Comfort Food and Celebratory Dish
By Linda Peterat
Around my dinner table I recently asked my guests what food traditions they had for their meal on Christmas Eve and I learned that for some pyrohy is the traditional Christmas Eve food. Many of us who now live in British Columbia grew up on the prairies where pyrohy or perogi were commonly prepared in our families. Today these dough wrapped dumplings are widely known as perogi and we can usually find several frozen varieties to choose from in the local stores. But in earlier days, my mother who had Polish/Ukrainian roots pronounced the word “pedaheh” and she served them up often.
Realizing the significance that pyrohy had as a traditional food for some people at Christmas led me to reflect on the food we ate in earlier days in my Manitoba prairie family. And then I called my friend who had grown up in a Ukrainian family in Alberta to compare notes. When we move from the prairies to British Columbia, we bring with us our food traditions just like our ancestors did when they came from the Ukraine and Poland, and pyrohy has become over the years a staple food for many families in British Columbia.
When I talked with my friend, she told me that when she was growing up in her family in Alberta pyrohy were prepared and eaten “all the time.” Her favourite filling is cottage cheese because that is the filling that was often used in her family. Her family made their own cottage cheese and mixed with some dill and egg, it made a delicious and nutritious filling. Potato was another common filling when mashed and mixed with finely chopped onion. Once filled and formed, the pyrohy dumplings are boiled for several minutes and served with a sauce of onion sauteed in butter and heavy cream. In my family potato was the usual filling and the pyrohy were served with gently fried onion and sour cream. In both our families, pyrohy were popular because they required ingredients that farm families had readily available.
Beyond being served all the time in some families, pyrohy is usually one of the 12 dishes served on Christmas Eve. Each of the 12 dishes at this meal should be a “fasting or Lenten dish” prepared without butter, milk, eggs, sour cream and meat. In this instance, pyrohy might be filled with sauerkraut rather than cottage cheese. And pyrohy might be served toward the end of the 12-dish meal as a sweet, filled with cooked prunes and drizzled with honey. The 12 dishes of the Christmas Eve dinner symbolize in the Christian tradition, the 12 apostles of Christ. (see: https://ukraine.ua/visit/christmas-dinner/). The exact dishes vary but it’s likely that pyrohy will be at least one dish of the 12 served on Christmas eve.
That pyrohy are so widely available in British Columbia supermarkets is likely due to the challenge many find with making an acceptable dough that is tender, soft and sticks together on the dumpling edges. I remember my mother always claiming that the pyrohy she made were never as good as those of my aunt or those that many other Ukrainian women could muster. She always judged the pyrohy that others made as more tender and delicious. Certainly making a dough that is easily worked and satisfactory is a challenge. Remembering my moms constant search for a recipe for the best dough, sent me looking through her old cookbooks for the recipes she used. Sure enough, there was more than one.
From her earliest handwritten cookbook:
1 ¾ cups flour
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. salt
½ cup mashed potatoes
2 egg yolks
2 T. shortening
½ cup lukewarm water
Note: this recipe appeared only as a list of ingredients, no method was included assuming that the cook would know the procedure.
In a later cookbook, my mother included a recipe from a neighbour:
1/8 cup oil
½ tsp. salt
½ cup sour cream
1 cup milk
1 cup warm water
Flour to make a soft dough (about 6 cups)
Rest dough for one half hour.
Fill with potatoes, fried onion, cheddar cheese, garlic, salt, well mixed and mashed together.
Boil three minutes.
An online search resulted in a wide range of recipes. One of the simplest is from The New York Times: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1020983-pierogi-ruskie-potato-and-cheese-pierogi
Another reliable source that offers a simple recipe is The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village in Alberta: https://www.ukrainianvillage.ca/learn/recipes
The accompanying video is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNhXf83Mgqo
Other useful videos are:
Martha Stewart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HELEcmHyzG8
Simply Home Cooked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9FYO9t25ik
A variety of tips are offered for handling the dough:
- Knead on a flat surface for about 4 to 5 minutes or until it becomes smooth and pliable.
- Don’t overwork the dough, you want to knead it gently until it’s smooth and pliable. If you overwork the dough, it will become tough and too elastic; this will cause it to spring back when rolled out.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
In researching Ukrainian foods, I often turn to a book by Savella Stechishin, Traditional Ukrainian Cookery, Trident Press, Winnipeg, 1963.
Stechishin recommends a simple dough:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg or 2 egg yolks
½ cup water, about
She adds: “To assure tenderness add ½ cup of cold mashed potatoes and 1 tablespoon of melted fat to the recipe.”
Mix the flour with the salt in a deep bowl.
Add the egg and enough water to make a medium soft dough
Knead on a floured board until smooth.
Divide the dough in two, cover and let it stand for at least 10 minutes.
Cut in 2 ½ inch squares or 3 inch rounds.
Place a spoonful of filling in centre of dough and fold dough over to pinch edges tightly together.
Boil in salted water a few at a time.
My friend said, “to make good pyrohy, you have to make them often!” If you make them often, you develop a “feel” for the dough – the right degree of moisture, the right tenderness. Experiment, invite a friend or two to join you, make them often and enjoy. Enjoy the delicious comfort food they provide all year round and by next Christmas Eve they may become your new family tradition!