To me, any sustainable, vibrant food culture has traditions. Whether those traditions are on the religious, national, or household level, passing on beloved recipes is an important part of building an understanding of food as something to be respected. Food that has no history or culture becomes either pure nutrition or pleasure, neither of which helps us relate to the land or the people who grow and create it.
Last year, I continued one family tradition by cooking lasagna for Christmas Day, my grandmother’s tradition on my mom’s side. This year, I decided to pay respects to the other side of my family. While we don’t have a particular Christmas Eve tradition, there is one family dish that I’ve wanted to make again for a long time – pierogies. For those of you who have never had pierogies, they’re Eastern European dumplings that are boiled and then fried in butter. They’re usually served with sour cream, for extra delicious fat.
Pierogies hold a special place on my dad’s side of the family, a hold-over from my immigrant Polish grandmother. While my dad hated many of her Old World dishes – particularly galumpki – he loved her handmade pierogies. In addition to the traditional potato, she also made fresh apple-stuffed ones. While I don’t think my dad has never made them by hand, the frozen Mrs. T’s pierogies were a common sight at our dinner table. In fact, he loves them so much that they became a family joke. When I was a kid, my mom and I would play a game called “What else could this be?” where she would hold up a common item (like a salt shaker) and I would come up with a creative interpretation of it (a snow machine for Barbie). But no matter what the item was, my dad’s answer was “a pierogi!”
With this background, I’ve wanted to carry on my grandmother’s tradition ever since I started cooking on my own. Unfortunately, the first time was a bit of a disaster. I was in graduate school, and attempted to make a batch in the kitchen Chris and I shared with ten other students. The pots, pans, and other kitchen appliances were exactly as good as one might expect. My cooking experience didn’t extend beyond making sauteed vegetable and cheese sandwiches and Chris’s knowledge was far more limited than it is today. My difficulties only grew as I tried to made sense of my grandmother’s hand-written recipe. It was five or six steps long, with the first one being: “Add flour to one cup of water until the dough is the right consistency.” I added only the slightest amount of flour at a time, wondering what would be the “right consistency.” It certainly wasn’t the wet mess I had in front of me. It was a recipe to be learned through years of watching another person doing it, not figuring it out in a messy, shared kitchen by yourself. Eventually, Chris and I did make a small batch after hours of frustrating work. It was no wonder that it took me five more years before I bothered making them again.
Thankfully, the attempt went more smoothly this time. To begin with, I made the dough in the food processor, which minimized the mess and my angst. I didn’t have to share the stove with anyone else, so I had plenty of room to boil potatoes, as well as saute some additional mushrooms and onions. I had a straightforward recipe with specific directions. But the hardest part – assembling the dumplings themselves – was still tedious. Even with Chris’s help, rolling out the dough, cutting out each circle, stuffing them, and pinching the sides closed was very time intensive.
In the end, our hard work paid off, with enough perfectly fried pierogies for two people. But more than the taste, my true pride came when I told my grandmother about it. Her main comment was that it was “very unusual” to put in mushrooms, but I relished having carried on the tradition anyway.
Originally, I had planned on making more pierogies and freezing them, but the thought of assembling them by hand was discouraging at best. While it took less skill than I expected, the required time and energy reinforced the idea of reserving it for special occasions. While I would hate to make the dish every day, making it once a year seems just about right.
In the end, I was glad that I made pierogies again and hope to continue the tradition on future Christmas Eves. While I didn’t get my recipe directly from my relatives, I did get the appreciation of good food made with love, which I hope to pass on to my children one day.
(adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian – I wouldn’t burden you with my grandmother’s vague directions)
– 6 tbs butter
– 2 cups all-purpose flour
– 2 egg yolks
– 1 egg white (just save when you separate out the eggs)
– Salt and pepper
– 2 lbs peeled potatoes, roughly cut into the same size
– 1 cup milk
– 1 chopped onion
– 3 cloves chopped garlic
– 1 cup Gruyere (this is just what we happened to have – you can also use cheddar, Parmesan or any cheese that melts well)
– 1/2 cup chopped mushrooms
– Put the flour and 1 tsp of salt in a food processor and mix. Add the egg yolk and 1/4 cup of water while the machine is running. Add water very slowly until the dough creates a ball. This can happen very quickly, so be patient!
– Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead by hand for a few minutes.
– Split the dough in two balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes to an hour.
– While the dough is resting, put the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Add several generous pinches of salt to the water. Bring to a boil and cook for 15-20 minutes.
– While the potatoes are boiling, saute the onion, garlic, and mushrooms. Add salt and pepper.
– Drain the potatoes.
– Melt 4 tbs of butter in a saucepan on the stove and add the milk. Add the potatoes and mash them with a fork. (A food mill or ricer is even better, but I don’t have either of those tools.) Mix the sauteed vegetable mix and cheese into the potatoes.
– Put the stuffing aside and get one ball of dough out of the fridge. Prepare your floured work space again. Make sure it is perfectly dry – any wetness will compromise the dough.
– Roll the ball of dough out with a rolling pin, to about 1/16 of an inch thick.
– Cut 2-3 inch circles out with a cookie cutter, glass, or circle pastry cutter.
– Take one circle and put 1-2 tbs of stuffing in the center.
– Use a pastry brush to brush the edge of the wrapper with egg white.
– Form a half-moon with the wrapper – press out the air gently, then fold and pinch it all of the way around.
– Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and salt it.
– Working in batches, carefully cook the dumplings for about 3-5 minutes, or until tender. Transfer the dumplings from the water to a plate.
– Put 2 tbs of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. When the butter melts, add as many dumplings will fit without crowding and brown them quickly.
Are there any foods your family makes for the holidays that you treasure? Have you ever tried making an old family recipe?