Christmas Eve in our family holds some of my favorite traditions of the year. Growing up we visited my Baba and Pop for Christmas Eve dinner where they prepared a Ukrainian 12 course feast that’s been served for generations. The story below contains my reflections on this meal combined with excerpts from a similar essay my father wrote last year.
As a young boy my father grew up outside of Albany, New York in a two family house with his grandmother upstairs. His 40 first cousins lived within a several block radius spread throughout their Ukrainian neighborhood. Kids spent all day running up and down the alleys between houses and through the baseball field. Parents sat in lawn chairs in their garages watching the action and gathered for church on Sundays. This community actively preserved the cultures and traditions that the previous generation had brought with them, and as the 4th generation in this family I was lucky enough to experience it.
Every Christmas Eve a vast majority of the family would gather as they had for years. As my dad wrote:
“There would be about 50 or so people in the house. Typically the adults would stay upstairs with my grandmother, the older cousins would use the dining room downstairs. The Christmas Eve dinner followed a Ukrainian tradition. Actually we followed a Lemko tradition. Lemkos are a subset of traditional Ukrainians centered in the Carpathian Mountains in current Poland. They are second in size to only the Kurdish people as a unique cultural group without an independent homeland. The dinner has 12 courses made without meat and dairy products. The courses were based on the availability proletarian resources and supplies. It included wine, a simple bread, potatoes, peas, mushrooms, apples and grains.”
Dinner was served when the first star was visible, meaning the family ate around 5pm and then went to midnight mass after the feast.
This dish, the pirohi, is a staple from this meal. When made on Christmas Eve the recipe included no cheese, and the pirohis were stuffed with potatoes, sauerkraut, or prunes. We have carried on the tradition each year but do include a healthy amount of extra sharp cheddar cheese, which I don’t complain about.
The process entails mashing potatoes with cheese, kneading a dough of flour and potato water, pinching each pirohi, letting them dry, boiling each until they float and then storing them over a bed of sauteed onions. Once they are boiled they are ready serve (usually with a dollop of sour cream), but if you are able to retain any leftovers the flavor is always even better, and the pirohi can be sauteed with butter and the onions.
Over the years we’ve learned a few tricks to making these well. First, you must MAKE SURE to save the potato water – this an essential component of the dough as it adds starch the helps maintain the structure. Also, we prefer to make the potatoes the night before and/or let them cool to room temperature because potatoes that are too warm are a bit too soft during the stuffing/pinching process. Make more than you think you need because they taste better the next day, and get as many hands to help as possible!
This year my father, husband, and I made ten dozen in a true assembly line fashion. Each one of us had a role with my father on dough duty, I stuffed and pinched, and the hubs did the step of sauteing onions and boiling in small batches.
The original recipe from my grandmother essentially said the following: boil and mash the potatoes with cheese, make the dough, form the pirohi, boil and saute in onions, serve with sour cream. After 80 years of going through this process it because quite automatic for her. Each time I make them my hands internalize new bits of this process, and while I still need to go through each of the 11 steps thoughtfully I believe my training wheels have finally come off!
Makes about 10 dozen – using 2 batches of potatoes and 3 batches of dough
- 2.5 pounds of potatoes
- 1 lb extra sharp cheddar cheese – shredded or cubed
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 4 cups of fluffed flour
- 2 eggs
- 4 Tablespoons of vegetable oil (or Crisco as Baba used)
- 1 cup of potato water
- 5-6 medium onions
- Sour Cream
Steps and Notes:
- Peel the potatoes and boil in salted water. When the potatoes are soft drain and SAVE the water that the potatoes were boiled in.
- We suggest saving about 4 cups of this water, just in case.
- Mash the potatoes and add the cheese. Add some salt and a generous amount of pepper to taste. Then, set aside to cool.
- Ideally do this the night before or let cool long enough so that the potatoes are room temp
- To make the dough you first measure out all of the flour into a side bowl to use as needed.
- Then, in a large bowl, add 1 cup of potato water, 4 Tablespoons of oil, and 2 eggs. Whisk together.
- Add the flour 1 cup at a time mixing with a spatula at first and then your hands once the dough ball begins to form. Continue to add flour until the dough becomes a soft pliable ball.
- Note: The dough should be soft, dry on the outside, and should not stick to your fingers. You might not use all the flour but you should use most throughout the process of rolling and dusting.
- Place the dough in a bowl and cover with a plate. Use a knife to cut a piece of the dough and roll out evenly. Cut the dough using a pint glass (3 inch in diameter).
- Place a dollop of potato in the center, fold over and seal the edges
- Baba taught me to roll out a log of potatoes and cut it into 1 inch coins to speed up this process.
- Place on a towel to dry and turn at least once. This should take at least an hour, and can be a few, depending on the temperature and humidity of the room.
- Cut the onions into slivers and saute in oil over low heat until soft.
- To cook, drop into a large pot of boiling water (with a bit of added oil to prevent sticking). Cook for 5 minutes removing them once they begin to float.
- Note: Only boil 8-9 at a time depending on the size of your pot to avoid overcrowding. Stir once after putting them in to ensure they don’t stick to the bottom.
- Place the boiled pirohi in a glass baking dish layered with the onions and place in oven to keep warm. Serve with sour cream.