Potato dumplings. Earthy, unctuous mushrooms tucked into delicate ears of dough. Warm, beefy, beety borsch. Fried fish.
I hadn’t realized how traditional my family celebrations were until I grew old enough to realize that not everyone celebrated Christmas or Easter the way we did. What? You didn’t pile on the starches for a Christmas Eve feast (twelve meatless dishes, one to symbolize each of Jesus Christ’s apostles, to be exact, if we are being incredibly traditional)? Christmas Eve wasn’t even all that big of a concern for you? Really?
I guess it took me until college to figure out just how different my conception of Christmas Eve was compared to my peers. I grew up in an extremely Roman Catholic South Jersey community, after all, where the families with Italian roots had their own version of delicious Christmas Eve excess: The Feast of the Seven Fishes. I suppose I just always thought Christmas Eve was just as special, if not more, than Christmas day itself. My future husband, as well as hundreds of other people from varying regions and cultural backgrounds, taught me otherwise.
The Christmas Eve feast never changes too much from year to year. We gather at my Baba’s house (‘grandmother,’ in cutesy Ukrainian terms). We always start with little munchies, cheese and crackers and smoked fish and fruit. We pour an abundance of boozy eggnog and cherry wine. And after the ladling of our appetizer helping of borsch, we light candles in the center of the table to honor our ancestors and pass around the kutia – a traditional pasty mixture of seeds, nuts, and honey which, really, only my grandfather ate. Then we reach for the oushka, little ear dumplings, to float in our borsch. I never think borsch tastes the same without them. But all this was simply anticipation for the main event, an indulgence my family and I allowed only once per calendar year.
Homemade pierogies. The vareniky. The pyrohy. Pick your word; they all refer to the same thing: plump dumplings filled with any combination of tasty ingredients that you can think of. Most of the time, my family sticks with the traditional sauerkraut or potato, onion, and cheese fillings. We do not use sweet fruit fillings for ours, though they are quite common in Eastern Europe and Russia.
For years my grandmother was in charge of making the pierogies, but my father liked to tease her about ‘cheating’ and using wonton wrappers rather than a homemade dough recipe to wrap her fillings. Three or four years ago I decided to take matters into my own hands. I researched traditional recipes. I gave it a shot. I brought them to Christmas Eve dinner, all 120+ of them, a five-hour long marathon of rolling, tucking, pinching, boiling, and frying little dumplings to buttery perfection.
I should have known that I’d be bound to the task forever more.
Traditions fade over time, over generations. We don’t always have oushka at our Christmas Eve table anymore. We don’t cook twelve full dishes for the twelve apostles. Our family has grown and shrunk and grown again. We don’t attend Christmas Eve mass at the Ukrainian Catholic Church anymore, and I am learning to fuse and forge new traditions together with my husband.
But pierogies, I will never compromise.
The holidays are a stressful time, sure. But I enjoy sitting down and pinching together pierogies one at a time, piece by piece. It is one of the few times of the year that I truly get in touch with my roots and cultural origins.
And besides… It’s delicious. And I like knowing that my family looks forward to eating them every Christmas Eve dinner.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream or kefir (full-fat), at room temperature
1 stick butter, softened, cut into pieces
Whisk together flour and salt in a large bowl, then dump in a mound on a clean countertop. Make a well in the center of the mound. Beat the eggs in a small bowl just a little to break up the yolks, then add all at once to the well in the center. Add the sour cream and the butter to the well and work the ingredients together with your (cleaned) hands, pulling in more and more flour a little at a time until it forms a cohesive mass. Knead the dough on the countertop until it loses most of its stickiness, about 5 to 7 minutes. You may find that your dough is rather dry, as it has done for me about 3/4 of the time I have used this recipe. If flour crumbles remain after working the dough for a time, start adding extra sour cream by the spoonful until it comes together.
Wrap the kneaded dough tightly in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days. I usually refrigerate overnight.
Potato and Cheese Filling Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium sweet onion, diced
5 full-sized red-skinned potatoes, peeled
1 8-oz block cream cheese or farmer’s cheese
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper
Melt butter in a medium sautée pan. Once butter is melted, add the diced onion. Let onions fry in medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cooked to your liking. I like to caramelize my onions, which takes a good 40 to 45 minutes of frying and stirring over medium heat. They will turn a deep caramel brown when they are finished. Set cooked onions aside.
Meanwhile, place peeled potatoes in a pot and fill with water to cover by about 1 to 2 inches. Salt the water with a generous handful of salt. Set the pot over medium-high heat and allow it to come to a boil. Boil potatoes until they are completely tender when pierced with a knife or fork. Depending on the size of your potatoes, it could take as long as 20 minutes or so.
Drain the potatoes and return to the pot. Break them up with a potato masher, then, while still hot, add the shredded cheddar cheese and the cream (or farmer’s) cheese. Mash the cheeses and the potatoes together, making sure to work out as many lumps as you can. If any large lumps remain, then simply don’t avoid stuffing them into your pierogies. Once mashed and smooth, scrape the cooked onions (and the butter in the pan) into the pot and stir to combine. Taste the filling. Most of your flavor is going to come from this potato and cheese mixture, so make sure to season well to your taste with salt and pepper. Allow to cool completely before assembling pierogies.
1 batch pierogie dough
1 batch potato-and-cheese filling (or sauerkraut, or whatever your heart desires)
1 sweet onion, diced
plenty of butter
Take the prepared pierogie dough out of the fridge. If it is too firm to work immediately, allow to rest for 15 to 25 minutes on the counter before rolling. Have some extra flour handy to prevent your dough from sticking to the counter. From here you have two options for rolling and cutting out rounds for your dough.
The more straightforward, common method is to roll out large pieces of dough as thin as you can get it on a lightly floured surface. You should be able to see a patterned tablecloth through the dough. Take a glass or a biscuit cutter and cut out rounds. Place about 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon (remember, these are extremely thin and delicate pierogies, so you will not be able to stretch the dough much more than it’s already stretched! Use less filling than you think you will need to prevent breakage) into the center of each round. Fold the dough around the filling and crimp it shut with your fingers or the tines of a fork. set aside on a baking sheet lined with lightly greased parchment paper to prevent sticking. You may gather and reroll the scraps to make more pierogies.
To eliminate waste, I simply pull off small (about tablespoon-sized, if not smaller) pieces of dough and roll/press them into wafer thin rounds. Your pierogies will not be quite as uniform with this method, but you will not have to deal with scraps that get too tough and too dry to work with. I tend to use my fingers to press the round into a translucent, round sheet and fight dough elasticity, place the filling in the center, and crimp it shut. This method will probably take a little bit longer than the roll-and-cut method, but the pierogies they yield are excellent. The choice of method is yours.
Once pierogies are assembled, save the rest of your filling for another use or eat it straight from the pot. Prepare another pot of salted boiling water on the stove. Boil the pierogies in small batches, about 10 to 15 at a time depending on the size of the pot. When the pierogies float to the surface, they are done. It should only take about 2 minutes. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and continue with the next batch.
You can always eat them boiled, but my family always fries them. If you wish to fry your pierogies, take out a large pan and melt some butter over medium heat. I start with half a stick. Add your diced onion to the pan and cook until caramelized, another 40 minutes. Remove onions to a bowl, but do not wash the pan. Refresh the pan with more butter if necessary and fry your pierogies, maybe 6 to 8 at a time (do not crowd them), for 2 to 5 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove pierogies to a serving platter and repeat with the remaining dumplings.
Dot caramelized onions over pierogies on the serving platter. Serve immediately or at room temperature with sour cream on the side. Pierogies also keep and reheat well for up to 5 days… if they manage to last past day one in your household.