When I married a Serb, I had no idea what I needed to learn about Slava and how to celebrate it and cook for it.
A Friend Helping Himself to Some Zjito
Zjito Is One of the Essential Elements of the Serbian Slava
Zjito is one of the two ceremonial foods made by Serbian families when they prepare to celebrate their Slava. It is made of wheat which is cooked and ground. This is mixed with finely ground walnuts, and sugar. In the picture, our friend Tim is getting a spoonful. That is traditionally the first thing a Slava guest does -- have a spoon of Zjito.
In this article I will demonstrate how my husband and I make it every year. Most of this is best shown with pictures. The ingredients are simple. Getting them ready to put together is the difficult part. And to prepare them we use tools we rarely use any other time of year. We have a special box marked for Slava for storing everything we use for Slava, including copies of the special recipes for the Slava Cake and for Zjito. In the box we also keep the silver candlestick that has been passed to my husband from his father, a supply of white candles, some floating wicks, a meat grinder, and a special nut grinder.
I took all the photographs used in this article.
Get Yourself in the Mood with Some Music
How About Some Atmosphere?
Making zjito isn't the most exciting job in the world. Parts of the work are tedious. Why not play this Serbian video of Slava music to get yourself in the mood. The images are also appropriate. This appears to be religious in tone, even though the music is lively.
The album I recommend from Amazon is of traditional Serbian music. It will remind you of Serbia if you came from there, or will inspire you to go back in time a bit as you prepare zjito in the old way.
Traditional Serbian Songs
What You Need to Make Zjito for Slava
What You Need for Zjito
Although I've only put the three main ingredients in this picture, there are really five.
- 500 grams (about 1 lb) wheat berries. We have used soft white wheat berries. My mother-in-law told me to use hard red winter wheat, but later on she told me I should use the soft white wheat. Conclusion? Either one will work, since I've made zjito with both types.
- 400 grams raw walnuts.
- 400 grams white sugar (Start with 200 grams and increase as needed)
- 1 t. vanilla
- Confectioner's (powered) sugar to sprinkle on top of finished zjito
You will also need time -- at least two days, since the wheat is cooked one day, dried overnight, and then ground and mixed with the other ingredients.
I started this batch early for two reasons. First, I like to do the messiest things well ahead of time to make it easier to clean up the day of Slava. Second, I wanted to publish this in time to help some of you who might need help this Slava season.
You will need to weigh your ingredients for Zjito.
Because of this, I bought a scale early in my marriage. Even though we didn't start making the Slava foods at the beginning, most of the other recipes my mother-in-law passed to me used metric measurements, so I got a scale that would help me follow her recipes.
Expanded Directions on Photos Below for Cooking Wheat
We sort the wheat on small plates, preferably white, so we can better see any imperfections in the wheat.
When we cook the wheat, it normally takes about forty minutes to get done. You want it soft enough to chew easily so that it's not too hard for easy grinding. But you don't want it so wet it will take forever to dry.
Sorting and Cooking the Wheat for Zjito - Be sure to click each picture to its text.
Have You Ever Eaten Zjito? - I had never tried it until I was invited to celebrate Slava the first time with Kosta's family.
Expanded Directions for Photos Below on Drying Wheat
It is important to have a very large flat surface. Protect the table with oilcloth or a vinyl sheet if you don't have a table pad. Make a smooth layer of thick towels on the vinyl sheet or oilcloth table cover. Smooth it out. Then cover with a large white cotton sheet (not flannel) and smooth again to make sure any creases are minimal. You need a very smooth surface.
When this is done, carefully dump the wheat in the center of the table.
Now comes the fun part. You need to carefully spread the wet wheat out in across the table into a single layer. You have to be careful not to get close enough to the edge so that grains will fall off onto the floor. You don't want any of the wheat on top of a "hill" where it might roll down and stick to another grain. You want the wheat exposed to the air to get dry. Most families let the wheat dry overnight while they sleep. You still want it damp and not so dry it will be hard to grind.
Drying the Zjito - First you need a large flat surface, like a tabletop.
Tools for Grinding the Zjito Wheat and Nuts
We have used a manual meat grinder every year. It was inherited from a first cousin three times removed. That means it's old and you'd probably have to search an antique store to find one just like it. Frankly, if you're going to do this every year, I wouldn't use a manual grinder for the wheat. My husband is strong, but he gets very tired before he finishes grinding one pound of cooked wheat. That's why I have the electric one I've recommended here on my wish list at Amazon.
As to the nut grinder we use, my mother-in-law had one sent from Switzerland, since she couldn't find one here in the United States. The nuts have to be ground so fine that they almost look like flour. If you are fortunate, whoever passes the candle to your family will have a nut grinder to pass down to you, too. My mother-in-law like to make here own batch of zjito each year anyway so she kept her grinder and had an aunt in Yugoslavia get one for us. A nut chopper just won't cut it.
If you can't get the wheat locally at a whole foods store, Amazon has that, too. I prefer the soft white wheat berries.
Grinding the Wheat - Be sure to click each picture to see the captions.
Preparing the Nuts for Zjito - Again, be sure to click each picture to enlarge and see the captions.
Finishing the Zjito
I originally wrote this part when we first started making zjito. As you recall, we froze the prepared wheat and nuts. Go ahead and read the directions in this module and I'll add the step-by-step pictures I took the night before Slava in 2009 in the next module.
The night before or the morning of Slava, get out your thawed wheat and nuts. Put them in a huge bowl. I use an 8-quart stainless steel bowl. Put the wheat and almost all the nuts in the bowl. Save enough nuts to mound over the top of the zjito when it is molded. I'd reserve about two cups and put them aside.
Now you will want to add about 200 grams of the granulated white sugar and the vanilla extract. At this point in time I will put on a pair of disposable gloves because I don't like the stickiness of mixing without them. You will want to mix the wheat, nuts, and sugar with your hands. First just mix them well. Then start squeezing each handful to see if the ingredients will hold firmly together. The sugar is the glue. You keep adding a little bit more and mixing and squeezing until when you squeeze it, it holds together easily. Make sure all the ingredients are well mixed. Don't use more sugar than you need to make the mixture hold together and be mold-able.
Now is the time to get a beautiful plate out that is just large enough for you to mold the zjito into a mound. You might want to put a doily down on the bottom of your plate. Then mound the zjito mixture up until you have a lovely mound that fills most of the plate and leaves at least an inch of empty plate (or doily) around the edges.
When you are happy with your creation, start mounding the nuts along the edges so they form a thin layer all over the mound. Press the nuts down firmly against the mound so they stay put. When this is done, sift a layer of the powdered sugar over the nuts . Now you are finished. Put it in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve this to your guests. Or, if it's cold enough in your house, just leave it where you will finally serve it.
You Will Need a Very Large Bowl for Mixing Zjito
Finishing the Zjito the night before Slava or the morning of - Please click each photo to enlarge and see the instructions.
It's actually quite tasty. We eat the leftovers for breakfast every day until it's gone. But the truth is, I'd probably not make it if it wasn't required for Slava. I enjoy it when I have it, but I don't enjoy making it as much as I enjoy eating it.If you are just beginning to celebrate Slava and need to make zjito, I hope this will be of help to you.In any case, I hope you'll let me know you were here and leave a comment.
© 2009 Barbara Radisavljevic
Do you think you'd like to try making zjito? - Please leave your comments here.
Paige on November 15, 2018:
This is really helpful! I will most likely host our Slava at my house next year and will be looking to this guide for help.
Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Paso Robles, CA on November 18, 2016:
We have stopped celebrating now because we aren't up to the work physically anymore. It was much better and made more sense when we had living family who understood it.
Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on September 15, 2016:
It's so special that you've continued this tradition in your family for so many years. Slava of course is new to me and this was a very interesting way to learn all about it.
Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Paso Robles, CA on April 14, 2016:
Maria, if I made it sound easy, I must not have written it correctly. I could not have done it without my husband's help with the grinding. It's worth the effort, though.
Maria on December 16, 2015:
Thank you for sharing the recipe. My mother made this every Christmas and this year it will be my first attempt. You made it sound easy.
Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Paso Robles, CA on December 07, 2012:
@MikeRobbers LM: Work it is. I've noticed that getting ready for any major religious celebration takes a lot of effort, especially on the part of the woman.
MikeRobbers LM on December 07, 2012:
I love refional foods and recipes and this one is quite interesting ! ti needs a lot time and effort though
anonymous on April 27, 2012:
Thankyou, I am engaged to a serb, and I now make this recipie for him and his dad,(since his mother passed away , I am trying to continue the serbian recipes.) Fiist time last year.
Debbie from England on May 28, 2011:
Blessed by a Squid Angel ;)
anonymous on March 06, 2011:
thank you for your zjito recipe. it is much appreciated as soon it is my slava. my mum normally makes it for me but unfortunately we have had a very painful fallout. due to pride i suppose, i am reluctant to ask anyone else in our family or our friends. much appreciated. Hvala.
julieannbrady on March 22, 2010:
Well, I am nuts for nuts you know ... it sounds interesting and you surely provided many helpful pictures. I want to see more spotlighted pictures of the finished product -- close-ups. Zjito is such an interesting name!
Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Paso Robles, CA on January 14, 2010:
@anonymous: Since I didn't want to say "Because that's the way my mil said to do it," LOL, I decided to ask my husband, since I'd love to be able to skip this step myself. He says if you don't get most of the moisture out, it will be too mushy and won't mix well with the other ingredients. The sugar greatly increases the moisture when you add it. The trick is to get it dry enough not be mushy and still moist enough to be easy to grind. You could probably experiment with such things as trying to dry in microwave or oven to make it go faster. If you find a better way that still gives the right consistency for grinding, I hope you will return here and report it. I just haven't had the time to experiment, but i'd love to find an easier way.
anonymous on January 13, 2010:
Why do the cooked wheat berries need to be dried? Why can't they just be drained, and then put thru the grinder? I love the taste but would like to cut the preparation time.
anonymous on December 11, 2009:
HELLO i am in mexico my husband is serb ,is our first year celebrating slava by ourselves i am in panic i would like to prepare everything to make him feel comfortable is such an important day do you have any suggestion? i already took thre recipes to work on itgreetings and thank you jessica
andreaberrios lm on December 07, 2009:
This is excellent, I love trying new things. Sounds delicious, thanks for sharing it Barbara! 5*
Sandy Mertens from Frozen Tundra on December 01, 2009:
First time I heard of this. Looks like a lot of work. Nice lens.