Words by Claire Burkitt / Image by Emilee Morehouse
At first glance, Russian cuisine, much like most of Northern Europe is as mono-flavored as it is monochromatic. There is an emphasis on root vegetables, young cheeses, and carbs. However, in constant defiance of the cold, harsh winters, Russia offers some unique dishes, both colorful and flavorful, that would be worth traveling for. One such item is piroshki.
Piroshki can be described as a meat or cabbage-stuffed donut. Although the exact origin is vague, versions of this dish can be found stretching from the Balkans, Finland, and Russia, all the way to Japan. The word piroshki is transliterated from Russian and is derivative of the word pirog—meaning pie. Differing from the western understanding of pie, piroshki are made with yeast dough instead of without leavening. It is likely that Russian peasants began making these small pies for convenience. A self-contained meal, they are easy to travel with so workers could bring them into the fields.
Once per year, about ten to twenty Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish women gather to pinch piroshki (emphasis on the last syllable, as my matushka—little mother—is quick to remind me when I pronounce it like an American). Maybe it’s a tradition only as old as the ladies in the church, but something about it feels ancient, as though these women learned from their grandmothers who learned from theirs, and so on. Even though the little pies will be baked in an industrial grade kitchen, the table where they are assembled just feels like family.
On the day of our bazaar, the dough was sweet, made with milk instead of water. That day, we had two huge buckets full of it. Vera, a 90-something Russian woman, who lived everywhere in Europe before moving to Seattle 50 years ago, was in charge of making the dough. We were tasked with producing about 2,500 piroshki in two days.
We used two kinds of stuffing: cabbage or meat. The cabbage had been mixed with boiled eggs and was flavored simply with salt and pepper. The meat was ground beef and, likewise, stands on its own two feet with onion, salt and butter to complement its natural flavor.
When I arrived, the assembly line was already in full force. Two women stood at one end of a long table, cutting and rolling out pieces of dough—about 2 inches across. Other women were sitting with floured trays in front of them, filling their stretched out dough with either cabbage or beef. I noticed a lot more beef than cabbage.
Looking around the room, I noticed that this is the first time I had seen these women without headscarves on. Normally, during church, their heads are covered with what could be family heirlooms, exquisite laces, embroidered and printed flowers. Now, their hair was visible, but sensibly done up in low buns. Vera's hair was in a long, white braid. Their accents were as thick as ever, and I could hear the tune of their Russian conversations, thick and musical.
I was instructed to start with beef. It's easier, someone explained. She spent a minute showing me how to press out my medallion of dough and press a heaping spoonful of ground beef into the center. “Now we pinch,” she said. She had the most brilliant green eyes I have ever seen. Her name was Irene and she was Polish, but spoke Russian.
Over the course of the morning, several people, knowing I am a beginner, stressed the importance of pinching. If you don't pinch enough, they burst in the fryer. We get to eat the burst ones, but matushka Olga would shake a finger at us and declare that we need to pinch better—coming down hard on each consonant, in Russian style.
After pinching my first tray, I was sent to let them rise in another room. They were to be deep fried and sold for $3 at the church’s annual bazaar that day.
While frying is one way to make them, you can also bake piroshki. Historically, piroshki has been fried, baked, even brazed.
Irene became once again engrossed in conversation with the other women at the table. I only understood an occasional word here and there, my Russian language skills being essentially non-existent. I did learn one valuable word: kapusta (cabbage).
Someone decided that I had mastered pinching beef in the hour and a half I'd been there and gave me a bowl of cabbage. Pinching cabbage was more complicated because I had to pinch it into a triangle shape instead of just an oval. The pinching here is equally important as with the beef. Failure to adequately pinch will result in burst piroshki.
We ran out of dough four hours in. Our first day was a success: 1,250 piroshki pinched. The fryers now had their work cut out for them. We cleaned the table then feasted on borscht and the fruit of our labor. When they were finished, the piroshki were golden and look a bit like miniature footballs.
The below recipe has been scaled down to manageable size. This is a simple recipe, so feel free to add variations, and add them in the comments below!
For the Dough:
1 cup milk
1/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted (5 ½ Tbs)
1 Tbs active dry yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour
1.2 teaspoon salt
2 Tbs vegetable oil
For the filling 2 lbs ground beef 2 Tbs olive oil 1/2 tsp salt 1/4 tsp pepper 1 clove garlic (minced) 1 large onion, finely diced
1. Prepare dough
A. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm milk (just warmer than room temperature, too hot and you’ll kill the yeast). Add the sugar, salt, oil and 3 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough re-maining flour to form a soft dough.
B. Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 8-10 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1-1/2 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
3. Heat the butter in a skillet and add the onions. Cook, stirring, until the onions are wilted.
4. Add the beef and, using a heavy metal kitchen spoon, stir and chop down to break up any lumps in the meat. Cook until meat loses its raw look. Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Separate dough by pinching into small handfuls, about half the size of a baseball. Press each ball flat with a roller or your hands until it is about 3 ½ inches across.
6. Use about two tablespoons of filling for each circle of dough. Shape the filling into an oval and place it on half of the circle of dough. Fold the other half of the circle of dough over to enclose the filling. Press the edges of the dough with the fingers or the tines of a fork to seal. Arrange the filled pieces on a lightly greased baking sheet.
7. Place in the oven and bake 25 minutes.