Our friends, Olga and Sam, came for dinner one night recently. Shortly after, we received an email from Olga — who hails from Russia — inviting us to a “Russian Feast”for a holiday called “Пасха” on an upcoming Saturday.
I’m a big fan of theme dinners. Sadly, we had a previous engagement (a wedding — get it, engagement!??), and asked if she could reschedule. We were free that Sunday.
“Perfect!” she said, “That’s the actual day of Пасха!”
What luck! Celebrating Пасха on the actual Пасха!
My understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet being a little lacking (to put it mildly), I had to look Пасха up on the web. Pronounced “Pasha” in English, Пасха, it turns out, is the Russian Orthodox Easter! I asked Olga what I could contribute besides vodka — my “famous” piroshki, I suggested. That sounded wonderful to her. So now I had to figure out how to make piroshki.
The first thing to do was find a recipe for piroshki. As great as the Internet is for finding obscure recipes, you sometimes just can’t beat the Time/Life “Foods of the World” series.
I’ve written about these classic books before. They were a pillar of my childhood culinary education — I could often find my mother in the kitchen pouring over “Classic French Cooking” or “The Food of Spain & Portugal.” Although the books were published beginning in 1968 through the 1970s, the writing and recipes are surprisingly sophisticated and stand up to the best contemporary cookbooks.
Between books scattered across the divorce wasteland of my two parents, I’ve inherited a nearly complete set. In the spiral recipe companion booklet to “Russian Cooking,” I found exactly what I was after — a piroshki recipe whose dough called for butter AND lard (!!!) and involved wonderfully complex rounds of rolling, folding, rolling and folding again and again.
Stuffed with the traditional ground beef, hard cooked egg and dill, the flaky egg-glazed pastries emerged from the oven just in the nick of our appointed arrival time. And within minutes we were down the street, settled onto outdoor lounges, sipping pastis.
Olga, as it turned out, had gone all out for Пасха. Her three sons — Max, Leo and Asa — had joined in the excitement. “We need to make menus!” they’d suggested. And there on the table they were: menus — seven courses!
Somewhere in the midst of all it, I assumed, my piroshki would appear.
Dinner began with blinis with either caviar or Olga’s homemade orange marmalade. I opted for the caviar, of course. The Crawford boys’ enthusiasm extended beyond the menu to the service, as youngest son Asa tucked an arm behind his back and speedily and graciously brought plates to the table, aided by my eldest, Flynn, and cleared up as soon as the last bite was gone.
Next up was an exquisite gelled cube of chilled pork with horseradish, which was my favorite course of the evening.
Something went amiss between courses three and seven, the borscht promised in course three looked suspiciously like mushroom julienne, and the dessert arrived at the table before the main course. None of which mattered, of course. We were happy and full and pleasantly distracted by children running about and the stars and the sparkling lights from across the canyon.
The piroshki made it to the table as a side to the borscht, an unintended but ideal complement.
Everything was beautiful and delicious and seemingly authentic, although I’ve not been to Russia to confirm.
Sitting back in my chair, sated and happy with the last of my wine (we didn’t drink any vodka, it turned out), I saw Sam and Olga’s sheepdog eating piroshki pilfered from the plates of children. I hoped he was enjoying them, and recognizing the time that went into rolling and folding and rolling and folding to get that flaky crust.
With a tip of the balaclava to Time/Life for inspiration, here is my customized recipe for piroshki. Not sure what the next Russian holiday is… But mark your calendar and enjoy!
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makes 25 or so piroshki
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. chilled butter, cut into small chunks
4 tbsp. lard
6-8 tbsp. ice water
2 tbsp. butter
1 brown onion, chopped
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
2/3 lb. ground beef
1 tbsp. chopped fresh dill
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 egg, mixed with 2 tbsp. water
Mix together flour and salt, and then butter and lard. Mix with your fingers until flour resembles coarse meal. Drizzle in 4 tbsp. of ice water and gently massage and gather dough into a ball. If it doesn’t stick together, add more water 1 tbsp. at a time.
When dough is neatly in a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Melt butter in a pan over high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, until onions begin to turn golden. Add ground beef and cook until browned. Remove from heat. Place in a food processor with dill and salt and pepper, and mince to a fine grind. Add in egg and pulse once or twice to mix.
Remove dough from fridge, shape into a rectangle, and roll out into a length 10″ to 12″ x 6″. Fold lengthwise into thirds, about four inches by six inches. Turn and roll out again, and fold into thirds again. Repeat twice more, wrap final packet in plastic, and refrigerate again for another hour.
Preheat oven to 400. To make piroshki: dust dough in plastic and roll out until 1/8-inch thick. Using a round cookie cutter or glass, press out circles 3″ to 3 1/2″ wide. You should get 15-20 circles. (Scoop up scraps and form a ball to roll out again after and get more circles.) Put about 1 heaping teaspoon filling in the center of each circle. Brush half the circle with your egg wash, and close to seal. Continue until all piroshki are filled. (And when those are done, roll out scrap ball, and you should get another 6-8.) Place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Brush each piroshki with your egg wash. Cook 20-25 minutes, until golden.
Serve with borscht and chilled vodka, if you’d like.