The Pierogi Mystique

Christmas pierogi at the kajmeister house.

My grandmother’s handwriting is still on the recipe, which we urged her to write down, before she passed away in 1978. It was written the way that grandmothers write recipes, without precision or exact steps, with unique spelling. She wasn’t a particularly great cook, according to my mother. Although perhaps that was about more about relationships between mother and mother-in-law than about food. I do remember finding her borscht disgusting, although what five-year-old likes beet soup with sour cream? We did, however, fight over her pierogis. More on that shortly.

The secret Chmaj recipe. Photo by kajmeister.

My brother gave me pierogi-making tools last Christmas, but we couldn’t fit in time to make them. They are a time-consuming task, as I imagine making tamales, won tons, or empanadas might be. I decided to make them this year on Christmas then enlisted the elves when it was taking more time than our stomachs could bear. When I posted a photo on Facebook, there were questions and comments, and my reply got so long, I thought: Ok, just do a blog. So here you go.

The Recipe, the Family Story

Grandma Chmaj’s recipe.

My grandmother emigrated from Poland to the U.S. at the turn of the century when she was two. Her parents must have spoken Polish at home because she had a lifelong thick accent, and the recipe reminds me of how she left out words. Whoever typed the recipe–I always assumed it was her, but now I wonder–also didn’t spell “sourkraut” the way that we would. And there’s no comprehensive list of ingredients or forget pictures. She never showed us how to make them. There are just those all-important lines: Melt 1/4 lb. of butter or oleo … or fry in hot Crisco. Or the main one: Boil them — and then fry.

It was a routine to have Sunday night dinner at Grandma’s house in Dearborn, Michigan, near the Ford plant where my grandfather worked as an engineer. I remember watching “Truth or Consequences” on Sunday nights while waiting to eat; that was the adult’s choice *Bo-o-o-ring* but we were lucky they had a TV. It was Grandma’s. There were no toys. You could bring books, if you didn’t want to read the Bible.

At the table on Sunday nights, the soup course was disappointing, though we liked the thick-rinded keilbasa with sharp mustard or horseradish. The highlight was the plate of pierogi, even though kids got last pick, reverse pecking order.

The challenge was that Grandma made three kinds: sauerkraut, sour cherry, and pressed cheese. You would melt right off the chair for the cheese ones. But the sauerkraut ones were another flavor choice not meant for kids. The issue with the cherries was that they weren’t pitted, so they were an unpleasant surprise. The Big Problem: you couldn’t tell them apart. Not by looking. You’d think the cherry ones might “look plumper” than the cheese ones, but you often guessed wrong. A lot. And were sad because you ate what was on your plate, and after that, there weren’t any cheese left, too bad.

I thought maybe this risk-reward choice was all in my little-kid-memory head, but my brother and I agreed about it. Then, when we were teenagers and moved to where my cousin lived in Sacramento, she Confirmed It! It is an inherent weakness with pierogis. Since I just made two kinds this past week, I can confirm that you can’t really tell from the outside whether a pierogi will have cheese, peanut butter, spinach and ham, potato, sauerkraut, or unpitted cherries inside.

It’s part of the Pierogi Mystique.

Where You Can Find Them

I have Grandma’s recipe, but not being an experienced bread maker, I’ve always been a little leery about fashioning dough. I’ve made pies but store-bought pie crusts taste better. I’ve made bread, but the machine-made breads were better, back in the nineties when we had a machine and ate too much bread. So I never really worked through Grandma’s recipe, even though I had it all these years.

We did search and find pierogis from time to time. The frozen ones with potato that you can buy in the store were better than nothing, but not real. It’s like pretending that Hot Pocket is real pizza. Besides, a potato dumpling is just starch on starch.

If you live in New York, the Little Poland restaurant on 2nd avenue is a bit of a trek, but tastes authentic. At least it did years ago, when we schlepped blocks from the subway stop. They didn’t give you a lot of pierogi and the service was slow, but they were pierogi. I recall the cabbage rolls being better. The “Taste of Poland” food truck in Portland was also good, some years ago, but I don’t know if you could find them now. It was staffed by a grandmotherly lady making them to order, so it took a long time. That’s a theme.

In Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, we found pierogi at Lukich’s Family Restaurant. I saw it on their online menu (buried under “European favorites”), and we wandered in one morning at 11 am. I asked Joanne, the waitress, if they had the breakfast pierogi, and she told me that she didn’t know if the cook had started them yet. Not one to chat up waitresses usually, I confessed frankly that it was the key to the whole operation. Laughing at that, she went into the back to tell the cook about the crazy out-of-towners, and he took pity on us. These had the right kind of cheese.

My grandma called it “pressed cheese,” which isn’t common in your average West Coast Safeway. It just means that curds are dry, so you can create them by draining ricotta (or cottage cheese, duh, we realized later) through a coffee filter. I still needed workable recipes because I can’t just go to Troy or New York whenever I feel a craving.

Thanks, Bro!

Enter Casey Barber’s wonderful book Pierogi Love and my brother, who helpfully gifted me the book, a nice-little dumpling maker, and a goofy-looking T-shirt, whose picture I will refrain from sharing. Consider this an advertisement for the book! I endorse it!

Great cookbook, tested recipes.
Once I start making notes, I’m keeping the cookbook. From Pierogi Love.

I tested the recipes in the summer, and the pierogis came out small, took a while, and tasted delicious. The book has a few dozen recipes, everything from Nutella (yuk) to Mushroom (intriguing) to Sweet Cheese (the key to the whole operation).

But Christmas brunch is my responsibility, so this was the year to go all in. It was time to dig deep and make the pierogis!

Pierogi Assembly Line, Christmas 2022

The core recipe makes 24, which sounds like a lot, but even for four people, six apiece seem to disappear disappointingly quickly. We made two batches, one savory and one sweet, because it was Christmas. And there weren’t leftovers.

You do need to choose the kind of filling and think through that ahead of time. I immediately found the “sweet cheese” recipe and got out a clean cloth for straining. My spouse moved it to a coffee filter/strainer over a glass method that was more scientific and effective. This is what happens to those of us who don’t drink coffee.

Our savory choice was spinach, Gruyere, and ham because we had all those things. You need to cook the spinach, and blend or food process those things together. Our 25-year-old mini food processor had a snit, and it took three of us to get it to work. But that combination is a good one!

The Kajs at the stuffing & crimping stations. Photo by kameister.

There are three main steps for the pierogi part. (1) Make the dough. (2) Roll out the dough into circles. (3) Fill each dumpling and close it tightly.

It took some time to fiddle with the dough and the fillings (plus opening family gifts ’cause, Christmas!) It was nearly noon when I began steps 2 and 3, so I enlisted two family members, who immediately worked out an efficient assembly line. The difference between the book recipe and my grandmother’s was that the book adds in sour cream/nonfat Greek yogurt rather than water, which I think added a nice tang. Otherwise, the dough is pretty dry, shaggy and stretchy, being basically egg, water, sour cream, flour, and either more salt or a little salt and sugar, depending on savory vs. sweet. (Internet recipes will give you the proportions for the pierogi dough.)

After letting it rest just a little (it doesn’t have any leavening in it), you divide into quarters, then roll out enough to make 5 or 6 small circles. It was tough to roll. I blame arthritis. At first, I used the back of the pierogi maker to cut out the circles, but the dumpling filler needed that. So we found a glass with the right diameter. Roll, cut, fill (maybe a teaspoon of filling or less), line one side with egg wash, fold over, crimp. You place them on wax paper.

Pierogis awaiting their fate. Photo by kajmeister

Once we had 48 nice little pierogis all in a row, we were ready, as the walrus and the carpenter said, to begin to feed.

“Not on us!” the pierogis cried, turning a little pale.
After such battering about, they hoped for freedom from jail.
With the water boiled and the butter hot, I popped them in without fail.

…with apologies to Lewis Carroll…

Butter was definitely, chiefly needed. My grandmother fried them in Crisco, sometimes, but we all prefer the buttery taste. I don’t go for deep frying so just about a Tablespoon of butter for each batch worked. Try not to let the pan get too hot so the butter doesn’t burn.

Boil, then fry. Photo by kajmeister.

Theme and Variations

They can be made ahead of time, which is probably a better plan next year, a nice busy Christmas or New Year’s Eve activity. They refrigerate and freeze well. Since you’re boiling them first, add time. Fresh ones needed 3-4 minutes boiled; refrigerated 5-6; frozen likely 10-12 minutes.

Can you deep fry them? Sure, but how far are you planning to take this experiment? Is a sour cream/butter/egg dough sauteed in butter not enough?

Could there be vegan pierogi? Yes, in the same way that there could be carob brownies or cheese cake made with soy instead of cheese or Grape Nuts as a substitute for graham crackers.

Savory & sweet, photo by kajmeister.

After we gobbled them down forthwith, we made a second batch and ate them Tuesday night, with keilbasa and sharp mustard. Grandma probably gave it a thumbs up.

5 Replies to “The Pierogi Mystique”

    1. If nonna let you help, then that’s more than I got! Biggest regret here is that Grandma never let us cook with her, which would have been such a treat. If I ever become a nonna, then my grandkids will cook with me for sure.

  1. Thank you for a great read and one of the best presents received this season. Your writing is delightful. I saw a weird little gadget advertised on facebook that presses a small piece of dough into a circle and then after filling, crimps into a pierogi. Probably not the same as doing it by hand though.

    1. Is the gadget you saw the one in the picture on top of the open cookbook? That’s also a crimper that my brother gave me, which doubles as circle cutter. It speeds up making them, even though we made the first batch by hand. Glad you liked the read! Happy Holidays!

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