Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Our family makes, eats, and all around loves Russian-style pirozhki. I remember their baking as a great childhood event; something that, while quite affordable to make, we didn't eat every day. They often emerged from the oven in the days before Christmas, and always at Easter. Not coincidentally, this was also when mom made her nut and poppy seed coffee cakes, which use the same dough.

Pirozhki and my mother's fabulous date-nut bread are the two most popular family recipes that come down through my father's side of the family. On a shelf at my parents' home in Marietta sits an old photograph of three grim looking men dressed in World War I-era Russian military garb. Presumably one of these men is an ancestor, and genealogical research suggests his stomping grounds may have been the present-day Ukraine. Diverse cultural forces have transformed the gastronomy (and lexograpy) of the pirozhki over time, and the recipe below represents merely one iteration among many found across an expanse of Europe that, with apologies to Winston Churchill, stretches from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic. When I consider the broad range of renditions around the globe, it makes me feel less guilty about treading on family tradition by experimenting with the filling! This recipe, for instance, features a similar dough, but different filling. Perhaps the cooked egg better reflects the dish's modest roots?

As an aside, in 2000, my brother Jeff shared this family recipe with the unwashed in the Thursday food section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It later received the Golden Whisk Award for being one of the 10 best recipes of the year.

The Dough

The dough contains potato as well as flour, and is sweet with a light, fine texture. It would probably make beautiful dinner rolls if twisted into crescents. Turning it into a coffee cake is a matter of spreading a filling on the surface, then rolling it into a log.

(Above) The kneaded dough awaits rising time in a greased bowl.


1 1/2 cups "potato water" - or the water drained from boiling your potatoes
1/4 cup warm water
2/3 cups sugar + a pinch
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 heaping tablespoon of dry yeast
2 eggs
2/3 cups butter
1 cup mashed potato
7 to 8 cups of flour, preferably bread flour


Crack eggs into a bowl. Meanwhile, start boiling your potato and take care to use enough water so that you have the requisite 1 1/2 cups left over.

Proof the yeast in the 1/4 cup of warm water and pinch of sugar.

Put the butter, sugar, and salt into a large mixing bowl. You might use a stand mixer, but be aware that the standard Kitchenaid bowl may not be large enough. Consider the volume of ingredients, and note that this dough comes together well when mixed by hand.

Pour the hot potato water into the bowl and let it melt the butter. Add your mashed potato to the mix. The potato must be finely-mashed. Consider using a food mill or a ricer if you are not confident in your ability to convert unadorned boiled potato into a fine mash.

Once the mixture in the bowl has cooled to room temperature, add the yeast and eggs.

Now it is time to add the flour. I like to add it a 1/2 cup at a time, mixing it first with a whisk, then a spoon, and then my hands as the dough takes shape. Once you have kneaded it into a beautifully elastic ball, move it to a greased bowl and cover with a towel. Place it somewhere to rise - the warmer the place, the faster the rise. Forty-five minutes usually suffices. Once the dough has risen, you are ready to roll it or shape it to your heart's content!

(Above) Approximately 1/5 of the dough ball rolled out approximately 3/16" thick
and ready for the filling of my choosing.

Filling the Pirozhki

The filling that I grew up knowing consisted of humble green cabbage, onions, and ground beef. These ingredients received no more elaborate seasoning than salt and pepper. There is no profitable way to rush the filling's preparation, so it makes a great deal of sense to set it in motion before making the dough. Making it the day before is ideal. Begin by browning approximately a pound of lean ground beef in a large pot and add an entire head of finely chopped green cabbage and three or four (depending on size) onions. To this day, my parents use a pot that is too small to hold all of the raw cabbage, and its lid never fully rests on the pot's rim until the cabbage has had a chance to reduce. It is extremely important to thoroughly drain the excess liquid from the filling after it has been cooked and seasoned. Placing it in a colander in the refrigerator overnight will ensure that it is not too wet.

(Above) Filling draining on the counter. Wet filling = bad.

When you are ready to make the pirozhki, spoon filling out onto your dough (a common heaping household spoonful is about right - perhaps 3 ounces of filling) evenly spaced, leaving roughly two inches between mounds of filling. This will allow you to take a pastry wheel or table knife to cut the dough around the filling so that you have at least an inch in each direction to wrap together. Folding the dough creates a biscuit-sized pirozhki, which you should place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Allow to rise for 20 minutes and then bake between 17 to 20 minutes at 375 degrees fahrenheit or until light goldent brown on top. They are good to eat hot or cold, and their portability makes them perhaps the most ideal on-the-go savory food every conceived. They also go exceptionally well with a dark beer such as a Belgian Trappist Ale.

(Above) It is difficult to capture an image of a full plate pirozhki, as they disappear soon after it has been set upon the table. A great way to hold and serve for company (no more than 20 minutes) is to place them uncovered on an earthenware plate in an oven at its lowest setting.


I have made vegetarian pirozhki by substituting diced portobello mushrooms for the beef. Apostasy to my father, some of my guests have pronounced the veggie version superior to the family original. And it seems plausible that mushroom might be closer to this food's peasant origins. Adding fresh garlic to the filling can enhance the flavor. I have also used Creole seasoning to good effect. Another modification involves brushing the surface of the unbaked pirozhki with an egg wash and sprinkling with coarse salt. If served immediately, such a technique will yield a most attractive pastry. But be forwarned, pirozhki with a glazed surface will neither refrigerate nor freeze well. Without a glaze, they freeze acceptably well in a gallon zip-top bag.