She always kneaded the dough on a cutting board in her kitchen. So that’s what I did, too.
Only, I was in my apartment nearly 200 miles away, and I couldn’t tell if it felt right. Knead the dough and add flour until it feels right, she had said.
But how could I tell? How much flour was too much? Was the mixture still too sticky?
Growing up, I had watched Grandma knead and roll the dough. And I had certainly enjoyed plenty of the finished product.
Birthdays, Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters, Grandma’s pierogi were always front and center. The rest of the year, her steak-filled Polish dumplings were talked about with reverence – and frequently requested.
Now that I was on my own, I figured it was time to try to make them myself. I was an inexperienced cook in my early 20s, living in a tiny town where I knew hardly anyone. I wanted to learn to make pierogi the way Grandma made them while she was still around to teach me. Also, I wanted a taste of home.
But her recipe – which she had never written down – seemed vague: mix eggs, water, salt and flour, then knead them until it feels right. The rest of her instructions were equally unclear: cook and grind some steak and onions, then season it until it tastes right.
This part wasn’t a problem. I would know right when I tasted it. Right was the way Grandma’s pierogi tasted. My aim was to get mine to resemble hers, or at least come as close as possible.
Grandma had been making pierogi as long as I could remember. But she only made them a couple times a year. They were labor-intensive, a treat and a tradition. She usually only served them on holidays or special occasions. But once in awhile, if we were lucky, she would prepare them for my sister and me after school.
Grandma had a special freezer in her basement just for her pierogi. She kept them in plastic bags, two dozen in each. If we begged hard and long enough, she would send Grandpa downstairs to bring up one of those bags. Then she would drop the stuffed, frozen crescents into boiling water while browning butter in a skillet with bread crumbs.
As a schoolgirl, I thought it was the most delicious aroma. My sister and I would sit at the counter in Grandma’s butter-colored, 1950’s-style kitchen, demanding to know when her prized pierogi would hurry up and be ready. We never could wait.
Years later, when work took me throughout the state, Grandma would send me home with a bag of my own pierogi, carefully packed on ice for the two- or three-hour drive. When she would visit my uncle on the East Coast – the third of her four children and one who moved the farthest away – she would take them on the plane. Her purse and her precious pierogi were her carry-ons.
Whenever I traveled to cities with Polish restaurants or neighborhoods – New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Hamtramck, Michigan (the city nearly surrounded by Detroit) – I made a point to try the pierogi. They were always good. But they were never as good as Grandma’s.
Grandma relished the compliments, especially when we said her pierogi were better than those at Seattle’s Dom Polski, or Polish Home, a gathering place for Polish celebrations, bazaars and other events. In the 1960s, Grandma was chairwoman of the Ladies’ Auxiliary. Her name is listed inside the association’s cookbook.
Her daughters – my mother and aunt – don’t make pierogi. Too much work. Of course, they’ll still eat them. My sister, now a vegetarian, won’t consume the steak filling. But she’ll still eat the fried, butter-and-bread- crumb-covered dough after picking out the meat. After she returned from studying abroad in college, when she still ate some meat, my sister reported the pierogi in Poland weren’t as good as Grandma’s.
Grandma, of course, loved that.
Traditionally a peasant dish, pierogi are a staple of Polish cuisine. Mashed potatoes are the most common filling. They’re also made with potatoes and farmer’s cheese, mushrooms, sauerkraut and chicken. They’re often topped with caramelized onions and served with sour cream.
Grandma only made them one way. Her version featured the best steak she could afford, her special blend of seasonings, yellow onions – which often came from her garden – and that browned-butter-and- bread-crumb topping.
When Grandma made pierogi, it was a two-day project. She made dozens, maybe hundreds, at a time.
Grandpa was allowed to help, grinding the steak and onions with an old-fashioned, hand-cranked, meat grinder. My sister and I were sometimes allowed to help, too, using water glasses to stamp out dough circles. Grandma expertly filled and sealed the dumplings – placing just the right amount of the finely ground filling on the rounds, folding them over, then pinching the half-moons closed with her fingers.
I was thinking about how perfectly she pinched her pierogi as I made my first attempt to replicate her recipe. She had given me loose instructions on the phone, and I was on a mission. I was going home for Christmas and wanted to bring my first batch with me as a surprise. But I have to admit – after years of eating Grandma’s pierogi and watching her make them – I really had no idea what I was doing.
I wasn’t sure how Grandma managed to roll her dough so thin. I wasn’t sure what seasonings she used, either. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway because I didn’t know the right ratio.
Grandma didn’t measure. She eyeballed everything.
Plus, I didn’t have a meat grinder, like the one Grandma had used for decades. In fact, I didn’t even own a food processor. So I bought ground beef at the grocery store down the street.
Grandma never would have done that.
It was a shortcut – and it showed. Looking at the lumpy mounds of meat and dough spread across my kitchen, I felt a little disappointed. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat these things, and I really wished I had been able to use Grandma’s antique meat grinder. The globs I was hoping to pass off as pierogi might have turned out better.
Grandma got her grinder second-hand shortly after coming to America and had been using it to make her perfect pierogi for a half century. The contraption looks like something out of “Little House on the Prairie,” a vintage, cast-iron utensil that clamps onto countertops. It has no buttons, switches nor power cords.
At some point, I’m sure I made fun of Grandma for using such an old-fashioned gadget. Why didn’t she use a food processor like modern grandmas?
She wasn’t a modern grandma. She came from the old country, carrying a few traditions and even fewer possessions. Pierogi reminded her of happy times in her homeland, when she was still a girl, before the Red Army arrived. She would watch her own grandmother make those precious little meat-filled pockets, enclosed like gifts, each one waiting to be unwrapped – or cut into thirds with a knife and fork, then savored.
When my grandparents came to this country – after bouncing around displaced persons camps on three different continents – they were refugees. They brought memories of imprisonment, starvation, disease, deportation and injustice. They brought memories of war. Theirs – Grandma’s, in particular – was a difficult journey.
When the Soviet Union invaded on Sept. 17, 1939, Poland was under attack from all sides – the Soviets in the east, the Germans in the west, north and south. Grandma was 10 years old the night Soviet soldiers came to her childhood home in the rural, northeastern borderlands. She remembers their thick black boots and their rifles.
At gunpoint on Feb. 10, 1940, she was ordered – along with other family members – to pack only as much as they could carry. She never saw her own grandmother again.
They traveled for days without water or food, except for the little they had brought with them. When the train finally stopped, they boarded a sled to their destination: a forced labor camp in Siberia.
They cut wood in the frozen forest for a day’s ration: soup and a slice of bread. People starved. The barracks were filthy. Grandma remembers her father cutting off her long blond hair after it became infested with lice.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, causing a change in Soviet policy toward ethnic Poles, now needed to fight the Germans. When so-called amnesty was declared a couple months later, ethnic Poles were free to go from the gulag, but men and teenage boys were recruited to join all-Polish military units.
By then, Grandma was suffering from typhoid and dysentery and was so weak she could hardly walk. She was evacuated to Uzbekistan, where her sister died and the family split up. Men left for the Polish army. Women and children went to refugee camps in Iran, India and, finally, Uganda. It took years for war-torn, rebuilding governments to figure out what to do with the refugees. When she finally left Africa in 1948, Grandma was 18.
In England, she lived in four more camps for displaced persons. In one of them, she met Grandpa.
They couldn’t return to Poland. Their hometowns were located in territories that had become part of the Soviet Union. Today, they’re different countries altogether.
They set sail for the United States in late 1951, arriving at their new lives in the new year. They worked hard, became American citizens, raised four children and connected with their roots through Seattle’s Dom Polski, where my grandmother – on Jan. 19, 2008 – received the Cross of the Siberian Exiles.
The medal from the Polish government recognizes the suffering of those deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan and northern Russia between 1939 and 1956. When the Consul General of the Republic of Poland pinned the cross on her lapel, almost 68 years after she was removed from her home, Grandma fought tears.
Grandpa wasn’t there. He had died years earlier. The last time I saw him, that Christmas before he passed, I brought over my first batch of pierogi, lumpy and too large, each one about the size of second-grader’s shoe. When he saw them, he laughed – and ate them anyway.
Grandma asked where I had managed to find an old meat grinder. I hadn’t. It was obvious at first bite that I had used store-bought ground beef. Hamburger. A sacrilege.
Grandma offered more tips. Grind your own steak, of course. Use marjoram, poultry seasoning, garlic, salt, pepper. Still, she didn’t provide specific measurements. I complained I didn’t have a grinder and said it seemed wrong to use a Cuisinart or anything other than Grandma’s old-fashioned gadget. She would say maybe someday she would give it to me.
So it continued that way – batch after batch, pointers after pointers – until one day seven or eight years ago when I was sitting in Grandma’s kitchen – like I did when I was a schoolgirl – and she humbly handed it over. Her antique, hand-cranked, meat grinder – the one she had used to make pierogi for 50 years – was wrapped in a brown paper bag.
With her arthritis and without Grandpa, Grandma had stopped making pierogi a few years before, but she had been hanging on to her beloved implement.
Besides, she said, my pierogi were improving.
Once a year, I haul out old meat grinder and get to work. Making pierogi is a two-day process. The first is for browning onions, cooking steak, then grinding and seasoning both. The second is for making dough, then filling and folding those wonderfully comforting little crescents. I make dozens, maybe hundreds, at a time, usually inviting friends to help.
The recipe still isn’t written down. I don’t measure. I eyeball everything. I knead the dough until it feels right. I season the steak until it tastes right.
Right is the way Grandma’s pierogi tasted.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter