Polish Pierogis

I met Izabela Lutostanska (right) at the cheese stand at the farmer's market. She and her family taught me how to make these beautiful stuffed dumplings from Poland. Read on for full story, the recipe, how-to photos, video, and cooking class info.

Photo credit for all pierogi cooking session photos: Cindy Giovagnoli 

The Story

Pass the Pierogis

By Lindsay Sterling

            The last time I attempted to make Polish dumplings was a disaster. I was at our family’s Christmas Eve party. Thirty people were dipping pretzels into honey mustard, shrimp into cocktail sauce, and getting drinks from the bar. My mom was running the kitchen. The white fish was in baking dishes ready to be put in the oven. The ends of the beans were picked; the sauerkraut was bubbling. For the last seventy years my grandma had shown up to a party on Christmas Eve with pierogis, but that year dementia had set in and she was too frail cook. My mother handed me a recipe that my grandmother had dictated. “Can you make them?” I followed the recipe and ended up, horrified, with a soup of a raw egg and flour. I slipped out the back door, found some wonton wrappers at the store, sealed some cheese inside, and boiled them. At least they looked like pierogis. They weren’t bad. They served a function. Their presence softened the blow that Grandma was leaving us. But then two winters ago, Grandma left us for good.
            At a farmer’s market this fall, I was in line to get Spring Day Creamery’s awesome Evangeline cheese when I heard another customer talking in an accent. I introduced myself. I said I’m a writer who asks immigrants for cooking lessons and reports on what happens. Her name was Izabela Lutostanska. She’d come to the United States in the early nineties on a whim, traveling with a Polish boyfriend. The boyfriend didn’t work out, but the United States did. She fell in love in particular with the clarity of American medical textbooks and continued her medical training here. She became a doctor, married an American pharmacist, and had a family. I asked her if she’d teach me how to cook a Polish dish. “Sure I would,” she said, “What would you like to learn?”
In her kitchen a couple weeks later, Izabela, her 85-year-old mother, Jadwiga, and teenage daughter, Ania, showed me how they make pierogis. Izabela mixed warm milk, egg, and flour together with her hands until it came together in a wet, rough mass. She transferred it from the bowl to the floured counter. Jadwiga took over and kneaded the dough for fifteen minutes until it became as smooth and as soft as a baby’s bottom. Then each of them grabbed a chunk, rolled it into a snake shape, chopped it into little nuggets, and used a rolling pin to turn the nuggets into discs. Each disc received a teaspoon of filling before being folded and pinched into a pretty half-moon shape with a decorated edge. Izabela boiled some for us to eat for lunch and froze the rest for another day. Their pierogis were beautiful: slippery, wobbly, with that slightly awkward charm of handmade things. The potato-onion filling was my favorite. The sweet cheese version tasted like the ones my grandma made for Christmas.
At home, I tested the recipe I’d written at Izabela’s house. Staring at my fingers clodded with wet dough, it seemed far-fetched that I would be able to transform the messy blob into a hundred pretty half moons. My heart soared when I did it.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2016

How-To Photos

Thank you to Cindy Giovagnoli for these great photos.

Photo credit for all: Cindy Giovagnoli

The Recipe - Polish Potato Pierogis

Polish Cheese-Potato Dumplings
Pierogi Ruski

As mother and daughter, Jadwiga and Izabela Lutostanska, from Szczecin, Poland, taught Lindsay Sterling in Brunswick, Maine, November 2015.

Note: if you will be making your own Polish farmer's cheese (it's easy), you'll need to start the process the night before. You can otherwise find Polish farmer's cheese in a Polish market, or substitute ricotta or fresh goat cheese from a typical supermarket.

Makes 70 dumplings, enough to serve for 6 for dinner or more as an appetizer or snack.
Cooking Time: 3-4 hours

3/4 cup Polish farmer's cheese, store bought or home-made
3 medium yellow potatoes
1 1/3 cup milk
1 egg, whipped
3 1/2 cups flour + 2-4 Tbsp for dusting
1 onion, finely minced
4 Tbsp butter
1/2 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper or to taste

Peel potatoes. Boil until soft. Strain and let cool. Mash potatoes with a potato masher (Jadwiga used a meat grinder). Spread out to cool while you are making the dough.

Saute minced onions in butter slowly on medium-low heat for 15 minutes. Combine farmer's cheese  with potato,  half the sauted onions in butter, and generous salt and pepper to taste.

Warm the milk. In a large mixing bowl, mix the milk and whipped egg into the flour with your hands until you have a mass of globby, rough, sticky dough that sort of sags when you hold it up as opposed to stays in its shape. It's a wet dough. Spread flour across your cutting board or counter and put the blob of dough on it. Knead the dough for 15 minutes. Use a knife or pastry cutter to scrape any dough that sticks to the counter. You may dust some more flour to help contain the stickiness but keep in mind that you want the dough to end up tacky so that it will stick to itself when you are making the pierogis. Stop kneading when the dough is smooth, stretchy, and slightly tacky. It feels like a baby's bottom when it's done. Form the dough into a ball and cover it with a towel so that the dough doesn't dry out while it is resting and you finish making the filling.

See this video on how to form the pierogis. Put a 1-2 Tbsp of flour off to the side of your workspace on the counter. Break off a piece of dough about the size of a small apple, or about a quarter of all the dough. Roll the piece into a cylinder about as thick as a nickel. Cut across the roll, making 3/4"-thick pieces of dough. Dip the fingers of one hand in the flour and use them to turn each segment on its side and pat down on top of it once with two fingers to begin to flatten the piece into disc.

Use a rolling pin to roll out each piece into your dumpling wrapper. What you want is a thin disk about 2 inches in diameter and about 1/8th inch thick. Put the disk in one hand, and add a tsp of filling to the middle of the disk. Fold both halves of the dough over the filling, match the edges on top of one another, and press them together, sealing the filling inside. If the filling gets on the edge of the dough where you are trying to seal it together, then the seal won't work. If you need to push the filling back from the edges, it's helpful to dip your finger in a little pile of flour before using them to nudge the filling out of the way because then the filling doesn't stick to your fingers. Then press the dumpling wrapper closed.  Once the seal is secure, then pinch the dough six or seven times along the edge to make a pretty decoration.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. One by one, add enough pierogis to make a single layer in the water. Once they float, they're done. Another Polish source says she puts a tablespoon of oil in the water and then the pierogis don't stick to each other.

Remove cooked pierogis with a slotted spoon or spatula and serve with sauteed onions.

Freeze any uncooked pierogis in a single layer on a flour-dusted sheet pan. Once frozen, transfer into a Ziplock. Cook within 3 months.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2016

The Recipe - Homemade Polish Farmer's Cheese

Polish Farmer's Cheese

As Jadwiga Lutostanska, from Szczecin, Poland, taught Lindsay Sterling in Brunswick, Maine, November 2015.

Note: For filling pierogis, eating on toast with jam, filling crepes, and more.

Cooking time: 15 minutes (+ over night)
Amount: Makes about 3/4 cup

6 cups milk (I used 1 1/2%, I will try whole milk next time)
6 Tbsp yogurt (I used Faye 2%)

In the evening, heat milk until just before boiling. Stir in yogurt. Turn off heat, cover, and let sit over night. Heat yogurt/milk mixture again in the morning to just before boiling and keep it at that temp (without boiling) until the cheese curdles, or separates into solids and liquid. Once curdling starts, you can turn off heat and let it sit to finish. You'll see greenish water on top and the white curds will sink. Line a bowl with cheese cloth and pour curds and whey onto the cheese cloth. Gather the cloth around curds and twist the cloth so that the fabric tightens around the curds and squeezes all the moisture out of the cheese.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2015

Cooking Class - Polish Pierogis

February 13, 2016
Polish Pierogis
28 Cove Rd.
Freeport, ME 04032

Join me February 13 as we make a whole bunch of pierogis, chat, and have fun. We'll eat some for lunch. I'll see if one of my Polish friends can come. Bring a sheet pan, cookie sheet, or food-safe tray if you want to bring some home to freeze them. Class size limit: 5.

Please register and pay here.


Kenyan Lamb, Potatoes, and Cabbage

A friend connected me with a young Kenyan woman who moved to the United States this fall. Mariah Stone showed me how to make her favorite dish from Nairobi: lamb; potatoes mashed with peas, corn, and greens; and cabbage sauteed with onions and tomatoes. See below for the recipe, story, and how-to photos.

Photo credit: Janice Lutton