There are few foods I’m more emotionally attached to than pierogi.
So I took notice right away when I read that Conte’s Pasta Company is going to feature gluten-free pierogi at the upcoming All Things Organic conference.
In my family just the mention of pierogi triggers strong craving and even stronger memories.
When I was growing up, the first sign that my grandmother was about to make this traditional stuffed Polish dumpling came when a sturdy, white station wagon pulled up in front of her small yellow brick house on hilly Tenth Avenue in a steel mill town 20 miles from Pittsburgh.
A woman we called “the Farmer Lady” drove the station wagon and she was delivering – yes delivering – raw milk from her farm. My grandmother, my mother and sometimes her sisters would use the milk to make what we called “Farmer Lady Cheese.”
The process was a bit of a smelly mystery to me, but I know in the end there was always a tasty mound of white cheese swaddled in gauzy cheese cloth.
Once the cheese was done, my grandmother mixed it by hand with salt and pepper, egg and green onion in a big ceramic bowl.
Then dough was made from scratch by mixing flour, egg and sour cream. The team work in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen really began when super-ball-sized pieces of the dough were rolled into thin little pancakes. Some of my grandmother’s friends rolled all the dough out at once and cut circles with a glass, but my family always preferred to roll each pierogi individually. My mother and aunts got the dough so thin it was almost translucent. A dollop of the cheese mix was plopped in the middle and the pancake folded over to make a half-moon pocket. Then the seam was pinched tight.
Next the pierogi were boiled, though this was only a preliminary cooking step. The finish came later, when we sizzled butter in a frying in pan, then sautéed a precious pierogi or two until it was golden brown – ok so maybe it was usually three. Frying the pierogi gave the dough a little crunch along with a little color and the smell that filled the kitchen could bring all my grandmother’s grandchildren running.
You don’t have to go back too many years to find food far removed from the processed and packaged items we use so prolifically today. But pierogi-making was so labor intense that it occurred only a few times a year. The pierogi were divvied up among my grandmother’s children, and they then divided them among their children and grandchildren.
We each tallied and guarded our shares carefully. Woe be unto anyone who left theirs in the refrigerator where my younger brother could find them. When it came to pierogi, he did not respect any boundaries. Once I grew up and moved out-of-state, my portion was hidden in the freezer until I could come home and get it.
Whenever the subject of pierogi comes up – as it did recently at a gathering of my Baltimore neighbors of Polish and Slovak descent – the farmer’s cheese filling is see as an oddity, since most pierogi are filled with sauerkraut or mashed potato and cheese. From the time I was a kid, I always thought it made ours taste best.
But my own daughter, born into my Polish family as a fourth generation girl, never had a chance to taste one of these wonderful creations. Amanda was diagnosed with celiac disease right after her second birthday and since the dough was made from wheat flour, pierogi were off-limits.
So I thought the Conte’s pierogi, though they are filled with potato and onion, might at least provide Amanda an introduction to a food that carries so much meaning for me. I’m encouraged that the ingredient list includes egg in the dough, which is made with rice flour and cornstarch, since my mother says egg was an important ingredient in my grandmother’s original recipe. (You can order online at contespasta.com or amazon.com).
My grandmother died 10 years ago and each of her daughters has had health concerns in recent years so it has been a really long time since I’ve had a homemade pierogi. When I started to crave one after talking about them with my neighbors, I bought Mrs. T’s brand for myself (They are not gluten free). I have to admit they were about close to my families’ recipe as instant coffee is to Starbucks.
So it might seem backward to think packaged gluten-free pierogi would be the best way to introduce them to Amanda. But even their existence has me thinking we might be able to make a gluten-free version of the taste and smell and tradition that I remember. We could start slow, try the packaged ones and then tackle my grandmother’s original recipe.
I’ll keep you posted.