A former colleague once made a very interesting observation. She was born to parents of Puerto Rican and Eastern European descent and later married to an Anglo-Saxon, and as a result was exposed to a variety of different cuisines from an early age, which she continued to explore further into adulthood. She said that almost every cuisine around the world that she's tried has a dish where something is stuffed inside some form of dough. Be it a mince pie, an empanada, gyoza, or sambosa, it all involves some sort of savory (usually meat) filling, wrapped in dough, and baked, steamed or fried. I thought her observation was spot-on, and something I hadn't thought of. She then asked me about the Russian or Ukrainian version and whether it wasn't pierogi, which on my part provoked a response longer and more impassioned than was probably called for in making intra-office chitchat. So, reader, brace yourself. At the end I'll reward you with a delicious recipe for pirozhki (just as babushka used to make) with a vegetarian filling of mushrooms and rice.
There have been several instances, like the one above, where I've heard a Russian or even any kind of Eastern European dumpling or stuffed pastry referred to as "pierogi." As in, "isn't it all just pierogi"?
It's a lot more complicated. So before we get to the recipe, let's talk about some of the different Eastern European dumplings, savory stuffed pastries and pies (although this will not be by any means exhaustive).
First, the dumplings.
Pierogi. Pierogi (pe-ROH-gee) are Polish. Therefore, what is commonly referred to as pierogi here in the U.S., are actually Polish fried dumplings that are made from unleavened dough (flour, water, eggs), stuffed with a filling (such as meat, potatoes or cabbage), usually boiled and then pan-fried. Similar types of dumplings exist in Ukraine and Russia but they have a slightly different method of preparation and different names.
Vareniki. Vareniki (vah-REH-nee-kee) are Ukrainian. In Ukraine, dumplings made with unleavened dough and stuffed with a filling such as meat, potatoes or sour cherries, folded into a half-moon shape, and then boiled in water, are called vareniki.
Pelmeni. Pelmeni (pel-MYE-nee) are Russian. They are similar to vareniki, made with unleavened dough and stuffed with meat (but sometimes also with other fillings) and folded into a saucer shape. I've made them before here.
Now onto baked goods.
Piroghi. A Russian word pirog, plural piroghi (pronounced pee-roh-GEE; not pe-ROH-gee) means pie. Pirog or pie can be made from puff pastry dough or pie dough and be either sweet or savory (for the holidays it is fairly common to make a sort of mince pie by filling it with ground meat and rice).
Pirozhki (pee-roh-zhh-KIE; singular: pirozhok) is a Russian diminutive word for pies. These are palm-sized and oval shaped and made with puff pastry or yeast-based dough, stuffed with meat or vegetables, and usually baked or fried. Sometimes in English, pirozhki are incorrectly referred to as pierogi. But even if there is little discernible semantic difference to a native English speaker between the two words, it might make a difference if depending on which word you use at a Russian restaurant, you get served these delicious, meaty, savory stuffed pastries or two or three full-sized cream pies.
In this recipe, I use a vegetarian filling consisting of mushrooms and rice. As always, feel free to adjust or use other fillings. The recipe for the dough includes yeast, however this is a nonrising recipe. I also included the egg wash in the recipe which can be used to give the pirozhki (or other pastries) a deeper golden color when baked; it is optional.
Are there similar dishes with dumplings and/or savory stuffed pastries in your country of origin (or that of your parents/grandparents)? If so, what are they?
Pirozhki or Russian Savory Stuffed Pastries
(Makes about 35-50 pirozhki)
Start with the dough:
(Recipe for dough adapted from: Please to the Table, by Anya von Brenzen and John Welchman;
according to same, this recipe is "well known to every working Russian woman.")
3 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tsp salt
1/4 oz packet of active dry yeast (2 1/2 tsp)
1 1/2 tsp sugar
2/3 cup milk, slightly warmed
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
In a large bowl, combine flour, salt and active dry yeast. In a measuring cup, whisk together sugar and egg until the sugar is dissolved, top off with milk to measure one cup and whisk to combine. Add butter to the flour mixture and mix until crumbly with a wooden spoon or your hand. Gradually add the milk mixture. Mix well until dough starts to form. Knead the dough a few times. If it is too sticky, add a bit more flour, if it is too dry, add a few drops of milk. Form the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap or a towel and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes. While the dough rests, make the filling. (Note: this is a non-rising recipe).
Then prepare the filling:
1 1/2 cup cooked white rice (1/2 cup uncooked)
1 tsp canola oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/2 lb baby bella or crimini mushrooms, finely chopped
1/8 cup dry white wine (optional)
1 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
2 tbsp sour cream
Salt & pepper to taste
1. To cook the rice: bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add 1/2 cup rice. Stir, cover, and simmer on low heat until all of the water is evaporated, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork and let cool.
2. In the mean time, heat canola oil in a pan on medium heat. Add the shallot and sauté, stirring frequently until translucent, 1-2 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the mushrooms. Cook, until mushrooms are done, about 5-8 minutes. Pour off any excess liquid. If using, stir in the wine and sauté quickly until the wine is almost evaporated, 1-2 minutes. Stir in parsley and remove from heat. Let cool slightly. In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice, the mushroom mixture, sour cream and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Egg wash is optional:
2 egg yolks
1/8 tsp salt
2 tsp milk
Whisk all of the ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Make the Pastries:
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line two cookie sheets with foil and grease with canola oil.
2. Divide the dough in half. On a dusted surface, roll out half of the dough to 1/8 inch thickness with a dusted rolling pin. With a round cookie cutter of about 3 inch diameter, make as many round shapes as you can, rerolling the scraps to make more round shapes. Repeat with the remaining dough.
3. To form the pastries, take a round shape, stretch slightly and place two to three teaspoons of the filling in the middle. Fold the piece in half and press the edges together to seal them. Pat the seam down slightly and place on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pastries, placing them on the baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart. If using, brush each pastry with the egg wash. Bake, until golden (or in Russian, "until blushing"), about 25-30 minutes. Serve warm, with sour cream.