she starts. Many times baking in the middle of the night while everyone is fast asleep.

croatian snacks and desserts for the christmas holiday table

One popular Christmas sweet in the central region of the country is a chocolate pie called Madjarica. “The direct translation is 'Hungarian Woman', although it doesn't have anything to do with Hungary.“ Maybe not Hungary, but it has everything to do with making everyone's stomach feel that way.

In the coastal areas, fruitcakes are common, as well as Rafioli. “Rafioli are a traditional Dalmatian sweet made from fine thin dough which is filled with ground almonds and other condiments, and then rolled into small crescent-shaped pastries.“

But it isn't a traditional Christmas until the spice of Croatia – local honey – is mixed into the dough. In the famous honey cookies of medenjaci and licitar, and in the honey pies. “Not a pie like the American way. A honey pie consists of five layers of buttery honey dough, with sweet filling between each layer.“

honey pie with local croatian honey

Through her baking on Bite My Cake, Tamara is keeping many Christmas traditions alive, encouraging many other younger Croatians to find their way into the kitchen to do the same. And through her recipes, and just as importantly, through her stories and images of home, she is introducing the rest of us to her beautiful country. That is why Tamara represents Croatia on the New Spice Route.

tourist sights of Croatia

With seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a spectacular Mediterranean coastline, dotted with hundreds of islands, Croatia is already a famous tourist destination. To avoid the crowds, Tamara recommends a trip in the winter. "Gorski Kotar is the most beautiful place to visit during winter. Its nature consists of meadows, lakes, springs, streams, forests and hills that look so peaceful and fairytale-like in winter, covered in sparkling white snow. It's an area that thrives on rural tourism and an area with cuisine that will vivify your body and soul."

snowscape in croatia countryside
gorski kotar in winter
snow tracks in croatia

It wouldn't be Christmas in Croatia if you didn't receive a gift from a Croatian, so Tamara shares some of her best baking tips:

tamara of bite my cake food blog in karlovac croatia
* Bake with love. When you love doing something, that's when it becomes successful.

* Never throw away an unsuccessful dessert. An unsuccessful sponge cake can be turned into gorgeous truffles (combined with cream). Unsuccessful pastry cream can be transformed into great trifle and glass dessert, etc. Baking is a matter of trial and error and mistakes are unavoidable. That's how you learn.

* Never, never over-beat sponge cake, brownie and muffin/cupcake batter. Lumps are welcome here.

* I always soak layers of sponges with some milk and rum mixture (heat some milk with rum). You can also heat milk with sugar, without rum. It makes them so soft and moist. 

* I always add a pinch of salt in every cake batter. It's needed for the flavor balance and it actually enhances other sweet flavors.

* When making chocolate desserts, use good quality chocolate. I can stand some ingredients being of lesser quality, but chocolate should always be great.

traditional croatian christmas cookies
All images provided by Bite My Cake.