Comfort Food and A Narrative Recipe

Start a pot of boiling, salted water, and preheat the oven to 400.

Comfort food is a personal thing. It is, for each of us, the food that echoes back into early childhood – a food that we looked forward to as a treat when we were children, yet remains an occasional and homey treat. In the eyes of the beholder, it can be neither sophisticated nor common. It should be something Mom made, but not a regular item.

Eating comfort food should return you to the kitchen or dining room of your youth, when one of your favorite meals was being served, and you felt somehow special because of that fact.

Comfort food cannot really be universalized. Restaurants will sometimes label their meat loaf, or their fried chicken, as comfort food, but that is a mistake. Even if a percentage of the population considers such items to be their comfort food, the recipe is essential. Comfort food, to be effective, needs to be “just how mom (or dad) used to make it.”

The individuality of comfort food was brought home to me in a hotel cocktail lounge in Los Angeles a decade ago. A business associate and I wanted to stretch our expense accounts with the best Chinese food to be found in the city. We sought the advice of our friendly Chinese-American cocktail waitress, and she gave us an alluring description of a great Chinese restaurant, and closed her description with the universal tag-line of someone who has found a professional purveyor of their comfort food – “It’s great home-cooking just like mama used to make.” For me, “home-cooking just like mama used to make” did not bring images of dim sum or crab rangoon, but they did for her.

For me, the ultimate comfort food is pierogies, though they were known in our house as “piedogies”. I don’t know whether this is a family corruption of the name, fashioned by some wool-capped child with a budding language disorder in the distant past, or if it is a linguistic clue to the specific neighborhood of Krakow, Poland, that gave rise to my mother’s clan.

Piedogies were the ultimate birthday dinner. I remember my mother and sisters working for hours, flour hanging in the air, boiling water splashing, and cookie sheet after cookie sheet of browned, buttery pillows with crispy edges emerging from the stove.

It turns out that the piedogies I loved are not even mainstream pierogies. I have had pierogies elsewhere, and even frozen, but they different, and certainly not my comfort food. Many have different fillings, with mashed potatoes a common choice, but such variants as sauerkraut, sausage, or even prunes also appearing. More essentially, most are pan-fried in butter – a step my mother’s recipe dodges, as you will see below. May no fate willfully misunderstand me, and half grant what I wish and snatch me away not to return to plates of such creations – I have enjoyed them, and look forward to further exploration of the variations of pierogies. They are simply not the pierogies of my youth.

I sincerely doubt that the omission of pan-frying in butter was a nod toward health – I believe it was a practical necessity as she faced the voracious appetites of 6 children, her Polish-for-the-day husband, and her own Eastern European heritage. My mother’s cooking was always burdened by the practicalities of feeding eight mouths.

When I asked my mother for her pierogie recipe, she couldn’t photocopy an index card or send me a Food Network hyperlink. “It’s just something you do,” she said. She managed to write the basics down, but she struggled to convey on paper what the proper feel of the dough is, or how much butter to use, or how to know when the balance between moist and dry in the filling is reached. I’ve since lost the paper, and have learned to feel the Polish force.

You start with eggs – if you’re feeling fancy, you can separate a few of them and use only the yolks. Probably around 3 eggs and a couple yolks is about right. Scramble them up with a couple dollops of sour cream, and some soft butter – probably about a third of a stick. Then mix in a couple cups of flour and stir the heck out of it with a wooden spoon (plastic isn’t strong enough and metal sounds bad on the bowl – why expose yourself to that noise?). Then keep adding flour until you have a soft, kneadable dough. Knead it on a board for a few minutes, until it feels stretchy and kind of silky. Then cover it with a bowl to rest for a few minutes, while you make the filling.

This is easy. The filling is dry curd cottage cheese, salt, pepper, a couple scrambled eggs, and some flour if it looks too juicy to be a filling. You probably want to use a couple pounds of it. If you can’t find dry curd, small curd will work, but you should drain it some, or you’ll have to use too much flour. Take your time, since the dough should have at least 10 minutes to rest.

When it’s time to work with the dough, roll it out thin. How thin? About as thin as a thin-crust pizza. Keep rolling it thinner, until you start to tear holes, then back off. It doesn’t need to be THAT thin.

I have read accounts of people using pasta machines to roll out the dough, and that makes a lot of sense. About the 5 setting is right, if you choose to go this route. But you shouldn’t. The thing is, you want this to be personal and imperfect, so go ahead, roll it out. And then cut it into shapes that are roughly rectangular, though you’ll wind up with some irregular shapes, and that’s fine.

Put a spoonful of filling in the middle of each piece, lightly moisten the edges, and fold it over, sealing it carefully. Last night, I cheated, and used a fork to press the seals closed on a few of the ones that didn’t seem to seal correctly, and it worked, but that’s not how my mom used to do it, so you probably shouldn’t do that. And you most definitely should not do anything like make a cutesy pattern on the edge. Just get it closed up, because the next step will test your sealing skills.

Did you start a pot of boiling salt water a while ago? Now take the sealed piedogies and drop them into the water, about 6 at a time. After about a minute, they’ll start to float – let them do that for a couple minutes. Pick them out carefully with a slotted spoon or a pair of tongs – be gentle – and put them on a buttered cookie sheet. Then rub butter all over the top of them, and put them in the oven.

When they turn golden brown, take them out of the oven and serve them. In my family, we served them with sour cream for the traditionalists, but the younger generation would put catsup on them – we’ll probably go to Polish hell for that, but, man, that’s good eating.

Last night, I made a whole mess of piedogies, and my older brother and younger sister came over with their families. I also made, by request of Sam, roasted beet borscht (I had never had borscht before, but it was pretty good, and beets are wild things to work with . . .). Robin made a salad, and Sam and Robin worked together to make blueberry blintzes, which were fantastic. And watching them work together, making crepes for the first time and doing a great job of it, that was better.

The whole crowd of family in the living room, telling old stories and new ones. That was comfort food.

One Response to “Comfort Food and A Narrative Recipe”

  1. [...] pepper – maybe a tablespoon? I know ricotta is not Polish, but that sauce tasted just like the filling of my mother’s pierogies – one of my favorite things in the whole world. On top of that I spread bits of crispy bacon, [...]

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