"We're supposed to rinse them in cold water," says Aunt Teresa, slotted spoon in one hand, steam rising from the pot boiling on the stovetop between us. A vat of melted butter warms on the next burner.
"No, use warm water," pronounces my mother, peering over my shoulder.
I crane my neck and call into the adjoining room, where Aunt Helen is nimbly stuffing traditional Polish dumplings, called pierogi, with a filling of potato and farmer's cheese. "Are we supposed to rinse these in cold water or warm water?"
"Doesn't matter," Aunt Helen hollers back in her heavy Polish accent.
Every winter, I join a gathering of women from my family in the basement kitchen of my Aunt Helen's house, where we spend the evening cranking out several dozen batches of pierogi. With 45 years having passed since my mother's side of the family arrived in this country from rural Poland, our annual pierogi-making sessions have become something of a tradition.
I could tell you that it's like a scene out of some sentimental movie, where three generations of women come together, my aunt meticulously walking us through each step of a secret family recipe from our Old-World ancestors, imparting sagacious advice as we all look on in solemn admiration.
In reality, over the noise of everyone gabbing, wine glasses in hand, I am frantically attempting to scribble semi-legible notes while my Aunt Helen – the pierogi guru of the family, donning an "I (heart) Pierogi" apron – rattles off disjointed fragments of a recipe that exists in perfect order only in her head.
Between adding ingredients to her Kitchenaid mixer, frying bits of sweet onion, and melting yet another stick of butter, she omits and confuses measurements, telling me in broken English to use 5 pounds of flour when she really means 5 cups. I press her for what she considers minor details: How many potatoes do we need for the filling? For how long should the dough cool? What exactly do you mean by "a little bit" of butter?
Meanwhile, my mother chides me for drinking wine. Lori, my lawyer friend whom I've invited along, questions whether the notes I am hurriedly scrawling will prove thorough enough. My cousin Dorothy demands to know why I'm standing around with a pen and a camera instead of stuffing pierogi.
Melting away in the commotion are any intentions I'd had of asking my aunt to articulate her most heartfelt feelings about what it means to pass her invaluable culinary wisdom on to us.
And yet amidst this chaos of my aunts, mother, cousins, my cousin's kids, and friends, a faithful assembly line of sorts eventually forms. We roll out dough, make filling from scratch, stuff the pierogi by hand, boil them, drown them in butter, and, in turn, nibble on a few of the finished product to ensure they are satisfactory. Then we repeat the process, several times over.
Once we've gone through 10 pounds of butter (and several large bottles of red wine), Aunt Helen bestows each of us with a kiss on the cheek and more than two dozen delicious pierogi apiece, nestled side by side in covered foil trays.
It may not be the grandest or most refined of family traditions – yet in the midst of this messy, boisterous, flour-dusted whirlwind, I realize how fortunate we are to have this time together. Even without a perfect, cookbook-worthy recipe, we have not only found a way to preserve some direct, tangible connection to our roots, but also a way to connect with one another.
Stefanie Dion Jones is a writer, editor, and pierogi-maker-in-training. She lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in Connecticut. You can find her blog online at stefcations.blogspot.com, or on Twitter at @Stefcations.
Try it at home
Here is Aunt Helen's pierogi recipe – with all of her approximations. Beware: It may not be precise. But as she would say: “Doesn't matter.”
Makes about 60 pierogi – “if you do it right.”
1. Heat (but do not boil) 1 cup hot water and a cut-up stick of unsalted butter. When butter is mostly melted, remove from heat.
2. Into Kitchenaid mixer, sift 5 cup flour and add one egg. Mix using the flat beater attachment. Add melted butter; gradually increase mixer speed.
3. Change mixer attachment to the dough hook; continue mixing. (If the dough is sticky, add “a little more” flour. If the mixer can't seem to handle all the dough at once, take half of it out and gradually add bits of dough back in as it becomes more elastic.) Continue mixing until dough starts to peel off the attachment without sticking and springs back when touched.
4. Chill dough in fridge, in a Ziploc bag, for 15 minutes to 1 hour.
1. Peel, boil, then mash 5 lb. of potatoes. Chop and sauté two sweet onions (do not caramelize) in butter.
2. In mixer, combine potatoes with sautéed onions (while both are still warm). Add salt, pepper, and/or dill to taste. Let cool slightly.
3. Mix in 24 oz. farmer's cheese. Let cool.
To stuff pierogi:
1. Place a portion of chilled dough on lightly floured board. With rolling pin, roll on one side only (don't flip) until it's about 1/16” thick – about the thickness of a piece of cardboard.
2. Flour the lip of a drinking glass about 3” in diameter. Cut dough into circles. Wrap remaining dough in plastic wrap and set aside.
3. Flatten and stretch each circle of dough carefully between your fingers. With the sticky side (the side of the rolled-out dough that was touching the board) facing up, scoop a teaspoon of filling into center of the circle of dough. Do not get filling too close to the edge of the circle. Fold over and pinch well so that no air can get in. (If you don't pinch them completely, they will burst open once they're in the boiling water!)
To cook pierogi:
1. In large pot of slowly boiling water (with “a bit” of butter added), add about 15 pierogi at a time. Stir gently with a wooden or plastic (not metal) spoon.
2. Once the pierogi rise to the surface, leave at a low boil for about 2 minutes.
3. Scoop pierogi out with a large slotted spoon into a colander. Rinse under water (cold or warm water – I never did get a straight answer). Drain well; let cool for several minutes.
4. Pour some melted butter into a rectangular, 2¼-lb. foil pan. Add about 30 pierogi to the pan. Pour a bit more butter over them to ensure the pierogi do not stick to one another or to the pan; then line them up, seam side up.
Enjoy with — yes, more butter. Or, serve with sautéed onions and bacon, or dollops of sour cream.