Polish Cuisine — Pierogi

Polish cuisine as we know it today is the result of centuries of mixing of cultures, from Ukrainian and Lithuanian rule, the influence of the Polish royal court and its dealings with rival European powers, shortages experienced during the socialist Soviet influence of the twentieth century, and from a new era of multiculturalism.  Poles of the Middle Ages got by on wild and domestic meats, cereal grains (it is from the Poles that we get kasha), and wild mushrooms and berries that thrive in the cold winters and hot summers.

Poland quick facts:

  • Capital: Warsaw
  • Population: 38,544,513 (2012 census)
  • Notable Poles: Copernicus, Marie Curie, Frédéric Chopin, Pope John Paul II, Joseph Conrad, Roman Polanski

(Holy cow, that’s a good list of notable Poles!)

Polish internationally known contributions to food and drink include kielbasa and vodka, among others, but perhaps none is more familiar to American culture than pierogi (recipe follows).  Unleavened dough stuffed with a tasty filling is not uniquely Polish; Italians have ravioli, the Japanese have gyoza, the Chinese have wontons, and Latin America has its empanadas, and these foods have spawned countless cousins in neighboring cultures.  Poles have turned it into an art form and way of life, though; there are pierogi (“pierogies” is a pluralization of controversial merit used in the United States) for every occasion in Polish culture and with every conceivable filling: potatoes, meats, cheeses, fruits, and just about every other imaginable possibility have made their mark at one time or another.  Our version is pierogi ruskie (Ruthenian pierogi), filled with potatoes, fried onions, and cottage cheese.

Pierogi

adapted from My Polish Kitchen and The Kitchn

SERVES 5 OR 6

For the dough:

  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • about 4 1/2 ounces (a generous half cup) water

For the filling:

  • 1/4 medium yellow onion, minced
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium potato
  • 2/3 cup cottage cheese

To serve:

  • sour cream
  • fried onions

Since the dough requires a kneading period and some time to rest, we started with it.  First, the dry ingredients and the egg were artfully dumped into the bowl of our stand mixer (the dough could also be mixed by hand on a clean countertop or cutting board if desired):

doughingredients

Not sure exactly how much water would be needed, we erred on the side of excess and got a cup-and-a-half ready nearby:

startingwater

We knew we would need some water at least, so we added a quarter cup or so and mixed to combine:

notwetenough

Knowing that dough can get really wet in a hurry, we added a couple of tablespoons of water at a time with the mixer running until we had the consistency we wanted: a pliable dough that came off the sides of the bowl but was still just a bit sticky:

doughaboutright

Looking back at our water supply, it looked like we had used about four-and-a-half ounces or so:

waterremaining

The mixer was turned back on and left to knead for about five minutes, after which time we were left with a nice, solid dough ball:

doughball

The dough was covered with a damp kitchen towel and left to rest for an hour:

doughcovered

While the dough was resting we got to work preparing the filling.  First, we set a small saucepan of cold water with our scrubbed, unpeeled potato on the stove over high heat to come to a boil:

potatoboiling

Once boiling, the pan was covered, the heat turned down to low, and the potato was simmered for about fifteen minutes until it could be easily pierced with a paring knife:

potatodone
The split skin is also a good sign of doneness.

The potato was removed from the hot water and set aside until it was cool enough to handle:

potatooutofwater

While the potato was cooking, we cut our onion into a small dice:

onionsdiced

Using one of our trusty cast iron skillets, we heated the oil over medium-low heat until the oil was shimmering and looked like it was plenty hot.  Adding our onions to the pan:

onionscooking

…they were sauteed, stirring frequently, until nicely browned, about ten minutes:

onionsbrowned

The onions were removed and set aside until we were ready to mix the filling.  When the potato was cool enough to handle we peeled off the skin with our fingers and gathered it along with the other filling ingredients:

fillingingredients

Using a fork, we mashed the potato thoroughly:

potatoesmashed

…then put it with the rest of the ingredients in a mixing bowl:

fillingingredientsprepared

After seasoning with salt and pepper, the filling was stirred to combine and was ready to go:

fillingmixed

By this time our dough was rested and ready to be rolled out:

doughrested

Using a very clean, floured countertop, we broke off a manageable bit of the dough:

doughonworksurface

…and, using a rolling pin, rolled it to a little less than one-eighth an inch thickness:

doughrolledout

Using a drinking glass about three inches in diameter, we cut out circles of dough:

doughcircles
In retrospect, we could have managed a bit larger piece of dough.

About a strong teaspoon of filling was placed in the center of each dough circle:

fillingondoughcircles

…and we were ready to shape some pierogi!  Working with one at a time, each pierogi was picked up and shaped into a little taco in our hand:

doughtaco

Folding over the center and stretching to fit, the dough was pinched in the middle first:

doughfoldedoverfilling

…and worked out gradually to the corners.  Each pierogi was inspected for a sound seal:

pierogiroughsealed

…and pinched tightly wherever needed:

pierogisealed

The finished pierogi were placed in a single layer on a lightly greased sheet pan:

pierogionsheetpan

While working, the remaining dough and finished pierogi were covered with damp kitchen towels to prevent excess drying:

coveredeverything

Continuing in this way, we worked through all the dough and had a pan full of delicious pierogi ready to be cooked:

pierogimade

We broke the “single layer” rule toward the end due to space limitations on the baking sheet. We knew this would not be a problem since we were going to cook them immediately and they would not have time to stick together.

In the end we came out with twenty-nine pierogi, which would be plenty for the dinner and leftovers for a lunch or two.

When we were working on our last few pierogi we set a stockpot full of salted water on the stove to boil.  Once boiling, the pierogi were gently dropped into the boiling water one at a time:

pierogidroppedinwater
Chris would like it to be acknowledged that it is no small feat to pause with one’s hand this close to boiling water long enough to take a clear photo.

Not wanting to crowd the pot, possibly resulting in the water cooling too much and our pierogi that we had worked so hard to make sticking together and breaking, we cooked in two batches, allowing the water to return to a full boil in between.  Once all the pirogi were floating at the top of the boiling water for a couple of minutes (about five or six minutes of total cooking time) they were ready to come out:

pierogifloating

One nice thing about this pierogi preparation is that there is no sauce to prepare; the pierogi are simply topped with a little sour cream and garnished with some more fried onions.  Served with our surówka, we were treated to a hearty Polish meal:

pierogiplated

Going in to this project we knew that our shortcoming would be in making the dough.  The best peirogi are made by Polish cooks with thousands of tender, succulent pierogi under their belts.  Our dough was a little firm but nonetheless delicious.  That said, the hand-rolled dough was a lot more rustic and a nice alternative to the machine-rolled ravioli dough to which we are accustomed.  The real star was the pierogi ruskie filling.  Fried onions and plenty of cottage cheese chunks added savory flavor and creaminess to the potatoes without the aid of cream or butter.  We have decided that mashed potatoes with fried onions should be part of the roasted meat dinner side dish rotation for the next time we have a pork loin or roasted chicken.

More Polish food:

Surówka

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