Friday, December 20, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Making the Christmas Pierogi

Like most, I anticipated Christmas Eve with unbridled impatience and enthusiasm as a child. We went to church at 7:00, listened to Luke's account of a beautiful birth story in Bethlehem and ended the service singing Silent Night in a sanctuary glowing in candlelight. On our way out of church, every child was handed a brown paper bag filled with goodies. We didn't even complain that the bag contained an orange. To this day, it's the best orange I've ever sunk my teeth into.

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 meat?"

"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.
In a cocktail shaker, combine the following:

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.
We drink it over ice, but it's also good straight up. NOTE! One of these tastes divine. Two gives me a headache the next day. I'm smart enough to not even attempt three. If you feel like the taste is too strong, my ATT friends vouch that it's good mixed in a highball glass with some club soda or ginger ale.

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.
Start with the fillings, because they can cook while you make the dough. I buck the Polish tradition on Christmas Eve by (gasp) serving meat alongside the traditional dishes. This year we will pay homage to the Polish with fish, potato casserole, salad, vegetables, bread, and of course, sauerkraut filled pierogi. But I'm appeasing the WASPs in the house with ham and meat-filled peirogi. And hopefully some Bookbinder's soup will appeal to both factions.

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.
Put your photobomber son to work by having him drain the kraut. Put it in a saucepan and pour in 1.5 cups of gin (we have a cheaper bottle in our liquor cabinet just for this purpose), add 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds and let it boil down. About 30 minutes later, after the liquid has cooked off, add 4T of butter. Swirl it around. Yummy.

For the meat filling, you will need:
2 pounds of ground meat. We used organic ground beef and bison. You could use turkey, chicken, venison, pork, bulk sausage, whatever. I used what we had on hand.
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
4T Worcestershire
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.


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.
A couple of onions, a pound of bacon and buttah. Fry the bacon up until crispy, then place it on paper towels to drain. Remove about half of the grease, slice the onions thinly and add them to the pan with a little pepper. Cook the onions LOW AND SLOW until they are caramelized, soft and sweet. Chop the bacon and add it back into the pan, along with a couple of tablespoons of butter. Pure nectar, I tell ya. If you are cooking for more than four people, you will need more bacon and onions. This amount satisfied the four of us with just a small dish of leftover bacon and onions that may have found its way into my breakfast the next day.

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.

The dough. You will need:
3.5 cups flour
2T Sour Cream
3 Eggs, preferably not sucked on by your kid. Gross.
1/2 teaspoon salt
3T butter
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.
This is what it should look like. Let it rest for thirty minutes while you drink more wine and stir the onions and bacon. While it's resting, boil some water in a pan and place a steamer basket sprayed with non-stick cooking spray over the top of the boiling water if you plan on eating them right away. The water should NOT touch the bottom of the steamer basket. While that comes to a boil, go back to the dough.

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. 
I found this nifty little gadget while Christmas shopping and had to try it out. I placed the dough round into the contraption,
plopped about a tablespoon of filling into the center,
closed it up to create a pretty crimp,
then handed it off to somebody and took another slug of wine.
While this made beautiful pierogi, it took FOR-EV-ER! So needless to say, when I got all mad scientist the next day to make the 200 we need for Christmas Eve, I opted for the mass production route so the creation of these little suckers would go faster. I rolled half of a ball of dough out at a time and used this nifty little device my sister-in-law gave me a few years back.
It worked well. And I advanced to the rustic look, just crimping the pierogi closed with my fingers. No way was I putting 200 through the press so they can look pretty before getting devoured by twenty relatives in a few minutes. I then rolled out the other half, and repeated. Ad nauseam. Each bowl of dough resulted in approximately 50 pierogi.

We're nearly ready for Tuesday.
I froze these on the trays, then put them in labeled ziploc baggies so we know what's what when we finish them up for our celebration feast. To do that, we will boil them for 3 minutes, then drain them on some paper towels. When we eat them right away, we steam them for about 3 minutes. Why the difference? When the dough is frozen, it holds together better. We've found that when you boil them without the freezing step they sometimes burst. Steaming them eliminates that problem.

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.
And they are gone in minutes.
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.
I commented on how there's no other way to make these than with Love. I think of Grandma Rusin and smile every time I roll out that dough, and thrill in biting into the decadent goodness. Mr. Musky voiced a suggestion. "How about next year, we make them with Hate? And see how they taste then?"

Always the jokester.

Merry Christmas, Everyone.


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