116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Spring is here! I know you’re thinking I’m going to shift to seasonal recipes like salads or quiche or whatnot. Sorry (not sorry), but I’m still stuck on hearty Slavic fare. But I am starting to think about little things to nibble on, instead of rich and hearty stews.
Honestly, I’m starting to imagine having folks over at the house again. After a year of abstinence and isolation, it’s kind of weird to try to get back into the flow of having company over. My fiancee and I just got our first shots a couple days ago, and I’m starting to remember what life was like before the lock-in. It’s sort of a day of reckoning kind of feeling. Plug your nose and jump into the deep end. Feet first, this time.
So part of me wants to make something special, to just dunk back into those waters. No wading in on tippy toes this time. I want to make something fancy for my friends when we invite them back over, after a year’s timeout. But not something so fancy that it detracts from the important part, which is reconnecting with friends and family.
My mind went to piroshki. I know a lot of you are going to hear “pierogi” when you read that, but they’re cousins from different branches of the tree. Pierogi are a steamed or boiled large Polish dumpling with a sour cream-based dough. That’s not what we are talking about here. Russian piroshkis are baked and stuffed savory nibbles. Same idea, taken in two different ways by neighboring nations. Think about the difference between Kentucky fried chicken and Nashville hot chicken. Similar ideas that give way to very different results.
Piroshki in Russian means “little pie.” It’s in the same small pie family as potpies, samosas and Cornish pasties: meat baked into a crust. Russian piroshkis are extra fun because you can make a bunch of them at a time, and they freeze really well. So when company is coming over, you can pop some in the oven right quick and have some home-cooked goodness to share. They’re a bit smaller than a potpie or a hot pocket, so they heat up pretty quick, straight out of the freezer.
There are many ways to fill a piroshki. Have fun with the fillings, and put your personal touch on it. The things that make it a piroshki are the dough, and how you fold each little pie together.
For a yeasted dough, piroshkis are a lot more forgiving than the sourdough bread experiments people tried last year. This is just a “let it proof, roll it out” sort of venture. Putting them together is also pretty simple. Roll the dough flat, about 1/4 inch thick. Cut it into 2- or 3-inch squares. Put a little filling in the middle, then fold the corners up into a pyramid shape. Pinch the edges together on the sides of the pyramid.
At that point, you can bake them in an oven at 350 degrees until done. Or, you can precook them until the dough is just barely risen and set. Once parcooked, you can freeze them and have a small army of snacks for the future.
My favorite filling is a combination of ground beef, bacon, onions and brown mushrooms. Before you go all Midwest on me, let me tell you that mushrooms are the magic that makes this go from OK to extra. If you’re one of those tough guy tradesmen who only eats steaks but can’t handle mushrooms because you’re afraid of “squishy” food, man up and handle something difficult for once. The mushrooms are really the thing that kicks this recipe from “OK” to extra ordinary. They’re chopped up really small, so the tough guys won’t get offended by the squish. What they add is aftertaste. Lingering savory aftertaste that just won’t go away. So it will pair with your weapon of choice: be it a spring wine, thimbles of vodka or light beer.
Piroshkis (or Pirozhkis)
Makes 3 dozen to 4 dozen
For the dough
1/4 cup water, body temperature
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup milk, warmed
1 stick (half cup) butter, melted to body temperature
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar (or more, if sweet)
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
4 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
For the filling
Whatever strikes your fancy or the following:
2 pounds ground beef
8 ounces brown mushrooms, minced very small
1 yellow onion, minced small
4 slices bacon, minced
1/2 bunch of Italian parsley, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup sour cream (or Smetana/creme fraiche)
2 tablespoons dried dill
2 tablespoons braised garlic
Other, popular traditional fillings are: mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs, scallions and eggs, carrots, apricots, spiced apples, or walnuts and honey. Seriously, you can put anything in there. If you want to make it a sweet snack, go ahead and put some extra sugar in the dough. These are little pies. Here in Iowa, we tend to think of pies as desserts. But they also can be a meal: a hot pocket of goodness hiding inside a baked crust.
To make the dough: Warm a large mixing bowl with hot water, then drain and discard the water when the bowl is warm to the touch.
Assemble the ingredients for your dough in separate containers.
Put the warm water and dry yeast in the bowl until the yeast “blooms,” or starts to foam up.
Add the milk, melted butter, salt, sugar and eggs.
When that is all combined, add 4 cups of the flour and gently knead it into a soft dough. You want a soft dough that just barely does not stick to your hands. Add more flour if needed.
When the dough comes together, place it in a bowl and cover it with a damp cloth.
It will be ready when it has risen to the point where it doubles in size. The damp cloth on top will prevent it from drying out or developing a crust as it rises.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Keep the ingredients separate until you cook them.
Mince the mushrooms. (Cut them into tiny dice.)
Mince the onions.
Pull the ground beef out of the fridge and let it temper up to room temperature.
Mince the bacon.
Mince the Italian parsley.
Salt and pepper to taste, at the end.
Cook the mushrooms and onions in a cast iron pan over medium heat. When they start to sweat their juices out and make some sounds, add the bacon. Continue cooking until the bacon sheds some of its fat.
Then add the ground beef. Stir occasionally. Keep an ear on it. When you stir it, it will “talk” a lot and then quiet down. When it gets quiet, that is the time to stir it. Mash up the beef, mix it up into a loose meat a little bit, every time you stir it.
When the beef is starting to get some nice brown color on it, turn off the heat. Stir in the parsley, salt and pepper. Taste it. Is the flavor really deep, very savory, on the back of your tongue? If not, add a little more salt until it does.
Now that the fillings are cooked and the dough has risen, pull the dough out of the bowl and turn it out onto a nice big work table where you can roll it flat. Have some extra flour handy in case it gets sticky.
Roll the dough into a flat sheet with a rolling pin. How thin? Well, that’s a personal preference. With this sized batch, I usually get 35 piroshkis or so. If you want a thinner crust on them, you can roll it thinner. If you want a more doughy crust like a steam bun, roll it thicker. I go for a dough about 1/8-inch thick to get my 35 pieces. It will rise more in the oven, so that makes a substantial amount of bread for me.
After it’s rolled flat, cut the dough into 3-inch squares with a knife. Drape a damp towel over these after you’ve cut them so they don’t dry out.
To start making little pies, put 1 to 2 tablespoons of filling in the center of a dough square. Fold the corners up to make a pyramid shape, where the four corners meet each other at the top. Then pinch the sides together to make a nice neat pyramid shape.
It helps to have a damp towel sitting nearby, in case the dough dries out at all. It wants to be wet on the inside creases where the edges come together, otherwise it will pull apart while it is baking.
As you make your little pies, lay them on a baking sheet with a little space in between them, maybe an inch or so (because they will expand while baking). Keep another slightly damp cloth on top of them while they are resting on the pan.
Once they are all assembled and lined up on baking sheets, let them rest for 30 to 45 minutes, to allow the yeast to do its magic and plump up the dough.
At this point, you can either bake them off, or pop them in the freezer. I usually freeze most of them at this point, so I have an arsenal of snacks waiting for me in the future. The baking directions are slightly different whether you are going from fresh or frozen.
Baking from fresh: Preheat the oven to 350. Brush the tops of piroshkis with a whole egg. Bake for 20 minutes.
Baking from frozen: Brush piroshkis with egg wash first, then put them in oven while it is preheating. Bake 30 minutes total, then check them. The preheat cycle helps the frozen buddies thaw out a little as they transition into the baking cycle. Sometimes they want to get rotated (rotate pan 90 degrees), or switched to broil mode on “low” when you get to that 30-minute mark for about 10 minutes. Depends on your brand of oven.
Pay attention to your nose. The intoxicating aromas of savory mini pies permeating your house will tell you when the piroshkis are getting close or are done.
Like any home-cooked bread, let them cool a little before eating them. The hot temperatures on the surface will balance with the fillings in the core. Eat them too soon, and you might burn your palate but still have cold meat in the middle. On the bright side, there are wonderful smells to enjoy while you are waiting.
Good piroshki really doesn’t need any sauce to enhance the experience, but a little sour cream, braised garlic and dill never hurt anything, right? Just my humble suggestion for how to enjoy them. Na Zdorovie! (Cheers!)
Source: Dough recipe shared from “Taste of Russia” by Darra Goldstein