A common thread among the world’s culinary cultures is a version of folded raw dough bits containing a filling that’s then cooked and served to oohs and aahs.
Whether they are ravioli or mezzelune, empanadas or tamales, Austrian knödel or Chinese jiaozi, they all fall under the umbrella category of “dumplings”: The Wikipedia entry breaks dumplings down into 30 geographic regions, each with many variations on the theme.
Eastern Europeans who migrated to Canada throughout the 20th century brought along their own version of stuffing-in-dough: Polish call them pierogi, Russians call them varenyky, and Ukrainians will use both terms, although my Ukrainian mother always called them “periheh.” Food writer Ian Mosby says “few would question this Ukrainian culinary staple’s status as a symbol of (Canadian) prairie food culture.”
While my Ukrainian grandparents came to southern Ontario, it’s estimated at least half of Ukrainians who came to this country settled in Canada’s west, clustered in Manitoba and Alberta. One of those Alberta communities, Glendon, a two-and-a-half hour drive northeast of Edmonton, has erected “The World’s Largest Pyrogy”, situated (of course) in Pyrogy Park just off Pyrogy Drive. The village website promises that “various pyrogies can be sampled at the restaurants nearby.”
In our times, these stuffed pasta half-moons get mass produced in factories and served as bar food, fried after boiling and then smothered in sour cream, bacon, and other toppings.
Feh, I say. No doubt the dough in those “pyrogys”, as they are marketed, instead of being buttery and delicate to the bite, is akin to shoe leather to stand all that abuse.
When I was a child, my mother (and her mother) would make periheh with a variety of fillings: sauerkraut; “farmers’ cheese” (a very dry version of cottage cheese); even, on occasion, with cherries or blueberries as a dessert. However, the family favourite, and the one I make now each Christmas, is the classic cheese-potato filling. Here’s the recipe for you to try.
Mary Teahen’s Periheh
Cheese potato filling
Start with six large white or Yukon Gold potatoes: there should be no green tinge to them at all.
You’ll need close to one pound of sharp (old) cheddar. Best to use the stuff with orange colouring as it gives some colour-oomph to the final product. Grate this cheese as you’ll be mixing it into the mashed potatoes.
Peel and cut up the potatoes into chunks: boil in well-salted water until falling-apart tender, drain and then mash.
Mash the potatoes thoroughly. Do not add any butter or milk. Mash in the shredded cheddar cheese to taste. You can also add salt and pepper at this time.
Put the potatoes, covered, somewhere to cool before proceeding to make the dough.
4½ cups flour, all-purpose white. (Important note: Whole wheat or pastry-grade flours won’t work as the periheh will fall apart when you boil them.)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup warm (not hot) water
3 tablespoons melted butter
½ tsp salt
Mix together flour and salt in a large bowl: make a well. Put beaten eggs in the warm water, mix, and then pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix. Add the butter and mix.
The dough should hold together, although it doesn’t look smooth yet. If it feels too wet, add a bit of flour; if it’s ever too dry, add a bit of water.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for three to four minutes. When done, it should be smooth and have a bit of sheen. Take this ball of dough, make sure it’s on a floured wood surface, and cover it with an inverted bowl. Let it sit for one hour.
Take cookie sheets and cover each with a lint-free tea towel, then lightly dust each towel with flour. Have a second tea towel ready for each tray, so you can cover periheh as they are assembled. For this recipe, typically we’ve needed four to five trays (about 150 periheh).
After one hour, uncover the dough and make sure you have a well-floured board and a rolling pin handy, as well as a small sharp knife. Fetch the now-cooled potatoes and have them nearby, with a spoon.
Cut off a strip of dough, and re-cover the remainder with the inverted bowl.
Once you’ve cut off a piece of dough, roll it with your hands on the board or wood counter until it resembles a snake of about 3/4″ diameter. Think Play-Doh days.
Take the “snake” of dough and use the knife to cut it into little pillows, about three-quarter inch square.
Take the cut-apart “pillow” bits and roll them lightly into balls: this need not be perfect; just a gesture toward roundness.
Then take each pillow and, with a well-floured rolling pin, roll out each one into a circle.
If you are working in a team, one person can do this much and the rest of the assembly can be picked up by others. If you are working on your own, make a few circles, then switch to filling them: otherwise, the dough will dry out.
Take a spoon of the cheese-potato filling and put in the middle of each circle of dough.
Fold the dough over into a half moon and pinch all along the edges of the “C” side to seal. It’s a good idea to do the “pinch” round twice to make sure the seal is very tight.
Note that you will likely run out of dough before you run out of cheese-potato filling: save any filling to reheat as potatoes for another meal.
As each periheh is sealed, place it on a tray covered by a floured towel, and put another towel over top to keep the dough from drying out.
Cooking your periheh
Take the biggest pot you own, fill it over half full of water, and bring to a boil: add at least two heaping tablespoons of salt.
Once the water is at a rolling boil, add periheh. It’s great to have a wire-slotted spoon to lower in the periheh gently. Put about one-third of this recipe’s quantity in at once and let the water return to a boil. Do not overcrowd.
As soon as the water returns to boil, and the periheh are floating, it’s time to get them out of the pot.
Have a very large bowl ready and put a big dollop of butter in the bottom: remove the periheh with the wire spoon (they must be drained completely of water) and into the waiting bowl. Once all periheh are in the bowl, stir or flip extremely gently to mix the butter through.
Serve immediately. Have sour cream and more butter available for accompaniment.
Save the water in the pot for cooking batch No. 2; keep it at a below-boil simmer while people are eating, then turn up the heat to a boil to cook the second batch.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen