Sweet cheese pierogi (without the pierogi)

This weekend is Easter, which means that tomorrow is Good Friday, which means that if you are a member of my family, you will be eating pierogi!  It’s a tradition that I believe was started by my Grandma in an effort to come up with a meatless pre-holiday Lenten meal.  It’s since morphed into kind of a large celebration that’s honestly a little at odds with the somber religious holiday it shares a date with, but a fun and delicious day nonetheless.

Pierogi Day is typically a pretty big endeavor – many balls of dough are made the night before, and fillings are prepared that morning.  In some years, close to 20 people have gathered to roll, assemble, and boil the pierogi.  Someone’s usually on onion duty (and I am one of a few people who won’t be shy about complaining if the onions are undercooked!  Please, brown them a little!).  On one very dark day in the early 2000s, someone introduced a fat free margarine spray instead of butter, which I hope they still feel terrible about (because it was indeed a terrible pierogi injustice!).  From my childhood, I remember three standard fillings: potato-cheese, potato-mint, and sweet cheese.  There were a few experimental years where the kids were allowed to make some with things like marshmallows, jelly, and chocolate chips (I DON’T RECOMMEND ANY OF THESE), and in recent years we’ve had experiments in cabbage and sweet potato… which are fine, but I will stick to the basics, thank you very much.  And in fact, I’m typically going to fill my plate with 75% sweet cheese, the potato just being an extra side dish.  Sweet cheese is where it’s at!

All this being said… I’m not going to share a pierogi recipe today, because it’s probably short notice for you to get together that many people and all your biggest pots and the patience and upper body fortitude to roll all that dough… but I will share with you the absolute most perfect solution if what you just want is that amazing, salty-sweet taste of Grandma’s cheese pierogi.  This option will still require a little counter space and hand-eye coordination, but could easily make it on to your table for dinner, and will let you feel like you’re experiencing a little big of Pierogi Magic this week, even if we didn’t invite you to our holiday.

dumplings2

Cheese Dumplings

(adapted from this recipe, which has some helpful step-by-step pictures)

  • 1-1/2 cups large curd cottage cheese1
  • 1-2 Tablespoons sugar2
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 tablespoons salted butter3 (melted and slightly cooled)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • melted butter, sour cream, applesauce and/or jam for serving
  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, cottage cheese, sugar, and butter.  Mix with a fork or wire whisk.
  3. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, fold in the flour, just a little bit at a time.  The dough will be sticky but should be stiff enough to work with.  Depending on the moisture level of your cottage cheese, you may need to add more or less flour than what is written here.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and divide into two or three pieces.  Roll each piece out into a snake that is 1-2 inches wide (you know, how you used to do with Play-dough or clay)
  5. Using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, slice each snake into 1-inch pieces.
  6. Drop the dumplings, 8-10 at a time, into the boiling water (less if your pan is smaller… you don’t want them to stick together).  They will cook in only a few minutes, and are done when they float to the top.
  7. Remove dumplings (a spider strainer is perfect for this) and place on a plate or in a serving dish, topped with melted butter.
  8. Serve with your favorite topping!  I was really seeking a pierogi-like experience, so I served mine on a bed of sauteed cabbage with sour cream… and then decided to take a walk on the wild side and add a dab of lingonberry jam.  There are endless traditional and not-so-traditional ways to enjoy this dish!

NOTES:

  1. Please make sure to seek out large-curd cottage cheese.  This will be a soft, watery mess if you use the regular kind.
  2. I reduced the sugar significantly from the original recipe, just because the flavor I am used to is very lightly sweetened.  I imagine the large quantity of sugar called for in the recipe I link to above is also delicious, it just wasn’t what I wanted.
  3. Note that this is one of few recipes in the world calling for salted butter.  If you don’t typically keep it on hand, just use the same quantity of unsalted butter and add a little salt (1/4-1/2 teaspoon) to taste – and remember you can always sprinkle more on top later.

 

Kolachy (also: Kolache, Kolachki, Kolacky, Kolace, Kolachi, Kolachke)

I have always loved almonds, but I never truly appreciated them until I visited an almond tree farm in Spain and learned how they are actually grown and harvested.  Almonds grow in little pods of one nut each, and at harvest time the trees are shaken to release these pods, then each one is cracked open, collected, and processed.  Almond trees take about 5 years to produce a harvest, and once the trees are mature it’s about 7 months from flower to almond.  This all makes $6.99/pound seem like a real steal when you consider the time and work involved!

Why all this talk about almonds?  Because I recently discovered that Kolachy are like the almond of the holiday cookie world.  My aunt makes them every year, and I’d usually eat one here or there, but it wasn’t until I spent a day making them this fall that I came to truly appreciate the detail, care and deliciousness that go into each one of these little treats!

[A note here on spelling… like so many other Eastern European foods, Kolachy have about 50 different spellings and 8,000 different countries of origin.  I wish I could tell you that these are the definitive Slovenian version, but just like my decidedly non-Polish family’s habit of listening to Bobby Vinton singing “Santa Must Be Polish” every year on Christmas Eve, I think it’s fair to assume that these are a mishmash of several different ethnic traditions.]

Kolachy has as many recipes as it does spellings, but they are all pretty similar – a soft, cream cheese dough with your choice of filling.  I’m sharing my family’s recipe below.  For filling, we used some purchased at a local baking supply store (also available online).  Occasionally, you can also sometimes find it in the grocery store (just make sure it is for pastry, as “pie” filling tends to be too watery).  You can also use a very stiff jam (again, just nothing too watery).  And, of course, there are recipes online if you’d like to try making your own.

Kolachy

  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup any flavor fruit jam or pastry filling
  • 1/3 cup confectioners sugar for dusting
  1. Mix cream cheese and butter until smooth.  Add flour slowly until well blended.  Shape into a ball and chill for several hours or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Roll out dough on a floured surface into 1/8 inch thickness (check out our favorite rolling tip here!)
  3. Cut into 2-1/2 inch squares.
  4. Move squares to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper*.  Place approximately 1/2 tsp filling onto each square.
  5. Overlap opposite corners and press dough together — you should press hard so all three layers of dough make contact.
  6. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until very lightly browned at the edges.  Cool on a wire rack, and sprinkle lightly with confectioners’ sugar.

(*this is a really helpful step that most recipes neglect to mention.  It is so much easier to move the dough to the tray before you fill and seal the kolachy!!!)

How to Make Dough in a Drafty Kitchen

I wrote this piece a while ago for another purpose, but I think it’s very applicable to this time of year when so many of us are dreaming up holiday baking projects!  Whether you are planning ambitious holiday gifts of homemade potica, or just craving homemade pizza, the essay below includes some tips I’ve developed for better baking in cold weather.  I hope you find it helpful, and enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving!

(If you’d like to receive an email each time something new is posted on the site, please enter your address in the box on the right sidebar to subscribe to our mailing list!)


I used to think that bread, or any yeast-related baked good, was just really difficult to make.  Often I tried recipes that just didn’t work.  Many times I tried to throw away super dense, awful loaves of bread that my husband wanted to eat anyway (usually, I won, because they were gross).  I’m no professional chef, but as a pretty competent home baker it was frustrating to have this one thing so out of reach.

So I started doing a lot more reading about bread.  And then a few years ago I became obsessed (as everyone should) with The Great British Baking Show on PBS.  The show is a weekend competition for crazy talented home bakers, and the things that they make are absolutely magical.  And the more episodes of the show I watched, the more I realized what my baking was missing (besides an enviable British accent and metric tons of talent):

A PROVING DRAWER

In America, it’s known as a “proofing drawer” (or a “warming drawer”) and is found in professional kitchens.  It provides a warm, contained, draft-free area for dough to rise.

proofing drawer

One of the biggest barriers to baking bread successfully in my kitchen is  that it happens to be the coldest, draftiest room in the house… totally the opposite of what bread needs.  I have devised a few ways around this (until I get a new kitchen with a built-in proofing drawer, of course).

  1. If you happen to have a load of wet laundry, place your dough, covered with a damp towel, on top of the dryer while it’s on.  The humidity and slight warmth provide a great environment for rising.
  2. If you have a microwave, you have a draft-free location! (the same is true about your oven!)  If the room is cold, place glasses of warm water (I use the hottest tap water I can get) in the corners of the microwave, then put your dough, covered with plastic wrap or a towel, in the middle, and close the door.  This almost always works perfectly. dough_micro3
  3. Use a heating pad.  I got this tip from King Arthur Flour when I recently followed their directions for making a sourdough starter. The starter, wrapped in a towel, cozied up against a heating pad on the lowest setting and tucked into an unplugged crockpot received just the right amount of warmth (note: I did experiment initially with my crockpot on the “keep warm” setting and I essentially murdered my first starter). dough_starter crockpot
  4. Bake only in an un-air-conditioned house at the height of summer (this method is horribly uncomfortable, but wow, a bowl of pizza dough placed on my enclosed sun porch practically climbed up the sides and out a window when I made it this past July).

The other thing I learned was to know a little bit about yeast.  When I was especially motivated to make bread a few years ago, I bought a giant bag of yeast and thought I could just stick it in the cupboard and use it until it was gone.  Nope.  It doesn’t stay active forever, and purchasing yeast in small quantities is best for all but commercial bakers.  Yeast is best stored in the freezer.  There is some great information about yeast at this website.

Truly, since I’ve learned to take better care of the yeast and have hacked my kitchen’s drafty climate, I am having much more success with baking bread and other doughs.  Baking bread requires precision and patience, but is very possible for those of us lacking magic powers and professional appliances.  Here are some of my successes from the past few weeks:

baking collage

While it is very justifiable to blame baking problems on your kitchen, it doesn’t mean you are destined to failure!