Pure magic, I tell you.
More often than not the stars aligned and giant fluffy flakes fell from the sky and landed on my tongue as we piled in the car and drove three blocks to my Aunt Judy's house for fancy appetizers - wieners in a sticky sauce; crunchy, cheesy pizza pillows on rye; decadent shrimp cocktail; and the annual bourbon slushy punch. My cousins and I were allowed one small glass of punch, which got us drunk. Drunk on happy coziness with all our family together in front of the fireplace, opening presents, complete with the odd sensation of warm bourbon mixed with sugary shaved ice rolling down our throats. We were just so grown up and special.
The other night I asked Mr. Musky to give me three words to describe his Christmas Eves of yore.
"Masculine. Poker. Bland."
From what I can gather, there was massive card playing going on in the Liss household. Something about his grandfather and Uncle Eddie battling it out with the other gents while the wives complained about the men and ohmygosh the pierogi. Are they ready? How many do we have? What are the fillings? Always the pierogi. I had no idea what he was talking about as we made our way to his Grandmother's house the first year I spent Christmas Eve with his family. I nervously looked forward to experiencing the traditions of another family. And, of course, I was excited to try the food.
"What's pierogi? And why do your mom and sister call it pee-doh-gies?"
"Because they can't speak Polish. They are, um, how do I describe it? Little dough pouches filled with stuff."
"What kind of stuff?"
"Cottage cheese. Or potatoes. Or sauerkraut."
"No. We don't eat meat on Christmas Eve."
"Because we are Polish. And Catholic."
None of it made sense to me. I knew a couple of Catholics, and as far as I understood, they only abstained from meat on Fridays during Lent. Not on Christmas Eve. And admittedly, eating dough filled cottage cheese alarmed me and sounded quite unappealing to my palette. I played along though while fifty eyes stared me down as I tried my first bite. And I have a confession to make. Right there at my fiancé's grandmother's table, I told a bald-faced lie.
"It's good!" I announced.
Everyone resumed their meal as I pushed the remaining pierogi around on my plate, hid them under a slice of bread and filled up on broccoli rice casserole. Thank you, Aunt Tricia, for making something tasty.
However, because it is my husband's tradition, which makes me partially responsible for passing it on to our own children, making pierogi is now my tradition, too. I embarked upon a pierogi making mission when Mr. Musky's grandmother could no longer make them.
This takes hours, so I recommend getting under the influence with a hearty apéritif. I love me some bourbon in the winter months, and the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas just scream cranberry.
6 oz good bourbon or Rye whiskey - we like Templeton Rye or Woodford Reserve
3 oz Cointreau or Triple Sec (Cointreau is preferred)
2 oz pure Cranberry juice (not cocktail, unless you prefer it sweeter)
2 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
4-5 Ice Cubes
Shake it up, divide the contents among two martini glasses, toast cheers to Christmas, and sip.
The name of said cocktail? Mr. Musky thinks it should be dubbed "The Blood of Jesus." We all screeched "EEEEEW!" at that one, while he protested that we're celebrating the birth of Jesus in all this, so duh. I say we stick to the original name, The Bardstown Sling, and must give credit where it's due. I found this cocktail recipe reinvented on Doug Ford's Cold Glass blog. Check it out. I will most certainly be paying another visit to this well written and informative blog about all things cocktail.
So mix one of these suckers up and take a deep breath. Call in any indentured servants (e.g., kids) living in your house or invite some unsuspecting friends and family over. Get your spouse into the kitchen. You're going to need at least six extra hands for this undertaking, even if they protest.
For the sauerkraut filling, I stumbled across an article a few years ago in Bon Appetit magazine and this is now the only way we prepare sauerkraut. It leaves the pickled cabbage with a depth of flavor that cannot be achieved by opening the package and dumping it into a sauce pan to warm up. Trust me.
For the meat filling, you will need:
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 handfuls of mushrooms, chopped
*Really, any vegetable combo is fine. Whatever you like. But I would be sure to include onion.
2 Handfuls of Spinach
1T Fresh thyme
1t Fresh oregano, chopped
2T chopped garlic
salt and pepper, to taste
1T allspice - or any other spice combo you like, to taste. I love allspice in the winter with ground meat. But Garam Masala would be good for an Indian flair, or Italian seasoning would work. So would southwest flavors. Play with it!
Brown the ground meat in a sizzling hot pan. Once it is nearly cooked, add the chopped vegetables except the spinach and cook until soft. Add the garlic, herbs, spices, salt and pepper, worcestershire and spinach. Cook to combine, until the spinach wilts, and cool it to room temperature.
VERY IMPORTANT SIDE AND DIP
When I commuted downtown Chicago, I noticed a small, nondescript restaurant in the street level of the parking garage I used. Day after day I walked past, but after working late one night without an inkling of what to cook for dinner, I walked in.
Pierogi Heven changed my perspective on the little dough balls for the rest of my life. That was the day I finally got it, and loved loved LOVED those little suckers because of three very important reasons:
1. I ordered meat stuffed pierogi. It never even occurred to me to make meat filled pierogi, since Mr. Musky's family didn't. Divine.
2. They asked me if I wanted a side of bacon and onions. Sure, why not? Oh. My. Word. That simple concoction alongside the little dough babies made a world of difference.
3. "Sour Cream?" in a heavy Eastern European accent. Sure.
I will never eat another pierogi without these accompanying sides. They take them over the top to superstardom.
So before you mentally prepare yourself for the dough making, gather the side ingredients with the demonic eyes of your offspring glaring down at you.
And as for the sour cream? Everything is better with garlic. So plop about a cup of the sour cream into a bowl and microplane a small clove of garlic into it, then mix it together. Stupendous.
Now for the trickiest part. I recommend switching to wine for this element.
Or pour yourself another cocktail and get hammered.
2T Sour Cream
3 Eggs, preferably not sucked on by your kid. Gross.
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 - 1 cup water
Mix the first five ingredients with your hands. Once they are incorporated, slowly drizzle in the water while continuing to work the dough with your hands. Keep turning the bowl around with one hand while you mix with the other, until just incorporated, adding water until the ingredients all come together. This is the tricky part - if the dough feels TOO sticky, add more flour. If it feels TOO dry, add more water. It should be dry enough to roll out but not too dry to where it falls apart. Sticky enough that it all stays together, but not too sticky that it's a gloppy mess.
Based on what I've read out there on the big bad internet, it is not advised to overwork dough of any kind. So when I read a suggestion to roll out each pierogi individually, it made sense. Sheer madness, yes, but sense. So I did it.
Take about 1-2 tablespoons of dough,
and roll it out to about 1/8 inch thickness.
Cut out a round or oval shape, about two inches in diameter.
We're nearly ready for Tuesday.
And finally. Last step! Into a pan of sizzling butter they go to crisp up with a golden crunchy texture on the outside. We serve them up with a big vat of onions, bacon and garlic infused sour cream.
While we slaved away the other night to make just forty for ourselves, everyone commented on the amount of work they take to make. We marveled that the matriarch, the woman who made every single one of these for years and years, did it all by herself. Just like the stockings she lovingly stitched for every person in our extended family, Jake's being the last one she ever made for the Liss clan.
Always the jokester.
Merry Christmas, Everyone.