Pierogi pride: the quintessential Pittsburgh dish?

Given the many Eastern Europeans who’ve settled in Pittsburgh, and the role tradition plays here, it’s little wonder pierogies hold a treasured spot in the city’s collective heart and stomach. 

A guaranteed money-maker for countless churches, schools and ethnic festivals, not to mention the stars of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ midgame “race,” the doughy delights are a quintessential Pittsburgh food on which we hang our black-and-gold hats.

The dumplings are so beloved here that three years ago, when the city hosted its first-ever Pierogi Fest, it was such a runaway hit that organizers had to expand from its inaugural location at South Shore Riverfront Park to the North Shore’s Stage AE. (This year’s festival is Sept. 19.) Pierogies also are part of Pittsburgh's expanding food-truck scene.

The traditional stuffings of potato, cheese and sauerkraut remain favorites, but you also can find sweet dessert pierogies at specialty shops like Cop Out Pierogies in Millvale, where Banana Split and Blueberry Cheese Cake “pie-rogies” grace the menu. It’s when you hunger for unconventional and decidedly non-traditional fillings such as falafel, onion soup, crab Rangoon and Reuben sandwich that things get really interesting.

Or, if you’re a purist, become sacrilege.

In her new cookbook, “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food,” food writer Casey Barber proves to be that nonconformist/rebel. No filling is too crazy for the Western Pennsylvania native, who grew up in Greensburg, to stuff inside the slightly chewy half-moons of dough.

“I’m rescuing the pierogi from its purgatory in fluorescent-lit, wood-paneled community halls and church basements, and bringing it into the modern world,” she writes in the foreword, adding, “You might need to sit your grandma down before showing her this book.”

We recently chatted with Ms. Barber about the book and her love for pierogies, which for such a humble food, she notes, “gets around.” 

Q: How well do you know pierogies?

A: I grew up eating and cooking them, though my early experiments from childhood through college at Bucknell University probably left a lot to be desired. Cooking was my stress relief; I always loved reading and experimenting with recipes. But I only cooked in my spare time. My career path was to be a writer. 

Q: Where did you get the idea for a pierogi cookbook?

A:  I live in Clifton, N.J., but come to Pittsburgh a lot because my whole family is still here. In 2013,  I was at Franktuary with my sister, Tessa, and noticed pierogies on the menu. Then I saw them at Meat and Potatoes. And then Butterjoint. And I thought, “This is great!” When the Pirates made it into the playoffs, I had to make them. So they were on my mind when Tessa and I put together a proposal.

Q: Was the book a hard sell?

A: It was because a lot of publishers wanted it to be an all-encompassing dumpling book. And while I’ll eat any dumpling put in front of me, I really wanted to give pierogies their due. I am very proud of Western Pennsylvania and try to be a cheerleader for it every chance I get. Pierogies are such a great symbol of Pittsburgh. It’s an accepted part of the food culture.

Q: But you’re not Polish.

A: Not, but neither are a lot of people who grew up eating them.  

Q: Why did you decide to offer a modern take on such a traditional food? Aren’t you afraid of Polish grandmas?

A: I’m a little afraid, but I don’t mean to offend anyone’s traditions with the book. It’s all made with love and lightheartedness. It’s just that you can get a lot more recipes if you expand the definition. I also wanted to break the stereotype that you only eat pierogies in church basements or at community potlucks, where the decor is frozen in time. There’s this stodgy mentality with pierogies, but I think they’re really fun and really easy, and a great party food. They’re also a wonderful introduction for people who want to start making dough. They can be so much more. We shouldn’t dismiss them as lumpy, leaden peasant food.

Q: How long did it take to write the book? 

A: I had a six-month deadline, though in reality I’d been working on recipes prior to selling it for a year. The dough was the first step -- I wanted one that wasn’t too intimidating for the novice cook. Pierogi dough is very forgiving in that way. If you can make pancake batter, you can definitely do this.

Q: And the fillings?

A: I really didn’t feel beholden to tradition. But I do like to riff on it. For instance, I like to think of the Pink and Purple Princess pierogies as traditional, only with natural colors [purple potatoes and beets] to make them look completely different. I know some “Frozen” fanatics who love those pierogies. Others, like French Onion Soup pierogies, are more challenging because they combine different techniques. I personally love the Reuben pierogies so much, and I think if you’re vegetarian, you’ll love the mushroom and goat cheese ones. 

Q: Pittsburghers like to call claim to pierogies, but they’re bigger than Pittsburgh, right?

A: They wield a pretty wide swath of influence. You also can find them in Ohio, Michigan and as far west as Nebraska. Canada also is very big on pierogies, which is surprising.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’ll be doing a book signing and pierogi-and-beer-paring dinner at The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co. in Braddock later this summer, and also something at Hotel Monaco [Downtown].  

Q: What do you like best about pierogies?

A: They’re surprisingly comforting, are an ”anytime“ food  and they come in such a neat little package. You just pop them in your mouth and they make you very happy.

You can find  ”Pierogi Love“ (Gibbs Smith, July 2015, $19.99) at Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, Wildcard in Lawrenceville and at major book retailers. It’s also available on Amazon.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Basic Pierogi Dough

PG tested

”This recipe is the template for every pierogi you’ll make in this book, and it’s a wonderfully forgiving dough for beginning bakers,“ Casey Barber writes in ”Pierogi Love.“ She recommends using a kitchen scale to measure dry ingredients by weight; too much flour in the dough makes for tough, chewy pierogies.

2 large eggs, divided

1/2 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

For savory pierogies: 1 teaspoon kosher salt

For sweet pierogies: 1 tablespoon sugar plus ½ teaspoon kosher salt, divided

2 cups (8½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon water

Whisk egg, sour cream or yogurt, butter and salt (for savory pieriogies) or sugar and salt (for sweet pierogies) in bowl. Add flour to large bowl. Gently stir wet ingredients into flour. The dough will initially be very dry and shaggy, seeming as if it will never come together, but have no fear: Keep stirring and it will pull itself into shape.

Once dough starts to come together, press and smash it against the sides of bowl with your palms, picking up dough bits and essentially kneading it within bowl until it forms a ball. 

Tip dough and any remaining shaggy flakes out onto a clean work surface. Knead until smooth, about 1 minutes. Cover dough with bowl and let rest 15 minutes. Whisk remaining egg and water in small bowl for egg wash.

To make pierogies: Line a rimmed baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper.

Divide rested dough into 4 equal pieces with a bench scraper or knife. Set aside 3 dough pieces and cover with mixing bowl. Roll remaining dough as thinly as possible into a rough 8-by-12-inch rectangle.

Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut out 6 rounds of dough. Resist the temptation to re-roll dough scraps for additional rounds. It seems wasteful but dough won’t be as tender the second time around.

Spoon filling into center of dough rounds. Be judicious with soft fillings like fruit jams -- if they spread to dough edges, it will be difficult to pinch shut, so take care not to overfill those varieties.

Using your finger, swipe a scant amount of egg wash -- just a light touch -- around the dough edge. 

Fold into a half-moon shape: Either fold dough over the filling on work surface -- I call this “the blanket” -- or gently cup the pierogi in our hand in a U shape -- I call this “the taco.”

Gently but firmly seal pierogi by pinching and squeezing edges together with your thumb and pointer finger. Start with 1 pinch at the top, then move to the “corner” of the pierogi and pinch along the edge back to the top. Repeat on opposite side to finish sealing pierogi.

Transfer to baking sheet and repeat with remaining dough rounds and filling.

Makes 24 pierogies.

To cook, pierogies can either be boiled  (2 to 3 minutes for fresh, 4 to 5 minutes for frozen), pan-fried in oil or butter (2 minutes per side), or deep-fried in at least 2 inches of 350-degree vegetable oil (3 minutes for fresh and 5 minutes for frozen). 

-- “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” by Casey barber (Gibbs Smith, July 2015, $19.99)

Reuben Pierogies

PG tested

This is a bite-sized, modern take on the classic deli sandwich.  For rye dough, replace 2 cups all-purpose flour in savory dough recipe with 1 cup (4 ¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour and 1 cup (3 ¾ ounces) dark rye or pumpernickel flour. My daughter Olivia proved to have the pierogi touch while helping me make this recipe -- her dumplings were perfect, plump pillows of Rueben goodness.

For pierogies

1/2 cup  sauerkraut

1/3  cup shredded Swiss cheese, finely chopped

1/8 pound thinly sliced pastrami, finely chopped (about ½ cup)

1 batch rye dough 

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

For Thousand Island dressing

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoon  ketchup

2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

A few shakes of your favorite hot sauce

For pierogies: Mix sauerkraut, cheese and pastrami in bowl. 

Roll out dough, whisking caraway seeds in to flour before kneading. Stamp into rounds as directed above. Place 1 teaspoon filling on each dough round; brush with egg wash, fold, pinch and seal as directed.

Deep-fry, boil and/or pan-fry pierogies as directed above. 

For dressing, stir together ingredients in small bowl. Serve with pierogies.

Makes 24 pierogies.

 -- “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” by Casey Barber (Gibbs Smith, July 2015, $19.99)

Potato and Cheddar Pierogies

PG tested

Just like your babcia used to make. Be sure not to use too much flour when rolling out the dough, or the pierogies will be chewy and leaden (but probably still delicious). I boiled then pan-fried the dumplings in butter. Yum. 

For pierogies

1/2 pound Yukon Gold potatoes (about 1 medium or 2 small), cut into 2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup finely shredded cheddar cheese

1 to 2 tablespoons heavy cream or whole milk

1 batch Savory Dough

For filling

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large yellow onion halved lengthwise and thinly sliced into strips along the grain

1/4 cup (or more) chicken or beef broth

Sauerkraut and sour cream for serving, optional

Place potatoes in medium saucepan. Add water to cover by 2 inches. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt. Cover and bring to boil over medium heat. Uncover and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain potatoes and bring back to pan. Place over low heat and stir for about 30 seconds to remove excess moisture. Run potatoes through a ricer or food mill fitted with fine disk into bowl. Stir in remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, cheese and 1 tablespoon cream; consistency should be firm enough to roll into a ball. If filling is too dry, stir in additional 1 tablespoon cream.

Roll out dough as directed above. Place 1 teaspoon filling on each dough round; brush with egg wash, fold, pinch and seal as directed.

For onions: Melt butter in medium skillet over low heat. Stir in onion and cook until starting to soften, about 10 minutes. Add ¼ cup broth and bring to simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are very soft and deeply browned, about 1½ to 2 hours. If onions start to burn before they’re fully caramelized, add 1 to 2 tablespoons additional broth as needed.

Deep-fry, boil and/or pan fry pierogies as directed. Serve immediately with onions, sauerkraut and/or sour cream. 

Makes 24 pierogies.

 -- “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” by Casey Barber (Gibbs Smith, July 2015, $19.99)

Strawberry Jam Pierogies with Warm Chocolate Sauce

PG tested

Yes, you can have pierogies for dessert. I filled sweet dough with an easy strawberry refrigerator jam, and served the dumplings with chocolate sauce. They disappeared in minutes. 

For pierogies

3 cups fresh strawberries

1½ cups superfine sugar

1 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur

1/2 cup fresh blueberries

1 batch Basic Sweet Dough

For sauce

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Make jam: Rinse strawberries in a colander  under cold running water. Drain and hull the strawberries. Cut big berries in half or quarters and leave small berries whole. Place strawberries in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot and toss them with the sugar and orange-flavored liqueur.

Bring berry mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Add blueberries and continue to keep the mixture at a rolling boil, stirring occasionally, until the jam reaches 220 degrees on a candy thermometer. This should take 25 to 35 minutes. Skim and discard any foam that rises to the top. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature and then store covered in the refrigerator. Makes about 3 cups jam. It will keep refrigerated for at least 2 weeks. 

Roll out dough and stamp into 3-inch rounds. Place 1 scant teaspoon strawberry jam on each dough round; brush with egg wash, fold, pinch and seal. Boil, then pan-fry pierogies. 

Make sauce: Fill saucepan halfway with water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Place chocolate, cream and corn syrup in heatproof bowl. Set bowl atop pan of simmering water; do not let bowl touch water. Stir mixture constantly to melt chocolate. Serve pierogies with chocolate sauce, either for drizzling or dipping.

Makes 24 pierogies. 

 -- Adapted from “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” by Casey Barber (Gibbs Smith, July 2015, $19.99)



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