THE RUSSIAN FOOD NETWORK

Stuffed Bundles(Pirozhki) and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Audreey Spaulding 

When selecting a Russian recipe to try out, I wanted to select something that was in my skill level, but something that would be a bit of a challenge. When flipping through Darra Goldstein’s A Tate of Russia, I came across the recipes on Pirozhkis, or Russian pies. The recipe called for a dough of my choice (the book includes three different dough recipes for pirozhkis), and a filling. I chose to make the Basic Raised Pirozhki Dough, or Drozhzhevoye Testo. For the pie filling, I chose Beef Filling, (the book includes recipes for four other fillings) or Nachinka iz rublenogo myasa, because I am a firm believer that a meal is not a meal if it does not include something that used to have hooves.

So, with my smaller than average kitchen, but larger than average desire to succeed in my endeavor, I set about making pirozhkis for the first time. The dough was what I set about making first, as it needed a lot of time to rise (the recipe called for about an hour and a half). If you’ve ever made pizza dough, or dough of any kind actually, you’ll find that the basic raised pirozhki dough isn’t any more difficult to make. Of course, it helps if you’ve got a stand mixer. Luckily, I’ve got my handy-dandy KitchenAid mixer, Portokalos (named for the family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding – you can guess what color she is), who was ready for the job.

            The recipe is as follows:

1 package active dry yeast

¼ cup warm water

1 cup milk

1 stick butter (8 tablespoons), cut into bits

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 whole egg

2 egg yolks

4 ½ to 5 cups flour

1 whole egg, beaten

Now, one can most certainly follow the recipe’s instructions to a T, but I’ve got enough experience in the kitchen to know where I can cut or substitute a few things, so bear with me, here.

“Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.” Done. “Heat the milk to lukewarm and add the butter to it. Stir the milk and butter mixture into the yeast.” I did indeed heat the cup of milk in the microwave until it was just warm to the touch, about a minute, but the butter I didn’t. I slowly melted the butter in an enameled cast iron saucier and added the milk to that. Thinking back on it, I could have skipped the microwave altogether as the milk would warm up in the pan with the butter. My reasoning for not leaving the butter in solid chunks, as the recipe suggested is that I figured the butter would work itself more smoothly into the dough if it were in liquid form. This proved to be a good decision. Next the recipe reads, “Add the salt, sugar, egg and egg yolks, mixing well.” I find that when recipes call for eggs, no matter when, to crack the eggs into a separate dish before adding them to the mix. Very rarely, though it does happen, one may come across a bad egg when cooking or baking. To prevent adding a bad egg to your main mixture and ruining it, it is safer to check the quality of the egg beforehand. Therefore, I added everything except the eggs to my steel mixing bowl (including the milk and butter from the saucier). When I found the eggs to be good, I added those too. Now, the recipe calls for two egg yolks. After separating your eggs, DO NOT DISCARD THE WHITES. These will be useful later on.

By now, you’ve gotten everything together in your mixing bowl, correct? I had: Portokalos was all ready to go. The steel mixing bowl was in place and the dough hook attached. I started her on a low setting, gradually tapping flour into the mixture, a half-cup at a time. Be sure to keep track of how much flour you add, and do not add it all at once. Adding a little flour at a time will insure the mixture stays smooth and that you won’t have pockets of unmixed ingredients in your dough. The recipe called for 4 ½ to 5 cups. I found 4 ½ cups to be sufficient. The dough should be relatively sticky to the touch. Remember: later you have to shape these into little bun-like pies, and a little extra stickiness comes in handy.

Next the recipe calls for you to “turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead it lightly until smooth and elastic. Place in a greased bowl, turning dough to grease the top, and cover with a clean towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.” I turned, I kneaded, but I didn’t place in a greased bowl. It’s really not necessary. Instead, I placed the ball of dough back into the steel mixing bowl that still had traces of flour on the inside. Next I wet a thick paper towel and placed it into the bowl and laid it flat on top of the dough, tucking it in loosely around the edge, where the dough meets the bowl. Don’t worry about the paper towel sticking to the dough. If it’s damp, it won’t stick a bit. For time’s sake, I only let the dough sit for a little over an hour, but this proved to be sufficient. You can absolutely let it rise for the full hour and a half, though. While the dough was rising, I made the beef filling for the pirozhkis.

            The recipe is a follows:

2 large onions, minced

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound lean ground beef

2 ½ teaspoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill (or 2 teaspoons dried dill)

2 hard-boiled eggs

2 tablespoons sour cream

The recipe says, “Sauté the onions in the butter and oil until transparent. Stir in the beef and cook it until no trace of pink remains.”  I am not a fan of raw meat ever touching my vegetables, so I switched this part up a bit. Using my exceptionally heavy cast iron skillet, I first cooked the meat, and then added the onion. I find the beef doesn’t need oil or butter to cook, so just throw it in the skillet and sort of chop it up with your spatula. While it’s cooking, you’ll have plenty of time to cry in the kitchen while you’re chopping away at that onion. Though the recipe calls for two onions, I only had one at home, so guess how many I used. Don’t worry if you’ve only got one too. As long as it’s a good size, it’ll be plenty. I found the mixture was hardly lacking in onion when I got done with it. Once the beef was cooked and I had it chopped into little pieces in the skillet, I added the onions, the butter (because who cares if you don’t need it? Butter is butter!), the fresh dill (fresh is always better), and hard-boiled eggs. Now, if you’ve never hard-boiled eggs before, it’s tricky, as I found out. I was a virgin egg boiler, and needed Julia Child’s help. I whipped out my Mastering the Art of French Cooking (not the first time I’ve used to cookbooks to tackle one recipe) and found what I needed. I found 6 ½ minutes of slow boiling (one can only assume how you slowly boil something) was the perfect time, though I added a minute – just as Julia instructed – because the eggs were chilled. So seven and a half minutes after carefully lowering two eggs into boiling water (don’t just drop them in as they will likely crack when hitting the bottom of the pan) I drained the hot water from the pan and ran cold water over the eggs. After adding ice and letting them sit for a couple minutes, I pulled them out, pulled off the shells and proceeded to cut them up. The yolks were still a little soft, so next time I would add thirty seconds or so to their time in the boiling water. The recipe says, “Then add the remaining ingredients, mixing well. Set aside to cool before using as filling.” I added the onions to the beef mixture before anything else so they’d have some time to cook, then the dill, pepper, and eggs. I actually didn’t add any sour cream, not by choice, but because I simply forgot. The filling tasted delicious despite this oversight.

While the beef mixture was cooling, I went back to the dough. From where we left off, the recipe says, “punch down the dough and divide it into 48 balls of equal size.” Let me tell you right here that I had no desire to count out 48 little balls of dough, let alone attempt to make sure they were of equal size. Instead, I pulled pieces one at a time from the whole and worked with each piece individually. I shaped them in my hand, making a little ball, flattening it, and then pinching and pulling until I had what looked like a tiny little pizza. I held the little disc of dough in my hand and put a bit more than “a heaping tablespoon of filling” that the recipe called for. As it turned out, though the recipe had predicted I would make 48 little pirozhkis, in actuality I only made twenty, though I don’t regret this, as the size of my pirozhkis seemed to be pretty perfect, about four inches long, three inches wide, and three inches high, give or take half an inch. The recipe says, after you’ve placed the filling on the little disc, “press the edges of the dough together firmly to seal. Gently shape the pies into elongated ovals.” Surprisingly enough, the little things were pretty cooperative. I folded the dough over the filling and pinched the edges, making what looked like tiny pastys or big fat dumplings. Then I simply tucked the corners down to the seam and tried to smooth it out a bit, placing the little bun-like pies seam side down on a tin foil-lined baking sheet. The recipe, after having done this, says, “Cover and let rise until they are just doubled in bulk, about 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Now here’s where those egg whites come in that I told you to save. The recipe calls for 1 whole egg, beaten. It says to “brush each pie with the beaten egg,” but instead of using another egg, you can just use the leftover whites as I did. It creates a nice glaze on the eggs when they bake. Though the recipe called for it, I didn’t give the pies much time to rise, but stuck my pirozhkis in the oven once it reached 350 degrees and I had brushed them with the egg whites. Once in the oven, set your timer for 20 minutes. If your oven is calibrated correctly, 20 minutes will be perfect, as it was for me. You’ll have beautiful little buns that taste oh so good!

As for what to read while eating these delicious creations, I would suggest Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karnenina. It is a lengthy book, but, without a doubt, an incredibly well-written, captivating story. While reading Anna Karenina, I was conscious the role food and beverage plays into Russian literature, and therefore took notes on any mention of food or the characters’ eating. Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, arguably a more important character than Anna Karenina, is a hard-working sensible man, looking for happiness and meaning in his life. In his attempts to find fulfillment, he often takes part in the working of his land (of which he has a great deal) with the peasants who he employs. On occasion, Levin even dines with the peasants in the fields and is delighted at their simple meals but even more, he is amazed at their happiness. Pirozhki is a relatively simple food that reminds me of Levin’s time spent with the peasants who work his land and Levin’s simple desires. Not only that, Anna Karenina is an engrossing novel, one that I read for hours at a time, my eyes glued to the pages. Pirozhki would be a perfect accompaniment to this book for they are easy to eat with one hand. One need not ever remove one’s eyes from the pages before them to grasp a priozhki at hand. Therefore, one may read without interruption, and find out the fate of Konstantin Dmitrievitch and the titular character, Anna Arkadyevna. Whether you undertake making pirozhki or not, I highly recommend reading Tolstoy’s timeless novel, Anna Karenina.