Tuesday, January 8, 2013
This Christmas, I was inspired to tackle my grandmother's pierogi recipe. When I was growing up, Grandma made pierogi (just like her mother before her) for nearly every family holiday. Unfortunately, as a kid, I didn't like them. I only started to appreciate them when I was around twelve years old - shortly before Grandma stopped making them. She had developed a back problem and kneading and rolling dough became difficult - I filled in as her dough maker for other baking projects, but pierogi just fell off the agenda. We began buying them from my great aunt's church, where an assembly line of elderly eastern European ladies churned them out for every holiday. When we were unable to get those any more, we bought frozen ones from the grocery store, handmade by a local company. Grandma said that all of these substitutes were just as good as hers and it wasn't worth the trouble of making them herself. I disagreed. I remember how light and soft and delicate her dough was. Few of the pierogi substitutes we found, with their thick, heavy doughs, could really compare.
I had asked Grandma several times to teach me how to make them (since most of her "recipes" are of the oral, learn-by-doing sort), but she maintained that it wasn't worth the effort. This past Thanksgiving, though, I managed to run the end-around on her - I was expressing my frustration at this state of affairs to my mother when she remembered having a written version of the recipe on hand. We found the recipe card and I took it home, giddy with the excitement of making my family's favorite holiday treat the way it ought to be made.
Of course, this was easier said than done. I felt that I had enough cooking experience under my belt that I could handle this on my own. I was wrong. My first attempt yielded a tough, rigid dough. I actually had bruises on my hands from pressing so hard with the rolling pin. With great effort, I rolled out my dough, cut out circles and passed them over to Jeff to fill. Every time I rerolled the scraps, the dough became stiffer. Still, I was encouraged by the adorable little semicircles of goodness appearing on the baking tray beside me as Jeff filled and pinched them. They looked right - of course they would be delicious!
That thought lasted until we tried some for dinner. They were tough, dry and unappetizing. I gave in and called Grandma, who gave me a few key tips (after repeatedly insisting that this is something that can't be learned from a written recipe). She said the dough should not be difficult to work with (at that point, I had an inkling that I hadn't added enough water). When I happened to ask about how she cut them out (I was having trouble finding a suitable cutter), she dropped the biggest tip of all: hers were not cut. She made the dough into small balls and then rolled each one individually. No need for rerolling scraps, nothing goes to waste. She told me my great grandmother had devised this method back when Grandma was young. My great grandmother was clearly a brilliant woman.
The second attempt went swimmingly. Following Grandma's tips and my own instinct about what went wrong the first time, this batch of pierogi were absolutely perfect. As soon as the first three or four were filled, I had Jeff cook them to test out the dough (if they came out badly, I was prepared to toss the dough and begin again, without wasting any of our filling). When they came out, I could tell by looking at them that they were right. When I tasted mine, I jumped for joy. Jeff had to endure several minutes of me walking around the house, fists in the air, celebrating my victory. I spent a lot of time grinning as we finished the rest of the batch.
Three good things came out of this experience. The first is that I've learned how to make awesome pierogi on my own (ok, the dough was on my own - Jeff helped with the rest). The second is that Grandma has finally offered to give me a tutorial. She wants me to come by some time and make them while she watches and can give me tips - which is exactly what I'd been wanting for years. I guess I just had to demonstrate my determination in order to get it. Finally, my pierogi-making earned me a family heirloom. After hearing how much trouble I had rolling out my dough (even though most of this trouble came from making the dough improperly), Grandma decided to give me her rolling pin. Her rolling pin, picked up at a flea market sixty years ago, is a solid piece of heavy wood. I have never used one that could compare (especially not the flimsy, handles-falling-off model I currently use - see the picture below for a comparison). I knew I would inherit this someday, but it was even better to have her give it to me voluntarily (I'm sure I could have wheedled it out of her, but that's not the same) while she can still enjoy the things I make with it.
My great-grandmother's recipe.
2 c flour
1-2 eggs (the written recipe I got from my mom says 2 eggs, so that's what I used, but Christmas dinner, when Grandma was quizzing me on how I made these, she insisted that she'd always used just 1 egg. I plan on trying it that way next time.)
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 c water (I only got about 1/4 c of water into the dough - possibly because I was using an extra egg)
Mound the flour on your work surface and make a well in the center (like you're making pasta). Add the salt and egg to the well. Carefully begin to mix the flour with the egg, keeping the flour mounded so it doesn't run out the sides. Add the water as you knead (in trying to add enough water during my second attempt, I made the dough into a slimy mess. I just floured my hands to keep them from sticking and continued to knead. After a few minutes, the liquid incorporated itself and the dough was perfect. If it looks bad, just press on and see what happens before making any changes.) Continue to knead until well mixed. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes under a damp tea towel.
Break off a small ball of dough to roll out and cover the rest with the damp towel.
Roll the ball into a rough circle, between 1/8" and 1/16" thick (mine were thin enough that I could just see the pattern in the marble through them. If they're too thin, they will break when cooked, so don't go any thinner than that). Repeat with the rest of the dough. (If you're going solo, fill each dough circle immediately, before it dries out. It's much better to have an assistant or two who can handle the filling.)
Fill each circle with about 1 tbsp of filling (of course, this amount could change depending on the size of the circles you rolled). Fold the dough over the filling and pinch the edges closed with your fingers (we like to pinch ours two or three times - if they're not fully closed, they will break as they're cooked). Set aside.
At this point, they can be frozen. We just set them right onto baking trays and froze them raw, removing them later to ziplock bags. While this worked well, Grandma insists that they ought to have been parcooked beforehand. If you'd prefer this method, boil them for 2-3 minutes before drying well and freezing on trays.
To cook, place pierogi in a rapidly boiling pot of salted water. Cook until they rise to the top and the dough is sort of ripply. They can be eaten as-is, or dried off and subsequently fried in butter. One recipe made about 40 for us - the number will depend on the size of the little balls you roll.
Fillings: Pierogi can be filled with anything you'd like (I've seen some combinations in Polish shops that looked pretty strange to me - I'm mystified by blueberry pierogi). In my house, we always stuck with two of the most traditional: potato and sauerkraut. The potato filling is really just mashed potato. To prepare for our pierogi-making, Jeff made a big pot of mashed potatoes with some goat cheese and dill. Then we fried some onions in butter and mixed them with the potato. Measurements don't need to be exact here - just make it taste good. If there are leftovers, eat them. For the sauerkraut, we fried some onions in butter and added 1-2 cups of drained sauerkraut (you don't want it soggy) to the pan until heated and combined. Grandma tells me that you can do the same thing with raw cabbage, if you'd prefer.