There is a vast expanse of Europe between the Black and Baltic Seas commonly known as “Eastern Europe.” Millions of Americans can trace their ancestry from this region, but many of them don’t know exactly where. They came through both the front and back doors of the East Coast in search of something more. They came to mine coal, bend steel, crunch numbers, and maybe raise hell. Many of them saw the horrors of the 20th century up close, and came here to escape. They might not have brought much, but they brought their culture, their spirit, and their food.
At the center of this culinary tradition are Pierogi. It’s the unofficial national dish of Poland, and they are eaten, with different names, from Ukraine to Latvia. They are traditionally filled with potato, cheese, sauerkraut, or fruit preserves.
But most importantly to me, it’s Hades’s favorite food and the in-laws’ official celebratory dish. Needless to say, it’s crucial that I get it right. The essential dough recipe comes from Michael Symon, recounted in Michael Ruhlman’s Soul of a Chef.
But the fillings are up to you. After you roll out your dough to about 1/8 of an inch, and after you cut out your circles with a cookie cutter or glass (mine are about 3 ½ inches in diameter), make sure your fillings are equally beautiful (you’ll need about a teaspoon per dumpling). Make your best mashed potatoes, perhaps adding a generous dollop of whole grain mustard, several handfuls of raw aged cheddar. Make your family’s sauerkraut recipe. Or plump 9 ounces of prunes in ¼ cup of vermouth, then stew in ½ cup of water and ¼ cup of sugar for a prune filling. Once your little masterworks are filled, folded in half, and pinched closed, they’ll need to boil for a good 8 or so minutes.
For savory pierogi, make sure to caramelize massive quantities of onions in massive quantities of butter. Then lift out just the onions and fry the tiny packages until golden brown. Serve with the onions, copious quantities of sour cream, and grilled kielbasa. For dessert pierogi, saute them in butter, then sprinkle generously with powdered sugar.
These steps will provide you with amazing pierogi, but this is truly a family experience that translates to all family traditions. Listen to and tell stories. Ask questions. Take pictures. Write down recipes. Smile. The only way these traditions get handed down is by spending time with the ones we love. With reverence and respect, we’ll never forget.
Michael Symon’s Pierogi Dough, from page 167 of Soul of a Chef, which you should buy if you haven’t already.
3 cups of sour cream
¾ of a pound of butter
12 cups of flour
Salt and pepper
Combine the sour cream, butter, eggs, salt and pepper in a huge bowl. Mix until goopy. Then add the flour in 4 cup increments, incorporating until smooth. That, believe it or not, is all.
A word to the wise: when I last made this recipe, it made 150+ pierogi. I had several family-sized dinners with company, plus 5 dozen to freeze. And these freeze beautifully. Simply place on a parchment or wax paper-lined tray with space between each dumpling. Freeze until solid, then place in Ziplocs. They’re like adorable little clams, only made out of potato!