Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Koljivo (Zito/Zhito)

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 this 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)

1 cup wheat berries (preferably white wheat, or psenica (pshenitsa) bela)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups walnuts or pecans, or a combination of the two
2 cups powdered sugar
About 1/16 teaspoon grated fresh nutmeg, or 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg powder
[Nutmeg added 11/18/2012, per comments from Drago Babic and two anonymous posters.]

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're watching 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, bulgar), 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 and nutmeg to the nuts and process together. Add the wheat back into the bowl and process together. Stir together the wheat and the sugar-nutmeg-nut mixture in a mixing bowl.
[Nutmeg added 11/18/2012, per comments from Drago Babic and two anonymous posters. Also, no need to process anymore; stirring works just fine at this point.]

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.

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.

[Added 1/5/9, in response to Mia's comment.] 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.


  1. Dear Vesna,

    I enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for the detailed zhito recipe. My mother was born in Sombor in the 1930s and gave me her recipe, but I have had laughably bad results trying to re-create it, and she & I do everything so differently, she has not been able to help me fix it much. The only different thing is, we used equal parts of wheatberries, nuts and sugar, so I am curious about the different textures & flavors of the recipes? I am trying to teach my 6 & 7 year old daughters some of our traditions that I think would be fun for them. Unfortunately I'm out of touch with the Serbian community in my city, so reading your blog has made me feel at home in a way. Thanks again,

    Mia Bojanic
    Shaker Heights, OH

  2. Hi Mia,

    Welcome to my blog! I was also told to use equal parts wheat, nuts and sugar, but I found it too, too sweet. Plus, once something gets to a certain level of sweetness, it doesn't really get any sweeter, you know what I mean? But I'm glad you brought it up, because maybe the equal parts thing is an important part of the tradition. So I took this opportunity to add, at the bottom of my post, a description of the recipe as it was originally given me, along with my rationale for making whatever changes I made.

    Are there any other differences between your mother's recipe and this one?

    Are you going to try making koljivo for Bozic this week? If you follow this recipe (or any other), let me know how it comes out!

  3. Oh, and I also meant to say, my recipe does call for equal parts wheat and nuts. Three and a half cups is what the wheat measured after all the cooking and grinding. I thought it would be more convenient to tell the actual amount of nuts, rather than to make people measure the wheat and figure out how much nuts to use! (Full story in the post addition above.)

  4. Hi Vesna!

    That's interesting about the wheat measuring 3 1/2 cups AFTER cooking & grinding. Maybe that's why when I made it before I almost choked on it (too much wheatberry paste in relation to nuts)! So this morning I bought a modest cupful of wheatberries at my local bulk foods grocery store. As far as sweetness goes, I agree--the wheat and nuts have a nice flavor on their own.

    Yes, I am going to make zhito for Bozic tomorrow. (is Koljivo the proper name for this dish during Bozic?) It's the first time I've tried to celebrate Bozic in the real traditional way with my husband and kids. Usually my mom likes to prepare everything.

    What else are you making?

    This is great! I never imagined I'd find Koljivo help online! Thanks!


  5. Yes, this dish is called koljivo for Bozic, and also can be called zito (which also just means "wheat"). Good luck with all your preparations. I'm planning on posting more about what I'm doing for Bozic, so check the current posts.

  6. Dear Vesna,
    Three equal parts sounds right + vanilla, however it is too sweet therefore 1/2 amount of sugar would do. But a secret ingredient is missing from your recipe and that is a touch of a freshly grated nutmeg.

    As far as I know, the whip cream is not served for Slava.

    Best regards,

    Drago Babic

  7. Drago, thanks for the tips. Half the amount of sugar would be 1 3/4 cups; I wound up using two cups, so that's pretty close.

    Thanks for the tip on grated nutmeg, also. As far as the vanilla, though...this might sound a little wacky, but I'm reluctant to introduce a New World ingredient like vanilla to this particular dish. For me, zito/koljivo is all about ancient ways and anything Renaissance or later is way too new. :)

    Unfortunately, your profile is not set to public so I couldn't learn any more about you from clicking your name link. If you have a blog or anything you'd like to share, you can edit your profile and check the box that says "Share my profile." Thanks for visiting!

  8. G'Day from Down Under (Sydney) Vesna even though I am not Serbian I have a Polish/Ukraine background My girlfriend's mum used to make a wheat dish, All I can remember is that there were ground walnuts added & it was sweet & very YUMMY the dish was shaped like an upturned dessert bowl. Vera & family would come to our place at Xmas VIA the Chicken pen (we shared a back fence) & we would indulge in all the good Polish peasant food - than in January we would go to her place & stuff our faces on all the beautiful tortes etc. Vera's mum passed away now & for whatever reason refused to share her recipes I did manage to get a great slice made with ground almonds/continental flour base, preserves atop then a nut meringue on top of that. When I made it the only bit I got to eat was the crumbs IT GOT DEVOURED IN SECONDS! Dana also used to make a torte with approx. 10 eggs, ground walnuts & a beaut, buttercream filling then the torte had ground walnuts on the side ANYWAY I do tend to warble on THANK YOU for the ZHITO recipe I have bought the wheat from a health food store NOW to follow your intructions I am so looking forward to this. Kindest regards, Krystyna, Sydney Australia

  9. Krystyna, thanks for your comment!

    I hope you post this recipe soon to your blog. It sounds just wonderful. I'll be checking to see!

  10. Hi!!
    I am so happy to have found this recipe!!! I was in Serbia in 2007 and my grandma served us something that I found irresistibly delicious! For two years I had no idea what it was, despite asking my mom on a few occasions. She had no idea what I was talking about until just this past weekend when I actually took the time to give her an accurate description of what I had eaten. Žito!

    I can't wait to make it! After I do, would it be ok if I posted your recipe to www.allrecipes.com ?

    Take care!

  11. Ema, Thanks for the suggestion. I went ahead and posted this to allrecipes. Let me know how this comes out for you

  12. Super!
    What is the title of the recipe on allrecipes.com?

    I can't seem to find it...

  13. The URL for the recipe on allrecipes.com is:

  14. Yay!
    Wow, it took them a long time to post the recipe!

  15. Thanks for sharing. Our family enjoys adding a bit of orange zest to zito... it is a small addition that really makes it taste even more yummy!

  16. I am making Zito right now as I write this for my Slava on the 16th of November. I do not do the 7 water method but I think I might try it sometime. I do rinse my wheat several times in cool water. Then I cook until the skin starts to come off. I then lay the wheat on a kitchen towel and cover it over night. Tomorrow I will grind it and add sugar and ground walnuts along with some pure vanilla powder and nutmeg. I do not measure anything...just add for taste.

  17. Hi Vesna,
    I am preparing the dinner for my partners Sveti Nikola on 19. Dec. in Switzerland! I am not Serb but have been trying to be as authentic as possible. I cannot express my thanks enough for your Zito recipe and everyone compliments me so much. Have you a Kolac recipe as well? Thanks in advance!

  18. Hi, Anonymous in Switzerland! I'm so glad you asked about a kolac recipe. I sure do have one, and I've been meaning to post it on my website, how-to-cook-with-vesna.com. Thanks to your question, I posted it this morning. I hope you like it! http://www.how-to-cook-with-vesna.com/serbian-kolac-recipe.html

  19. Hi, Vesna! I am going to try this recipe for our slava (Sveti Laza) in April. I am not Serbian, but my husband is and we just recently moved away from his family. This will be our first slava on our own. I am wondering, how far ahead can I make zhito and can it be frozen and if so, for how long? Last summer, we were in Beograd and there was this awesome little cafana that made the best zhito I've ever had with fresh whipped cream. Yummm.

  20. Hi, Anonymous and THANK YOU for your comment. I'm glad you asked about freezing zito because you might be surprised how long I've successfully done it: nearly two years! Yes, I had a batch that was so big that I put the rest in the freezer, then, I thawed it and served it a couple of times over then next year and a half and it was just fine. It might have been fine even longer than that, but the idea sounded bad so I finally let go of the Zito That Wouldn't Quit.

    I didn't know you could order this at a cafana -- Cool. I was always told this was only ever served at Slava, Bozic and funerals. Oh well, I guess the children of the diaspora are usually out of touch with evolving customs.

    I'll have to add the freezing info to the zito article here -- http://www.how-to-cook-with-vesna.com/koljivo-zito-recipe.html -- on my How To Cook With Vesna website article. You'll find more Serbian recipes there, also.

    Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you visit the how to cook site, also!

  21. Thanks so much for the info! I think I may try it this weekend. The place where we ordered the zhito is probably not the only one, but if you are ever in the area the cafana was located on a little side street off Decanska, right near the tunnel and not far from Krez Mihajlova. The name of the street is Nusiceva. They also had the best gelato I've ever had. Thank you, again!!! I look forward to preparing it and hope that I'm able to do your recipe justice.

  22. Very cool. I'd love to try that gelato. Please let me know how the zito turns out!

  23. Hi, Vesna! I couldn't wait until the weekend so I went out yesterday and bought all of the ingredients. I did the "7 waters" last night and prepared the rest this morning. It came out fabulous! I can't believe I was able to pull it off and it was actually pretty easy. Thank you so much for this recipe. I can't wait to try more. I can now consider myself a "Serbian wife". HAHA!

  24. Hi Karen,

    Odlicno! (Excellent!) Sada si prava Srpska domacica! It really is quite the method, isn't it? I'm so grateful for having learned it. Last November I skipped the step of wrapping it in blankets and putting it on a cushiony chair, and guess what -- it did not come out as good. So glad it worked for you. I hope you will visit the growing collection of Serbian recipes on how-to-cook-with-vesna.com, too. There's now a newsletter signup so you can keep abreast of things, too.

  25. Hello Vesna,
    I think you should definitely add nutmeg to recipe, especially when you are so kind to share it.
    Blankets and all… nutmeg is mandatory “final” touch to it.
    I live in Belgrade and for forty years I tasted zito all over the place. Nutmeg was/is always there :)
    Kind Regards,

  26. I finally tried the nutmeg, thanks to Drago, Anonymous and Anonymous. Wow, what a difference! You were all right -- it is the secret ingredient that brings the whole dish together. From now on, nutmeg always! I'm adding it to the recipe in the post.