Cake Evening: A Latvian Winter Celebration

This is a mocha torte similar to the cakes that were served at Latvian gatherings during my childhood. They were baked by Latvian ladies. The frosting on the sides had fancy swoops.

I have to admit that I did not know that in ancient Latvian tradition, Christmas Eve was also known as “Cake Evening.” Until I started researching my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart, serving nine special foods on Christmas Eve was a part of the celebration. Each food has a magical meaning. Considering that feasting is a major part of holiday traditions everywhere, “Cake Evening” and nine special foods conveying sympathetic magic should come as no surprise. 

1. Peas and beans, so you don’t cry. 

2. Pīrāgi, so you’ll always have a nice surprise. They’re little bacon buns filled with diced bacon, Canadian bacon, onions, salt, and pepper. These days there are vegan variations.

Pīrāgi can also be made with ground meat (beef, maybe) so you can still enjoy a Latvian treat, even if you can’t have bacon.

3. Beets and carrots for good health.

4. Pork for good luck.

5. Poultry for success. Would that be because hens cackle to announce their success in laying an egg?

6. Sauerkraut in order to be strong. Rinse and squeeze before cooking in bacon fat, butter, or even olive oil, with or without onions, sliced thin. Some people like to add shredded carrots. Add caraway seeds and brown sugar to taste. You don’t use much liquid. The fat is mostly to give it flavor. There’s enough liquid in the kraut to cook it until it’s a light golden brown.

7. Fish, so you’ll always have money. The scales resemble coins.

8. A round cake. Its shape symbolizes the sun.

9. Piparkūkas, so you’ll always have love. The literal translation is “pepper cakes,” but many other spices go into them, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom. Usually, they’re just little brown cookies with a slice of almond pressed in the middle but they can also be decorated with icing.

The little nut-like thing is a cardamom pod. I remember grinding the seeds with a mortar and pestle before cardamom was available already ground.

I don’t know why piparkūkas symbolize love. The dough is rolled out thin. Many are cut into heart shapes, but they’re also cut into star, bell, Christmas tree, and ginger people shapes. Or maybe the cookies symbolize love because baking them is a labor-intensive labor of love. Perhaps because spices are expensive, so the cookies are baked for those you love and traditionally only at Christmas time.

It was July when I visited Latvia for the first time. I went to a public event I no longer remember. I do remember the piparkūkas that were offered to guests. I took a cookie shaped like a bunny, decorated with pink, white, and green icing. Instead of eating the cookie, I took it home in a little cough drop tin. I kept it for years, but somehow, during one of my moves, it got lost. Bunny tears.

Because this is a celebration of light, whatever its symbolism means to you, candles are included in the decorations.