A very warm welcome to experienced Latvian home baker Inga Lucāns! You might have seen her recipes in publications such as Dzeltenā pavārgrāmata or sampled her piparkūkas and kliņģeris at a local tirdziņš, but what you might not know is that there’s demand for her pīrāgi as far away as Hawaii and Alaska! I was very thankful to have her join us last year with a post on piparkūkas, but today I present an early Christmas present – Inga is sharing her recipe for the Latvian pīrāgs!
You may have read in another Femme au Foyer post that few Latvian celebrations take place without pīrāgi (pronounced PEE-rah-gih, with a rolled "r"). When asked to name something traditional to Latvian cuisine, pīrāgi are usually the first food mentioned and pīrāgi, like those that we Latvians love to eat, are unique to Latvian cuisine. They are not piroshki, nor pierogis, nor pot-stickers, nor dumplings, nor eggrolls, each of which may be comparable in their own way to their own cuisine… Latvian pīrāgi, are, of course, the tastiest of all! Entering a home filled with of the aroma of freshly baked pīrāgi elicits feelings of well-being, contentment, safety – the knowledge that all is well with the world – THIS is why every Latvian home should have a pīrāgu-baker!
No two saimnieces (baker's) pīrāgi are identical, even when using the very same recipe. A different touch of the hand while kneading, a change in temperature or humidity, sometimes it seems that even the mood in the kitchen can affect the end result! There are many different recipes for pīrāgi; mine is rooted in my mother's and grandmother's recipes. Many family recipes are a closely-guarded secret, passed on only to a trusted daughter or son. Funny thing – as a child or teenager, I had no interest whatsoever in learning to make pīrāgi, I started baking them in my twenties, and now do so on a regular basis! My grandfather sometimes made jam-filled pīrāgi, and I have experimented with mushroom-and-onion-filled ones, using no chicken fat in the dough, for vegetarian friends – they were quite delicious.
Your pīrāgi will turn out well if made with care, love and mindfulness; on the flipside, dough will not rise properly if there is discord, argument, or yelling in your home.
FOR THE DOUGH:
YEAST, cake – 2 ounces or 3 7-gram envelopes or 11 teaspoons Active Dry Yeast ,
WATER, warm – a splash
SUGAR – ½ cup + 2 teaspoons (for proofing the yeast)
MILK – 1½ cups
SALT – 1½ teaspoons
EGGS – 3 + 1 or 2 for brushing
FATS – ¾ cup total;
VEGETABLE SHORTENING – ¼ cup
BUTTER – ¼ cup (may use salted or unsalted)
CHICKEN FAT – ¼ cup
FLOUR – 6¾ - 7½ cups
FOR THE FILLING: (Filling is best made the night before baking, and stored in the refrigerator)
BACON, thick cut, diced – 1½ pounds
PORK or HAM, lean, cooked, smoked, or preserved, diced – 1 pound
ONION, finely diced – 1 large or 2 small
PEPPER, black, finely ground – to taste
ONION POWDER – to taste
Yield: 100 – 130 pīrāgi.
Notes on ingredients:
Yeast: I prefer to use cake yeast, Red Star brand if available, although the times that I have used Red Star brand Active Dry Yeast, it has performed pretty much the same. Water for proofing the yeast should feel warmer than your skin on the inside of your wrist, but not HOT.
Fats: You may change the ratios to suit your taste, and, if rendered chicken fat is unavailable in your area, or you choose not to use butter, you may use shortening in its place. Shortening – I prefer Crisco brand. I use salted butter, although unsalted butter changes the taste of the dough very little. Chicken fat (this might qualify as my “secret ingredient”) can be purchased at a butchershop – rendered chicken fat – or where kosher products are sold, in the frozen food section – Empire Kosher brand Rendered Chicken Fat. I buy rendered fat at Paulina Meat Market in Chicago.
Flour: I use Ceresota Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, although any unbleached all-purpose flour will work just fine.
Bacon: I use thick sliced, smoked bacon, such as Specially Selected brand Gourmet Thick Sliced Hickory Smoked 24oz. from ALDI. Bacon is much easier to dice when slightly thawed after freezing, so I store it in my freezer until about an hour before dicing. Some butchers or delis will dice bacon for you, but expect to pay a premium price!
Pork: I most often use Spam (yes, Spam), because I find it to be a good consistency for the filling, and it is just salty enough. Smoked pork butt is fine, as are other smoked hams – choose what you prefer.
Ratio of filling to dough: The best pīrāgi have a generous helping of filling thinly surrounded by dough! The proportions in this recipe usually come out just about right, but left-over filling can be used on gray peas, in an omelet, or frozen for the next baking. Leftover dough can be rolled flat and topped with apples, sugar and cinnamon for an impromptu little ābolmaize – open face apple cakelet.
Size: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pīrādziņi) says that pīrāgi range in size from about 5cm in length to 13cm. In my opinion, 5cm is just about right, and a 13cm. long pīrāgs is more than a bit too much! I think that a pīrāgs should be no more than 2-3 polite bites apiece (I do know pīrāgi-eaters who believe each pīrāgs is one bite!).
1) Crumble the yeast into a small bowl or measuring cup with 2 tsp. sugar, add a splash of warm water. Mix to dissolve yeast and sugar. Leave in a warm place to proof.
2) Heat milk until almost boiling; do not boil. Dissolve remaining sugar, salt, vegetable shortening, butter and chicken fat in hot milk.
3) Sift 3 cups flour all at once into the hot milk mixture, incorporate by beating with a wooden spoon. When the dough is smooth (and your yeast has proofed well), add yeast mixture to the dough, stir in gently.
4) Beat 3 eggs lightly with a whisk or fork, add to dough and beat well with wooden spoon.
5) Add remaining flour gradually, beating well with wooden spoon. When the dough is holding together, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead by hand, adding remaining flour bit by bit until dough is smooth and does not stick to your hands (3 – 5 minutes). As you are kneading dough, remember that the more flour you use, the heavier and denser the “bread” of the pīrāgs will be. If you have incorporated almost all the flour, and the dough still sticks to your hands, let it “rest” for a few minutes before finishing the kneading.
6) Place dough in a large bowl, dust with flour, turning, so both sides are floured, cover with a clean cloth, leave in a warm, draft-free place to rise until dough doubles, ½ - 1½ hours.
7) While dough is rising, prepare filling:
A) Dice the bacon. (Bacon is much easier to cut if it is partially frozen.)
B) Brown the diced bacon (until just releasing fat – not fully cooked!); pour off fat.
C) Dice pork or ham.
D) Dice onion.
E) Combine bacon, pork, onions, pepper and onion powder. Store, covered, in refrigerator until needed. Filling is easier to work with when cold.
8) FORM the PĪRĀGI when dough has risen well:
Stretch a small amount of dough off the whole, flatten.
Place approx. a teaspoon of bacon filling on flattened dough, fold dough over.
Carefully, close the edge, and place on a greased (or covered with parchment) cookie sheet, with “seam” down.
Brush with lightly beaten egg, poke gently with the tines of a fork (so that the pīrāgi don’t open ("smile") when rising and baking in the oven).
9) Preheat oven to 375°F.
10) Let the pīrāgi rise approx. 15 minutes, then bake in a 375°F oven until golden brown and beautiful.
11) Cool on a rack.
12) When cooled, store in tightly closed container. May be frozen in plastic bags. Reheat directly from the freezer, or thaw and reheat in a 350°F oven for a few minutes.