A necessary part of Christmas for most Slovaks is the thin crisp wafer served at the Christmas Eve meal, oplátky or oblátky, depending on the dialect. Some thin wafers are sold as ‘cakes’ layered together with a sweet filling at spas all year round, but the Christmas wafers are a little different. (More about Slovak Christmas.)
I’ve been trying to get into Slovak kitchens for some time now, to publish their cooking and baking secrets for the world to know. (If you know someone willing for me to come over with a camera, send me an email!) I finally invited myself over to learn how to make oplátky from a lady who makes them in my town.
When I entered, Pani (Mrs.) Zvonárová was finishing up the oplátky batter. She poured melted butter through a sieve, and stirred a potful of flour, milk, sugar, and butter. I asked her if she had a specific recipe or if she put it together “by eye”, as they say in Slovak. “By eye,” she said. “When I first started it was always too thick or too thin, but now I usually get it. If the batter sticks to the wafer iron, I put it in the fridge overnight and the next day it works.”
She poured a small amount of batter into a little enamel cup, stuck in a spoon, and started to shuffle to the living room, where the wafer maker was set up, her back a little bent, one leg moving with more difficulty. She stopped on the way out of the kitchen and added water. “It’s a little thick,” she murmured.
A wooden cooking stove radiated warmth, a few pots containing lunch on top. I gravitated immediately to the stove, missing the warm dry heat of a wood fire. Pan (Mr.) Zvonár added a few more sticks of wood when he saw me warming my hands – even though they weren’t really cold.
Pani Zvonárová sat down to the oplátky maker, waiting for it to warm up enough. Her husband sat behind her on the couch/bed, and resumed tying golden thread around salónky.
Salónky is a chocolate fondant candy that is wrapped in colourful foil and hung up on Christmas trees. Originating in France in the 14th century, the treat made its way to Hungary in the 19th century with German immigrants. By the end of the Christmas season, empty shiny wrappers are all that are left on the tree, their innards long filched.
“I start making oplátky in October,” my host said. She makes oval wafers, her son makes trubičky, “little tubes”, wafers rolled into a hollow tube, and her daughter-in-law makes smaller savoury ones flavoured with caraway. Between them, they use 150 kg (330 lbs) of flour and they are barely able to set some aside for themselves.
People in the village know that she makes them and order in advance, or the family takes boxes to local Christmas events and sell them there. “The first time I went they disappeared in 10 min!” she reminisced. Even now, they still disappear. She has been making them for about 10 years.
Originating in Poland, oplátky were a symbol of the Eurcharist celebrated in Roman Catholic churches. As far as I understand, the wafers in Poland are still only flour and water and rather tasteless; the wafer is passed around the table and each person breaks off a piece. In Slovakia, milk, butter, and sugar are added to the batter to make a crisper slightly thicker wafer. At the beginning of the Christmas Eve meal, honey is drizzled between layers for oplátky sandwiches.
It’s a tradition that has moved its way west – as a child Pani Zvonárová had never heard of oplátky. The border between Slovakia and Poland has moved a few times, so parts of Slovakia were once part of Poland, and some traditions became shared.
The wafer maker is hot. Debossed into the surface are Christmas themes, a bell and a candle. Others often have nativity scenes. Oplátky makers used to be flat rounds from cast iron on the end of long handles that were held over the fire of cook stove, with one of the stovetop rounds removed. Now they are electric – and not cheap, easily costing 200-300 euro.
The first step is to run cloth covered beeswax quickly over the surface, to lessen the chance of the batter sticking. She then takes the enamel cup and runs a soup spoonful of batter across the surface. It’s a narrow line that spreads over the surface when the wafer maker is closed.
The wafer maker hisses, steam rising and excess batter running out the sides. Pani Zvonárová has a stick, pointed on one end, and runs the end of the stick around the wafer maker to take off the extra batter. She dumps it into a container that she then gives to the dog. The dog is starting to look like a pig, she said.
After a while she lifts the top of the maker. Yesterday she fell and hurt her right arm and now she can’t lift it, so she has to lift the press top with her left hand but it’s heavy. If the oblátky looks done, she takes a knife and scrapes off the edges again. If not the right colour, down the lid goes for another bit.
As she bakes them, she switches the press on and off depending on how hot it seems and how fast the oblátky cook. When it’s done she slides a thin knife underneath to lift it off. If she missed scraping down a side, she uses scissors to even it out. Some people use scissors on each one to get a nice edge.
“It takes 2.5 hours for me to make 4 packages, and each package has 15 wafers,” she continued. I gulped. I bought a few packages from her the other day for 1.50 euro each. Minus ingredients and electricity, it’s not exactly lucrative.
And the work can be tedious. If a wafer sticks badly, she has to turn off the machine, wait for it to cool down, clean the gunk from the fine lines, and try again. Sometimes a wafer is too thin or breaks as she lifts it off.
The older couple were glad to talk as they went about their work. She used to be a milkmaid at the (communist) communal dairy farm, getting up to go milk at three in the morning. He worked at the farm too, that’s where they met. “They chose me for holidays,” he said proudly. “I went to Russia twice and once to Bulgaria. That’s where I got the samovar up there, and it works too.” He pointed to a silver samovar sitting a top the living room “wall,” a classic piece of living room furniture spanning the length of the room with display shelves behind glass, drawers, and closets. Even today, the farm still sends each of them a package of salónky at Christmas.
They have four children, two of which I know as acquaintances but didn’t realize they were siblings. One daughter died when she was 23 from cancer in her hip. Pani Zvonárová was quiet for a bit as she remembered, sad as a mother still is a few decades later. “Ah,” she sighed, “we have to take what comes.”
Life shows up in the hands once swollen with work and the drawn line of her mouth.
Every once in a while she called out, “Dedko (Grandpa), go move the meat to the side of the stove!” or “Dedko, fill a bag with the broken ones for her to take home to the children.”
After about an hour the white enamel cup needed to be refilled and Pani Zvonárová’s leg had started to cramp. She hobbled around, trying to get the blood flowing again. The muscles get so tight the blood doesn’t go through, she explained, giving it a few bangs.
It’s time for me to go so they can eat lunch. I leave with warmest wishes of a lovely Christmas – I really have enjoyed sitting with them and hearing their stories. And now the oblátky we eat on Christmas Eve will have that much more meaning, knowing the stories of the hands that made them and the work that is involved.
(If anybody knows someone in Slovakia willing to share their stories and recipes, please let me know! You can send me an email at email@example.com)
A scene from a movie called “Christmas Wafers”, where they are making oblatky the old way, with iron presses over a fire.
If you are interested, there are some antique pizzelle presses on ebay that look similar.
And, a video of the making of one oblatka – it took almost three and a half minutes!