Some grandmothers send you home with handmade pies after each visit. If you’re lucky, you have a grandmother who slips you a $20 on your way out the door. Not mine. Instead of baked goods or money, she fills my arms with large plastic bags of frozen pierogi.
I can’t remember a time I’ve left her house without a dozen in hand. At every family gathering, our Mom Mom generously distributes her homemade pierogi to my sister, cousins, and me. We’re all mostly in our twenties now, and the pierogi often come in handy later as a quick and easy solution for dinner.
Though I’m grateful for her efforts to ensure I always have a dozen in my freezer throughout the year, I most appreciate Mom Mom’s seemingly endless pierogi supply around the holidays. Without them, Christmas Eve would lack my favorite family food tradition, and I wouldn’t be found shoveling the potato-stuffed dumplings into my mouth at a rate only my late grandfather could match.
Over the last decade, I’ve happily accepted my fair share of pierogi. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around this year, I felt too greedy taking another dozen from my grandmother’s freezer without giving something in return. So I signed up to pinch a few pierogi with her before Christmastime arrived.
Like much of the retired population that lives in her small Pennsylvania town, my Mom Mom volunteers for her church, making pierogi. (Pierogi is already the plural of pierog, though “pierogies” is socially accepted and understood.) Brought to the state by eastern European immigrants, pierogi have become a staple dish throughout Pennsylvania, and the church sells them locally by the dozen to raise money.
The Polish version of a ravioli or dumpling, pierogi are simply a small circle of dough stuffed with filling. Traditionally, they’re filled with mashed potatoes, but pierogi can be stuffed with sauerkraut, meat, mushrooms, or even fruit. The possibilities are endless.
On the Tuesday after our turkey dinner, my grandmother and I joined the devoted group of senior citizens who meet once a month to perform their pierogi-making ritual. At the crack of dawn, we shuffled into the church’s large kitchen and dining hall. At 78 years old, my Mom Mom was one of the younger workers in the bunch, so the crowd was pleased to see an even younger face they could put to work.
“Yesterday, we peeled 450 pounds of potatoes,” my grandmother boasted as she led me to the assembly line’s starting point, where she introduced me to Ray, who was responsible for scooping perfect portions of pierogi filling. “And today, we’ll make somewhere between 500 and 600 dozen pierogi!”
It was just after 7 AM and I could barely fathom making several dozen, let alone pinching thousands of pierogi before noon. As I stood beside him, measuring out mashed potatoes with my small cookie scooper and lining them into meticulous rows on a tray, Ray reflected on memories of making pierogi with his Polish mother as a child. “She’d pinch away for hours in the kitchen, and of course I’d help,” he said as a nostalgic grin stretched across his face. “I still eat pierogi on top of a bed of sautéed cabbage and onions, just like she used to make them. That’s the best.”
I’d never eaten pierogi prepared that way before. Normally, I sauté them with butter and onions in my cast-iron pan, just as my Mom Mom taught me to do. Occasionally, when she’s feeling indulgent, she’ll pull the deep fryer out from the depths of her cabinet, resulting in a plateful of golden, crispy pockets of greatness.
When the entire batch of mashed potatoes had been scooped, I was ushered over to the dough-making table. Several years ago, the church invested in an industrial-strength mixer and pizza dough-rolling machine – a true blessing for me.
“We used to roll out enough dough for 600 dozen pierogi by hand,” said the woman measuring out ingredients. “Can you imagine?” No, I could not.
As I was cutting out perfect circles from the dough, my Mom Mom recruited me to the pinching table. I found a seat among several lovely older ladies, where I attempted to perform the last step of pierogi assembly. When I finished pinching my first tray, the lady sitting to my left evaluated my handiwork. “Are you sure those aren’t going to open up in the water?” she asked. “You have to be sure to pinch them all the way closed.”
“You should listen to her,” my Mom Mom said. “She’s the best pincher we have!”
As I re-sealed the pierogi in front of me, the ladies were sure to fill me in on a few pierogi secrets. “Ours are better than other churches,” said Mary, one of my grandmother’s oldest pierogi friends. “We don’t use instant potatoes like they do.”
“Instead, we make them all by hand,” added my Mom Mom, “and we add in ground onions and cheese, which makes them tastier.”
“What about milk?” I asked. All great mashed potatoes certainly required milk, I thought.
“Never any milk or butter in mashed potatoes for our pierogi,” she said. “You don’t want the filling to be too runny.”
Pierogi, I learned, are not easy to make. They may sound simple, but their assembly requires many steps and a crowd both large and patient enough to get through them all.
After I finally pinched a tray of pierogi that made the ladies proud, I found a new job: running the trays to the kitchen, where men were at work boiling and packaging the delicate dumplings the ladies had just pinched.
“Work!” the ladies yelled each time they completed forming the pierogi on their tray. A minute spent not pinching was a minute wasted. “Work!”
I spent the last two hours of pierogi making not making any pierogi at all, but running back and forth between the pinchers’ table and the kitchen. Just shy of noon, I carried away the last tray of pierogi. Somehow, the volunteers had managed to make over 500 dozen in less than five hours.
I left the church with my hard-earned work – a bag with four-dozen pierogi – and a revived appreciation for an old Christmas tradition. Eating platefuls of pierogi has always been a holiday ritual in my family. Maybe now, making them will be, too.
Mom Mom’s Pierogi
This is obviously not the church’s recipe for a full batch of 500 dozen pierogi. This is my Mom Mom’s recipe for “home” pierogi – large enough to serve an entire family during the holidays, but not as massive of an undertaking. All the rules still stand though. Measure carefully, pinch precisely, and listen to your grandmother.
For the dough:
3 cups flour, plus extra as needed
½ cup warm water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
1 pound potatoes
1 onion, finely diced
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the dough, mix together the flour and salt in a large bowl or standing mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg, water, and vegetable oil together until combined, then pour over the flour. Mix the wet ingredients into the flour until well blended. Knead the dough by hand or in a mixer until it becomes elastic. If sticky, add a tablespoon of flour at a time until it comes together into a smooth ball. Cover and let dough stand until you are ready to roll it out.
For the mashed potato filling, bring a large pot of water to a boil. While it heats, peel potatoes. When water boils, add a few tablespoons of salt and carefully slide potatoes in. Cook until potatoes are tender.
While the potatoes cook, sauté the finely diced onion in butter until translucent.
When potatoes are ready, drain them and return them to pan. Add the sautéed onions and shredded cheddar cheese, and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Scoop the mashed potato filling with a small cookie scooper or spoon into one-inch balls and arrange on a plate or tray. Set aside until you are ready to form the pierogi.
Divide the pierogi dough into two balls. Roll out one piece at a time on a lightly floured surface until it is thin enough to work with, but not so thin that it tears. Cut into circles using a pierogi cutter or a glass and arrange on a tray.
When ready to assemble your pierogi, gently place a ball of mashed potato in the centers of your pierogi dough discs. With your finger, run water around the edges of the dough. Fold the filled circles over into half-moons and pinch to seal the edges. Lay them on a floured baking sheet, but don’t let them touch.
To cook the pierogi, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt to water before placing pierogi in the water. Stir to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom. Boil pierogi until they rise to the surface like ravioli, about 6-8 minutes.
Transfer cooked pierogi to a serving dish. When you have finished cooking the entire batch, you can either freeze them for later or prepare them to eat. Make sure you coat the pierogi with oil before freezing.
To prepare, sauté pierogi in a pan with butter and sliced onions until lightly browned. Serve with sour cream or applesauce on side.