Journalist Mila Andre left Russia for America when she was only 10 years old, but still celebrates a Russian-style Christmas. That means fasting all day before Christmas Eve, then serving an early dinner "because by then you're starving" of smoked, baked, salted and fried fish, along with a huge bowl of steamed new potatoes turned in butter and dill. "But Christmas Eve isn't the big day in the Russian Orthodox Church that it is in some countries," says Andre. "For us, that's Christmas Day. That's when the whole family goes to the grandparents' house for a feast of all kinds of meat and sausages. For dessert, there's always korzhy s makom, homemade sweet crackers (but not too sweet) that we spread with poppyseed butter, honey and toasted walnuts. We help ourselves to kutya, a thick porridge made of wheat berries, nuts and honey, and to compote, a mixture of all kinds of dried fruit cooked in honey or sugar. It's always served in a big cut-glass bowl with a pitcher of lemon juice to cut the sweetness. We eat sweet things, drink tea and remember the past."
In a large saucepan, place the sugar, cinnamon stick, lemon juice and 3 cups water. Bring to a boil, and simmer 10 minutes until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the dried fruit, bring to a simmer, and cook about 20 minutes, until the fruit begins to dissolve. Remove from heat, discard cinnamon stick and cool before serving. Makes 8 servings.