From Poland, With Love: A daughter’s edible postcard arrives filled, folded and sealed
Eleanor Figueras, nee Chrobak, died long before I was born. But that didn’t stop my dad from telling me all about the Polish sausages and cabbage, kasha, and pierogi that she cooked for him when he was a youngster growing up on Chicago’s North Side in the 1940s and 1950s. During my own childhood, my dad cooked infrequently at best. And when he did, it was predictable: a stir-fry with chicken adobo, fried bologna sandwiches (only on Saturdays for lunch) or pierogi.
Pierogi are Polish-style dumplings and, like Italian ravioli, are made from a flour-based dough and then stuffed. Fillings can be savory – sauerkraut, ground beef, potato and cheese are traditional offerings – or sweet delights of fresh or dried fruit. The dumplings are then boiled, oftentimes followed by a quick butter-browning on the stove.
When I was a kid, I was only served pierogi of the packaged variety. But I’d bet my beloved rolling pin that the pierogi my first-generation Polish-American grandmother made weren’t store-bought. I’ve always wished that I could have tasted even just one of her homemade pierogi, especially given how much my dad perks up when talking about them. The topic might actually divert his attention from PBS NewsHour, at least for a few minutes.
Making pierogi from scratch had been on my to-do list for quite a while. I’ll admit, I wanted the feather in my culinary cap and to do right by my Polish family tree, but most of all, I wanted to prepare a treat for my dad. A recent phone call from my mother was the impetus my pierogi project needed: My dad was in the emergency room, having suffered yet another heart attack. He was released from the hospital after a few days, but who knew whether his next story about Grandma’s pierogi would be his last? I shifted priorities. I might be as belated as a postcard from a traveler already back from vacation, but I would finally make homemade pierogi, just like Dad remembered.
I started where any Polish food writer pathetically uninformed about her own culture’s cuisine would: I grabbed a bunch of cookbooks – and I called my Polish aunt. Unfortunately, Aunt Nancy didn’t possess anything even faintly resembling a family recipe. (Oh what I’d have given for a piece of paper, worn and faded yellow, written in my grandmother’s own hand!) Nor was my aunt in the habit of making the Polish-style dumplings in her own kitchen. “I tried it once a long time ago,” she said. “It was OK, but not the best.” Did she, like my dad, consider her mother’s pierogi to be “the best” – that marker against which all other pierogi should be judged? Curiously, Aunt Nancy had tried her hand at making pierogi again just a month prior to my call, using a recipe published in the Chicago Tribune. Perhaps we were both on a quest to reclaim the past. Aunt Nancy proffered a few helpful clues to prepare this flash-from-the-past Polish fare. Her mom shaped them into half-moons and crimped the edges with a fork. The fillings? She remembered prunes, also sauerkraut and potato. “Not a lot of pepper in the sauerkraut,” she noted.
Next, I approached my dad, trying hard not to let on that he would be the recipient of my test kitchen results. Dad remembered liking his mom’s apricot dumplings and the prune variety. Just put the dried fruit in a pot with a bit of water to soften it and then mash it, he explained. After pressing him for details about size, texture and taste, my dad finally succumbed, “I don’t know. I haven’t eaten them in 40 years!”
It was time to get my hands dirty. I began by making the apricot filling since that was on my dad’s list of favorites. As the chopped apricots simmered on the stove, I began preparing the dough. The recipe my aunt had clipped from the newspaper and mailed to me called for sour cream, but she had scrawled a note on the margin explaining that the sour cream made the dough wet, thus requiring more flour. Heavy, sticky dough would be hard to roll to a near translucent consistency – essential for achieving pierogi in which the flavors of the filling remain prominent, not suppressed by the thick taste of dough. After consulting the ingredient lists for numerous other dough recipes, I settled on a simple combination: eggs, milk, flour and salt, figuring that my grandmother would have preferred to whip up a couple dozen dumplings with as few ingredients as possible.
While I let the dough rest before rolling it out, I paged through Polish Cookery, a cookbook by Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa, and noticed an interesting instruction for filling and cutting out the pierogi once the dough was rolled into a thin sheet. “Arrange stuffing by the spoonful along one edge of a piece of dough, 2 to 3 inches from edge. Fold over and cut out shape of semi-circles with a pastry cutter or a glass. Press edges of dough together. Repeat until all the dough and filling have been used up. … This is a fast way of making the pockets.” A fast way. And, as it turns out, much less messy than the typical cut-then-fill method. I would wager a pile of zlotys that my grandmother knew this shortcut and that she’d smile over my industriousness, pleased I had unearthed something of a Polish bag of tricks.
Into the boiling pot went the pierogi. Out they came, the filling still safely nestled inside, and into a pan of warmed butter they slid for a quick browning. I ran them over to my parents’ house, eager to see if I’d done it properly. My dad actually turned off the TV when I opened the container of fresh-from-the-skillet apricot dumplings. Yes, the dough was right. Yes, the filling was right. Yes, he wanted another, he said between bites.
The pierogi test batch was the precursor to a family Polish celebration I held in honor of my dad a week later. Three generations gathered around the table that night, and gracing the center sat my dad’s contribution to the feast: a postcard-perfect 2-foot-long link of hot, spicy Polish sausage. Dad had happily left his favorite armchair and driven to Piekutowski’s European Style Sausage in North City to purchase the best Polish sausage in town. Ours was a celebration that, like a postcard, was met with pure delight – no matter how delayed.
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