Despite having grown up eating these Polish dumplings, especially around Christmas, I had to re-learn how to say their name as an adult. Two generations removed from speaking Slovak at home, we kids had transformed “pierogi” to “padokee.” And as with another popular Polish food, paczki, the word pierogi is already plural (who could eat just one?) from pieróg. So the anglicized “pierogies” is a bit redundant.
But the recipe didn’t deviate, I thought: boiled dumplings with potato and cheese filling. We’d confronted the occasional sauerkraut-stuffed pillows, but as kids we stared those down and relegated them to the far side of our plates. Potatoes or nothing, Mom.
Sweet, Savory, Holy?
We kids thought kraut was a bridge too far, but the oldest recorded recipe, from a 1682 Polish cookbook, called for kidney, veal fat, greens, and nutmeg. In fact, potatoes didn’t get to Europe until the Spanish and English brought them from the New World, from the Incas in present-day Peru.
Fast forward a few decades, and I found myself in the homeland of pierogi, in Krakow during their annual pierogi festival. Beets, meats, kraut, and sweets—it didn’t matter. Dessert dumplings or savory supper fare, sweetened poppy seeds or wild mushrooms with herbs, there were no limits. However, by my estimation, what I considered the standard was indeed the most abundant.
There’s a patron saint of pierogi, because of course there is: St. Hyacinth, a Polish monk, who legend credits with introducing them in the 13th century. He’s said to have staved off starvation for the masses after the Mongol invasion in 1240 with pierogi. That might have been the kidney variety, so there’s a mixed blessing there. Regardless, the Poles took to invoking the pierogi patron whenever things were looking grim, crying, “Swiety Jacku z pierogami!” (“Oh, St. Hyacinth with pierogi!”) in hopes of divine intervention.
Potato and cheese pierogi became popular in the last century or so, but has been known as pierogi ruskie—Ruthenian pierogi, often mistranslated as Russian pierogi—since World War II. The Ruthenians are an ethnic group in the region formerly considered eastern Poland and now within Ukraine. Poles living in that part of Poland made them using quark. Ethnic Ukrainians called them Polish pierogi. When these Poles relocated west into Poland’s post-war borders, the dish picked up the Ruthenian moniker.
My own pierogi-feasting forebears were actually Slovak, from a village just south of the border of modern Poland, all of which would have been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. But I digress.
How Do You Like ’Em?
While my grandmother made perfect little tender dumplings, my brother and I perhaps borrow from Russian brutalism. Still delicious, but not so beautiful. Often at Christmas, tired of turkey and ham, we work up a batch.
Our family always served them boiled, smothered with browned butter. In some cases you’ll find them boiled first, then pan-fried in butter and served with sour cream or fried shallots or onions. As much as I am stuck on nostalgia, I admit to enjoying them this way from time to time. Oven baking (400 degrees F for 20 minutes) and deep-frying (3 to 4 minutes in 350-degree oil) are also options.
Experiment as you wish, but here is a recipe for the straight-up comfort food variety.
Potato and Cheese Pierogi
Makes about 30 pierogi
For the Filling
- 1 cup mashed potatoes
- 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
For the Dough
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1/2 cup sour cream and/or 2 tablespoons softened butter (optional)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
Prepare the filling first. Add cheese to your mashed potatoes while still hot, until you find them cheesy enough. Cheddar stands out nicely.
For the dough, mix together the flour and salt.
In another large bowl, whisk the eggs and water. Stir in the sour cream and butter, if you choose (it is said to keep the pierogi dough from getting too tough when fried, though we’ve never done it). Then mix in half the flour. Add the rest of the flour gradually until you get a mass that is elastic and workable. You may need to adjust the amount of flour based on that consistency. It should not be too dry; the dough needs to stick together when you pinch your dumplings shut.
Flour your working surface to prevent sticking, and divide the dough into three parts. Roll each until about 1/8-inch thick. We use a knife to cut the dough in squares (about 2 1/2- x 2 1/2-inch) to make pillow-shaped pierogi, but culinary artists and Instagram chefs may prefer the iconic half-moon shape. In this case, a 2- to 2 1/2-inch diameter circular cutter—or the top of a glass—can be used.
Place a spoonful of the filling in the middle of each dough square/circle. Start small; you may be surprised how little filling it takes to make closing them difficult. Then fold the two sides together and pinch them shut, making sure the seal is complete. Let them dry a bit on a floured surface. They also freeze well at this stage.
To cook, use a large pasta pot to boil ample water and a pinch of salt. Boil the pierogi for about 3 to 4 minutes. They should float when ready, but be sure they cook until tender. (If you go with alternative fillings, especially meat, make sure you cook it all first. The boiling process won’t be long enough to properly cook fillings.)
To make brown butter, melt a stick of butter in a small pan over medium heat. Watch it closely as it starts to turn brown in the pan. If you’ve reached the desired brownness, pour it out of the pan. We just turned the burner off early and let the residual heat finish it in the pan.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey,” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com