The rustic, hearty food of Poland — particularly Pierogi — a big part of the appeal of places like Kraków and Zakopane for us, and for me, eating the food is also something of a nostalgia trip, thanks to my Russian heritage.
At my grandparents’ legendary Sunday lunches, the star attraction were the oven-warmed casserole dishes of every persuasion, from Le Creuset to Pyrex, that covered the large dining table. They were filled to the brim with piping hot varenyky and pelmeni – potato or cheese and meat-filled dumplings respectively – swimming in butter.
The Polish version of varenyky and pelmeni is called pierogi and it tastes almost the same. The main difference is that the pierogi is often a little larger and the dough casing is a little thicker.
I used to think the types of fillings were what set apart the Russian dumplings from the Polish dumplings, but in both countries we’ve seen countless fillings, and the most popular type of pierogi in Kraków according to Chef Janusz Kluczewski is Pierogi Ruskie (Russian pierogi), filled with potato and cheese.
As a child I would often help my grandmother make Russian dumplings. Baba was an old hand at it and could make hundreds quickly and expertly. I made about three dumplings to her ten.
After my grandparents died, my family would gather in the kitchen for varenyky and pelmeni-making sessions. It was loads of fun, even if – or perhaps because – it reminded us of Baba and Papa. We always enjoyed eating the results, no matter what they tasted like, because they were never quite as good as my grandmother’s and we could never really figure out why.
It was a desire to learn how to make perfect varenyky and pelmeni – or pierogi – that took us to the kitchen of Restauracje Polskie Jadło Compendium Culinarum in Kraków.
There, Chef Janusz and his sous-chef Krystian allowed me to join their regular afternoon pierogi-making session in between restaurant services, so I could learn their secrets to dumpling success.
Chef Janusz had also learnt to make pierogi from his grandmother and mother, and it was those memorable times he spent in their kitchens that inspired him to go to culinary school. He didn’t seem at all surprised by my request because in Poland, it seems, there is something of a revival of interest in pierogi-making.
“The younger generation now see it as an art,” he said. “They admire their friends who know how to make them. They still like to eat them out because they’re cheap and time-consuming to make at home, but when people have time, making pierogi at home is now considered to be something that is a fun and clever thing to do.”
How to Make Pierogi — the Secrets to Dumpling Success
Step #1 Make your pierogi fillings
“There are as many different types of fillings as there are types of cooks,” according to Chef Janusz, who estimates there could be hundreds of fillings. In Kraków, after Pierogi Ruskie, minced meat is also popular, and during the Christmas period, cabbage and mushroom (not combined together) are traditionally eaten.
How many fillings you want to make at once is up to you, but the more fillings you have the greater amount of time you need for prep.
There are no great secrets when it comes to making fillings. Make a potato filling as you would a firm mashed potato with translucent onions that have been fried in butter. My aunt likes to add a little cheese to her potato mix. Minced meat is Terence’s favourite. My grandmother used to keep her meat simple, combining just mince, onions, salt and pepper, but you could always add a favourite herb or a smidgen of chili.
* Whatever fillings you make, ensure that the mixtures are not too moist – this is important.
* Make the fillings well ahead of time, says Chef Janusz, so the dough does not have to wait for the fillings; he had rolled his mince filling into firm miniature meatballs, which he’d kept in the fridge.
Step #2 Prepare the pierogi dough
Getting the dough right is the real key to success when it comes to making perfect pierogi, according to Chef Janusz. He spent a great deal of time experimenting with different types of wheat flour until he decided that Type 450 was the ideal flour for pierogi dough.
- 1 kg plain flour type 450
- 1 egg
- 700 mls water
- splash of oil
- pinch of salt
- Sprinkle a small amount of flour across your kitchen bench, just enough so that the dough doesn’t stick, but not too much, as you don’t want the mixture to dry out.
- Don’t over-knead: once all the ingredients are combined, the dough is ready.
- Keep the dough moist: you should be able to cut the ball of dough in half and it should have a rough texture and be very moist to touch.
- Once the dough is ready, use a big, heavy rolling pin to roll it out, and roll it out straight away so that it doesn’t dry out.
- The dough should not be difficult to roll out; if it is, then the dough is probably too hard, because it's too dry.
- If you must keep the dough for a short time, wrap it in aluminium foil to keep it moist.
Step #3 Create the pierogi casings
Once you’ve rolled out your dough, it’s time to make the casings and fill them. When I made varenyky and pelmeni with my family, we worked like an assembly line, a couple of people making the casings, a couple of people doing the fillings.
If the people filling the pierogi couldn’t keep up, the casing rounds would just sit there. Chef Janusz believes this causes them to dry out so he and Krystian create the rounds and fill them as they go, so Steps #3 and #4 will overlap.
* Sprinkle the bench with a little flour so that the dough doesn’t stick, but make sure you don’t get flour on both sides of the casings; the exterior can have a dusting of flour, but not the interior.
* When it comes to rolling out the dough, getting the right thickness comes from experience and practice – you want them not too thick so that they never really cook through properly, and not too thin so that they don’t fall apart when they’re boiled.
* Use the rim of a glass to create the dumpling rounds and use the same glass so the shapes are uniform (the diameter of the glass that the chef was using was 6.5cm).
Step #4 Fill and fold the pierogis
My grandmother and mother always used a teaspoon to scoop the filling out of the bowl of mixture and into the casing, to ensure the amounts were uniform, but Chef Janusz and Krystian use their (gloved) hands.
Once again, this is where experience comes into play. I’ll probably continue to use a teaspoon until I’m as confident as they are in their measurements.
* Put a little bit of your mixture (mashed potato, mince, cabbage, or whatever) into the dead centre of the dough casing, fold the casing in half around the mixture, and pinch the edges of the two sides together, beginning at one corner and finishing at the other to create a semi-circular shape.
* If the two sides are not joining when you pinch them together your dough is too dry; you’ve probably got some flour on the casing interior, so dip your finger tips in water (not too much) and try again to help it stick.
* Chef Janusz uses the one shape for all pierogi, whereas my grandmother used the shape above for the cheese and potato varenyky, but joined the two tips together to create a rounded shape for the pelmeni so we could tell them apart.
Step #5 Cook your dumplings
The pierogi are always boiled first, even if they’re ultimately going to be served fried. My family always ate boiled varenyky and pelmeni for the main meal on the first day, and then fried the leftovers the next day for breakfast, brunch or lunch.
In Polish restaurants you can order boiled or fried pierogi. The genius of leftover pierogi is that after a big social gathering, the next morning those fried dumplings really help you get over that hangover.
* It’s important to put the pierogi into boiling water, but ensure the water is on a gentle boil so that the pierogi don’t get ripped apart.
* Chef Janusz adds a little salt and oil to his water, we just use salt.
* If your dough is the right thickness, the pierogi should be ready 2-3 minutes after they have risen to the top.
* When you remove the pierogi, what you do next depends on when you’re serving them. If you’re serving straight away put them into a casserole dish with some quality butter, put the lid on, and gently toss them so the butter covers them evenly. If you’re keeping them until later, Chef Janusz recommends taking them from the hot water straight to cold water then draining, to stop the cooking process and prevent them from sticking to each other.
Step #6 Enjoy your pierogi!
If feeding your family or a group of friends, you can serve pierogi family-style in casserole dishes in the centre of the table. My baboushka always made a few fresh salads to accompany the dumplings (a green salad; beetroot and potato salad; and tomato and onion salads were musts) and served boards of black bread, pickles and vodka, and let people help themselves.
For a dinner party you can portion the dumplings out individually as they do in Polish restaurants. Either way, always provide a small dish of sour cream. No, the butter is not enough. Too much fat, you say? Don’t worry, that’s what the vodka is for!
Polskie Jadło Compendium Culinarum
ul św St. Jana 30
012 433 9825