For me it’s a core memory: on those wintery November mornings, waiting at the window for the first sight of my aunt’s car. She would be making the drive into the city with my cousins from their farm so that she could make pyrohy with my mom. Us kids would be bundled up and shooed outside and they would get to work. Mum would already have a giant Tupperware vat of potato filling on the kitchen table – filling which would then make its way into the little dough pockets which they crimped by the dozens. Too many to count, my mum and aunt would have to make enough to last two families until they could meet again. If we were lucky, they would fill some of the pyrohy with blueberries so that we could enjoy these dessert pyrohy when all of us kids came in from playing outside in the snow. The making of the pyrohy felt like such a special event but the eating and enjoying of them was meant for the everyday. The ultimate comfort food that was just as good when it was served as a weeknight supper as it was when my grandmother would set an enormous platter full of them on the table during holiday meals.
To say that I was excited to receive a copy of Zuza Zak’s Pierogi in the mail is an understatement. In her introduction, Zak beckons us into her “pierogi wonderland” to show home cooks the pierogi (the stuffed dumpling identified with Poland) is at once, both traditional and modern. Pierogi works to preserve traditional pierogi-making methods while offering updated versions. While the Ukrainian versions are known as pyrohy or varenyky, the Polish pierogi is what Zak focuses on as it is an integral part of her culinary heritage. Zak has organized the recipes into two main sections: Traditional (North / South / East / West / Central / Festive) and Modern (Themes and Variations / Creative / Vegan / Gluten-free). Zak also offers a brief history at the beginning of the book, as well as a section on ingredients and making/shaping/sealing techniques.
I appreciate that Zak offers a couple different methods to shape and fill pierogies, and since these varied slightly from how I learned to make varenyky, I was keen to learn other ways. Her first method (and now my preferred way) is to roll the dough out then place heaping teaspoons spaced out along the dough. She then folds the dough over and creases where the filling ends and to press out the air bubbles (this step is crucial as trapped air will cause the pierogi to burst while it cooks in boiling water). Using a cutter or the rim of a waterglass, she cuts out half-moon shapes. Once the shapes are cut out, she crimps the edges to seal them. Zak also provides different pinching and sealing techniques for every level of pierogi maker. Beginners can start with using the tines of a fork to seal the edge and, since I have prior experience, I used the fold over technique. There are photos of each of the steps throughout the beginning sections of the book which are helpful to home cooks.
Maybe I’m lazy, but I really don’t care for flipping back and forth to find recipes in cookbooks. Here, Zak has done us a favour by giving the dough recipe to be used with each recipe on the same page as the recipe, which I really appreciated. For the recipes I tried, I used a couple of her dough recipes – one that is more traditional that involves rubbing oil into the flour first, and another recipe which used butter and egg yolks. Both recipes worked perfectly and, like her shaping technique, have become my preferred dough recipes (over and above my family recipes I have been using). The best part of making pierogi is that you can freeze them for later use.
The first recipe I tried was for the Sauerkraut and Mushroom Christmas Eve Pierogi. This recipe used the more traditional way of making dough: to rub the oil into the flour before adding any water. The filling consisted of mushrooms, onion, and sauerkraut with flavour boosts coming from bay leaf, allspice berries, and white wine. While making the filling I committed the cardinal sin of home cooking – I didn’t read through the recipe beforehand. The ingredient list asks for twenty medium-sized mushrooms (I assumed they were fresh) but when I went to prepare the filling the first step is to cover them with boiling water to allow them to “open up.” This is where I realized I should be using dried mushrooms. Since I didn’t have dried mushrooms, I went ahead and used the fresh ones, skipping the hot water soak. I really loved this combination for the filling – sweet and tangy with a bit of umami. Once boiled I tossed them in butter and fried onions.
One of my favourites from the book is the recipe for Sweet Festive Pieroźki with Stuffed Prunes. Here, I made the dough using butter and egg yolks – the resulting dough is gorgeously soft and tender. Each pierogi was to be filled with nut and honey-stuffed prunes but, since the prunes I was using were tiny (too small to properly fill), I decided to blend the prunes, nuts, cinnamon, and honey together using my food processor. Then I filled each pierogi with this prune/nut mixture. Once boiled, the pierogi are fried in butter so that they can get a crispy texture. Really delightful! I served them with more toasted nuts, a drizzle of honey, and a dollop of crème fraiche. While I suspect that these pierogies are meant for special occasions, we loved them so much that I ended up making a second batch so that we could enjoy them as an after-school snack.
My daughter’s favourite pierogi recipe from the book is for the Fried Avocado and Egg Breakfast Pierogi. These pierogi can’t be frozen but can be made and boiled the day before, leaving the frying in butter until just before serving. The filling is made by combining chopped hard-boiled eggs with diced avocado. These fried breakfast pierogi are served with a tomato salad. Katie loved them so much that she had them for breakfast and snack!
Zuza Zak has written an incredibly special book here, and she has taken the pierogi passed being thought of as “just dumplings.” Pierogi is full of accessible and delicious recipes which highlight both traditional and modern doughs and fillings. I’ve already started to make them with my daughter – we’re both excited to give more of the recipes a try.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Hardie Grant USA, Quadrille Publishing and Raincoast Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.