Koljivo, or Zito (Zhito)

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Koljivo, or Zito (pronounced ZHEE-toe, meaning “wheat”), is one of the most important dishes a Serbian can make. Loaded with the symbolism of life, death, harvest and renewal, it’s presented at only a few special occasions: Slava, Bozic (BOH-zheech, or Christmas), and at funerals and memorials for the dead. More about koljivo on my blog here.

But if you don’t happen to be Serbian, I suppose you could just make this as a delicious dessert.

To the American sensibility, it’s extremely unusual, to say the least – a bowl of cooked, ground wheat fortified with ground nuts and sugar. Even the cooking instructions seem odd: Seven waters? Pillows and blankets?

The flavors, though, are straightforward, clean, accessible to the American palate, and easy to love.

Koljivo zito

To find whole wheat berries, try the bulk section of a natural foods store.

I used a pressure cooker this year. I didn’t bring the wheat to pressure; I just made use of the tight-fitting lid to boil the water faster and to ensure a secure lid overnight.

This is not a recipe I got from my family. It’s my own version of the one given it by a friend, a woman who lives here in Madison who moved to the U.S. in, I believe, the 1960s or 1970s. She described the method to me over the phone and I took notes.

Salt is my own addition. My friend did not mention salt. I find that grains, when prepared without salt, taste like … like they need salt. So I added that eensy bit, 1/8th teaspoon. The end result tasted like it tasted just right, if you know what I mean. If you have good results with no salt at all, let me know.

The quantities I give above are not quite the way she gave them. She specified one cup of wheat berries. However, instead of specifying a quantity for the nuts and sugar, she just said to use equal volumes of wheat, nuts and sugar. That is (she said when I asked for clarification), equal to the volume of wheat after it’s been cooked and ground. I figured it would be most useful to readers (and to me in the future) to know what that volume is, so that we know how much nuts and sugar to have on hand in order to make the recipe.

The wheat made 3 1/2 cups, so I used 3 1/2 cups of nuts. However, I remembered that, in the past, when I made her recipe using equal volumes of wheat, nuts and sugar, the final product was chokingly, achingly sweet. So sweet it interfered with enjoying the dish, for me. (And besides, who needs more sugar if less will work just as well?) So this time, I started with a cup of sugar and mixed it up, then added until it tasted just right to me. Very sweet, very nutty, very rich. But not cloying.

One more note on cooking the wheat this way. I’ve tried cooking whole wheat berries many times before, including under pressure and for several hours (I think I got up to four), and it always retained an unpleasantly springy chewiness. Even after grinding! This method, with the waters and the pillows and the overnight rest is the only method I know of that results in a pleasant, tender berry.

Koljivo (Zito or Zhito)
The recipe

1 cup wheat berries (preferably white wheat, or psenica (pshenitsa) bela)
3 1/2 cups walnuts or pecans, or a combination of the two
2 cups powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt

slivered almonds
whipped cream

Start this recipe the night before. There’s an overnight step involved.

1. Seven waters. Place the wheat berries in a small pot or a large saucepan. Cover with water, about two inches above the level of the berries. The exact amount is unimportant. Bring to a rolling boil and let boil for a few seconds. Drain the water through a sieve and discard, keeping the berries in the pot.

Add new water to the wheat, the same amount as before. (I keep a kettle full of water brewing on another burner during the whole process to save time; I add the partially heated water from it and then refill the kettle from the tap.) Bring to a rolling boil. Drain.

Repeat until you’ve brought wheat and water to a boil seven times.

On the seventh water, add the salt. Don’t drain the water.

2. Overnight soak. Place the pot of wheat on a blanket on your biggest, softest armchair or couch. I kid you not. Pack it all around with blankets and pillows. Leave overnight. Really. If you’ve watched Top Chef 5: New York, you’ll know, from the very first episode, what happens when you try to cook wheat berries quickly. Imagine chewing on erasers. I’m telling you here what it takes to make wheat berries tender. And now you now why wheat is usually crushed into something else (flour, bulgur), and not served whole like rice.

Be sure your padded pot will be secure from wayward children or pets knocking it over.

3. Grinding. The next day, drain any water that hasn’t been absorbed overnight.

Grind the wheat berries thoroughly in a food processor or a meat grinder. A blender could be problematic, but it could be done in small batches. Remove the wheat from the food processor bowl. Grind the nuts in the bowl. Add the sugar to the nuts and process together. Add the wheat back into the bowl and process together.

Spoon koljivo into a serving dish, preferably a clear glass one with straight sides.

Garnish by sticking slivered almonds all over the top, like a porcupine. I’ve been told that if and only if the koljivo is to commemorate the dead, the almond spikes should be placed in the shape of a cross. However, I’ve come upon photos on the Internet of Christmas koljivo decorated with a cross of almonds.

Serve by tablespoons in very small bowls, like custard cups, topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

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