This story is published in partnership with Life & Thyme.
Some meals are wasted on the young. That's what I think whenever remembering the candlelit, tablecloth-laden spreads that characterize Bobbie's dinners (the name we called my babushka). Picturing holiday feasts at her house conjures images of colorful glass bowls with rainbow shreds of beet and carrot, pickled toppings and dishes spooned out in a gelatinous heap. Sour and salty were not my preferred tastes back then, but aside from the mashed potatoes and cheesecake I'd inevitably gorge upon, there were also the pirozhki. These I will never forget.
Russian food is simple and it's not. There's a duality between the decadent banquets of its Tsarist past and the humble offerings of a harsh climate in its peasant countryside. The commonality on both tables is pie — pirogi — in all forms. Pirogi shouldn't be confused with Russian pelmeni (meat-filled boiled dumplings), the similar potato-stuffed Polish pierogi, or the Ukrainian meat, cheese or vegetable-filled vareniki. A pirog is a baked dough with either sweet or savory filling, and its smallest iterations are the palm-sized pirozhki.
Pirozhki are most commonly found as Eastern European street food today — fried, greasy and filled with meat or some variation of cabbage, potato or mushroom. Arguably the best way to enjoy them is baked at home, handmade in your babushka's kitchen, delighting in how its egg-washed dome cracks when you bite into it, buoyed by the pillowy softness of fluffy bread encasing a savory nugget of onion and ground beef. In a few chews, it's gone. The center of fat is just enough to coat the tongue and beckon you back for another. Or three.
"I have the earliest memories of my grandma nursing the [pirozhki] dough and making a variety of stuffings, the whole apartment smelling like berries, fried onions and mashed potatoes," remembers Anastasia Solovieva, who was born in Moscow, grew up in England, and moved to Los Angeles in 2011. "She'd make mountains of them and mix them up on the same tray for me to try to guess which one is which."
I once asked my dad, with all the impatience of a child, why Bobbie didn't always have pirozhki when we visited. His answer: "They take Bobbie a long time to make." I remember this, now obvious, reason as the first time registering food as love. These little things are laborious? She doesn't just make them on a whim? On the contrary; they're made because family is coming. Loved ones are here and celebration is worth the sacrifice.
It's through this lens that the role pirogi play in Russian cuisine fully comes to life. As for the most elaborate, there's the long, oval-shaped kulebyaka — a richly layered meat pie filled with salmon or sturgeon, rice, buckwheat, eggs, mushrooms and even viziga, dried sturgeon marrow. Kurnik, a dome-shaped pirog similarly layered but with chicken, is typically served at weddings, meant to reflect strength, beauty or fertility.
There's also the pirozhki-esque rasstegai, filled with meat or liver and served with a hole at the top through which to add broth. Even the sweet, yeasty vatrushki filled with farmer's cheese reflects a need for intention and patience. With all of these typically come elaborate braiding or decoration, down to the precious pirozhki that, when served seam-side up, might reveal a detailed scalloped edge.
Even something small, or seemingly simple, can carry a deeper meaning. That's the lesson I've learned nearly thirty years after tasting my first pirozhki, and now whenever I attempt the time-intensive process of making them from scratch. It's in piecing together the dog-eared pages in Bobbie's old cookbook, following the pen smudges and worn spine that I've become a believer. You can taste time and you can taste love; just make a pirog.
Pirozhki with Meat and Onion Filling
Yield: 12 pirozhki
- 1 envelope active dry yeast
- ¼ cup water
- ½ cup butter
- 1 cup lukewarm milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoon sugar
- 4 ½ to 5 cups sifted all purpose flour
- 3 eggs, slightly beaten, plus 1 egg for the wash
- ¾ pound ground beef
- 1 onion, minced
- 2 tablespoon water
- ½ tablespoon olive oil or butter
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
For the dough: Sprinkle dry yeast in very warm water (105 to 115℉) and let stand for a few minutes, until creamy. Stir to dissolve. Add butter to milk and stir until melted. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add dissolved yeast, salt and sugar to the milk mixture. Beat in 1 cup of the flour.
Beat in eggs, then slowly add the remaining flour until you have a soft dough.
Continue kneading the dough either with a dough attachment in a stand mixer, or on a lightly-floured surface. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Put dough into a greased bowl and let rise in a warm area until doubled in bulk. Punch down and roll into 12 pirozhki, approximately 4" by 5" each.
For the filling: Soften onion in the olive oil or butter over medium-high heat. Add meat and cook until brown, breaking up any large pieces and adding in the water, salt and pepper while cooking. Cool mixture to room temperature before assembly.
Assembling the pirozhki: Preheat oven to 375℉. In one palm, cup the dough and spoon in 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture. Be careful not to overfill each pirozhki. The ideal ratio is ⅓ filling to ⅔ dough.
Moisten the edges of the dough with water and fold over the meat to seal edges together, pressing and twisting in the middle. Make sure there are no holes.
Place seam-side down on a greased cookie sheet and brush each top with egg.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until tops are golden brown. Serve warm.