--- See Ainsley Harriott’s pierogi lesson in Len and Ainsley’s Big Food Adventure, 7.30pm Monday 8 June on SBS Food and then on SBS On Demand. Discover more Polish food in our Polish recipe collection ---
Making pierogi, says Zuza Zak, is like wrapping your heart up “in a warm doughy quilt”.
The Polish-born writer and keen cook has been making a lot of the half-moon-shaped dumplings lately. They have been ideal lockdown food (you can make them with all sorts of fillings – “the filling combinations are endless and you can use any leftovers,” she says), and because they freeze well, she’s been stocking the freezer ahead of the arrival of a new baby.
These delicious dumplings are usually half-moon shaped, made by folding circles of a simple pasta-like dough, and cooked by boiling, but as Zak explains, there are endless variations: coloured doughs (such as her glorious pink pierogi), sweet and savoury fillings, and baked pierogi.
Inspired by seeing Zak’s plump and pretty pierogi on her Instagram feed, including dumpling making with her daughter and intriguing mini dumplings called pierogi ruskie, we asked her to tell us more about these Eastern European favourites.
“Pierogi is the Polish word for anything with a pierogi shape - so they could be boiled or baked. Vareniki is the Ukrainian word for pierogi, referring to the boiled dumplings only. Pierogi ruskie is the Polish name for (boiled) pierogi stuffed with potato, curd cheese and onion. I always thought they referred to Russian style, but since they are not known in Russia, I believe these pierogi are actually Ruthenian in origin. Piroshki, I believe, are always baked, and known in Russia and Ukraine.”
Making pierogi takes Zak, who now lives in London, back to her childhood in Poland, when she made them with her grandmother.
“I love to experiment with both fillings and the dough, but I also love the familiarity of the act itself. It takes me back to the minuscule kitchen of my Babcia Ziuta (my mum’s mum who passed away a few years ago) as a child,” she writes on her website, in a post about poppy seed and chocolate pierogi. There’s something “warm and ancient” about making pierogi, she writes, that “reaches the core of the being, wrapping it up in a warm, doughy quilt.”
Now, she passes that tradition on to her daughter Nusia.
“I made pierogi with one gran and kopytka dumplings with my other gran, so very strong childhood memories there. My gran used to always have to make sure the pierogi were sealed though, as I didn't press hard enough, but I have the frilly technique I use with my daughter. She loves helping, but the trick is to get the kids to help intermittently so that they don't get bored or frustrated with the process.”
In Sydney, at the Polish Place restaurant, co-owners Paulina Kadziela and Dorota Pytka make fresh pierogi every day, for customers who eat in and for the take-home dumpling menu. Kadziela, the restaurant’s executive chef, learned from her mother.
“It was a tradition in Poland where daughters were taught by mothers how to run a house. Women would catch up together in a house and make hundreds of pierogi at the time. It was as much a social gathering as it was a preparatory function for the food,” she says.
“It is not a complicated dish but time-consuming. The art of it is to make sure that the filling is tasty and fresh.”
The restaurant serves both boiled and fried pierogi; filings include a traditional white cheese and potato, and variations such as spinach and fetta (one of the most popular options with customers), pork, duck, and two sweet options: spiced apple, and berry.
You really can use almost anything for filling a pierogi – and the pasta, too, can be fun to play with.
“You can be as creative as you like with pierogi, this is why I love them so much!” Zak says. “The rhubarb and custard pierogi I made for my supper club was a massive success. The dough was dappled pink and cream (I used beetroot juice to dye some of it pink), then inside was a mixture of sweet, vanilla curd cheese and stewed rhubarb. They were first boiled, then fried until crispy and I served them with rhubarb puree and whipped cream.” (In the past, Zak has run supper club events in London, showcasing Polish food).
In Poland, too, there are many variations, often following the seasons or local traditions.
“Blueberry (or bilberry) pierogi are very popular in the summer when jagody are in season,” Zak says. “In the wintertime, sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi rule. However, there are also pierogi which we eat at any time of the year, such as sweet cheese pierogi or minced meat pierogi.
“There are also pierogi that are specific to a region, such as buckwheat pierogi (‘gryczaki’) in the south-east of Poland, near Lublin, where a lot of buckwheat grows.”
The round shape is less common; the classic shape is the half-circle, although the pinching techniques for sealing the edges vary.
Even experienced chefs love discovering this delightful dumpling: When Ainsley Harriott got a lesson in pierogi making from Polish chef Anna Mellor, he was told two other secrets to making good pierogi: put your heart into it - “More Polish heart!” Anna urges him - and roll the dough thin and even. (You can see Harriott’s pierogi lesson in Len and Ainsley’s Big Food Adventure, 7.30pm Monday 8 June on SBS Food and then on SBS On Demand).
Inspired to give it a go? Here are two ideal starting points: Zak’s recipe for classic pierogi with a savoury curd cheese filling (she also gives two other filling options, for a sweet cheese and raisin feeling or a savoury mushroom and onion filling); or her baked pierogi recipe, filled with pork and pine nuts. (You can see more of Zak's recipes from her book Polska here.)
The baked version is a great starting point for beginners. “With boiled pierogi you cannot have any holes in the dough, as the filling will seep out when you boil them,” Zak explains. “With baked pierogi, that only adds to the flavour. When I make boiled pierogi with my four-year-old, we do the frilly edges, which makes the filling extra secure. This means we pinch them, then fold the edges over themselves at each pinch. They also look very pretty!”
Or try this pierogi ruskie from the Feast magazine archives, filled with potato, cheese and onion in a dough flecked with dill.
If you’d like to stock up on future pierogi enjoyment and stock your freezer, Zak has also shared some tips for that, too.
“As soon as you have made your pierogi, allow them to dry out a little bit on a floured surface, under a tea-towel - perhaps for an hour, then place them, each one separately on a lightly floured baking tray in the freezer for a couple of hours, before transferring them to freezer bags. You don't need to defrost them before cooking.”
And whether you make them alone or with family, baked or boiled, Zak’s encouragement suggests we can all find some comfort in these versatile dumplings.
“I certainly find comfort in making pierogi, the process feels meditative to me, but it can also be a wonderful shared activity. It's something women used to do together in my family - as it's a process, so you can make plenty of them, and while you make them you can talk, relate in a relaxed way, without any pressure.
Chocolate and cinnamon are the two standard fillings - here, a thick chocolate paste is amply swirled through the cookie.
The beauty of this homemade apple cake (besides the treasure of homemade goodness) is that it’s not only soft and light in texture but it’s not overly sweet, which lets the apples and spices do all the talking. There’s your cake for breakfast validation, in case you needed it.
Created in the Polish city of Bialystock (hence the name), this small, chewy round roll is often compared to a bagel. Rather than a hole in the centre, an indent is made and filled with cooked onions and poppyseeds, and the dough is baked rather than boiled.
A popular dessert or snack in Poland, piernak lies somewhere between a sweet bread and a dense cake. Scented with honey, caramelised sugar and mixed spice, these gems make a great accompaniment to just about any beverage.