The Lenten season includes several “Soul Saturdays,” marked by special services for the departed. It’s customary to bring a platter of Kolyva, made from boiled whole wheat kernels, which the priest blesses and which is then shared out among those present. The grains of wheat bring to mind Christ’s words “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” [Jn 12:24, ESV].
This year I decided to try my hand at Kolyva, and it came out pretty well, so I share the recipe here. There’s a wide range of national and family variants of the basic concept, ranging from stark piles of boiled wheat to elaborate cake-like confections. I hope this is a middle-of-the-road version.
Whole wheat kernels aren’t usually sold in grocery stores. I ordered a five-pound bag of Palouse Brand wheat through Amazon, and was happy with it.
This is smaller than many recipes: it nicely filled a 1 1/2 – quart oval casserole.
Boiling the wheat is the only cooking in the recipe; the rest is just assembly.
Put 2 cups whole wheat kernels in a saucepan with 4–6 cups of water and about 1 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until some of the kernels begin to split open; then simmer a while longer, until the kernels are soft, not chewy. This will probably take more than an hour. I’m told you can speed up the process by soaking the wheat overnight before cooking it.
Drain the wheat. Put it in a large mixing bowl and stir in:
- 2 Tbsp sesame seeds
- 6 oz. finely-chopped nuts (I used cashews & pecans)
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup honey
In other recipes, I’ve seen cocoa powder, star anise, etc. listed as ingredients; suit yourself.
Arrange the mixture in a casserole or cake pan, or mound it neatly on a platter.
Sprinkle the kolyva with enough powdered sugar that it looks white. Decorate with raisins and nuts. It’s customary to include a Cross design in the decoration. Though I’ve seen things like chocolate chips (dairy-free?) and Jordan almonds on Kolyva, I had hoped to avoid using any candy. In one photo of a large, beautiful Greek kolyva I saw a red cross made out of some small red fruit, maybe red currants. I was determined to have a red cross too, but couldn’t find any small red fruits that would work, so I ended up using the bright red cinnamon candies often sold as “Red Hots.” The result looked very nice, but my plan to avoid candy was defeated. Maybe you can do better.
In our church, a lit candle is put in the center of the Kolyva during the memorial service, so you may want to leave a space for a candle in your design.
Serving: Kolyva doesn’t hold together well; it’s usually spooned out into small dishes or cups and eaten with a spoon.