by John Ore
To me, Thanksgiving is as red-blooded an American holiday as there is. Food, football, uncomfortable family moments, and (most American of all) overindulgence. Thanksgivings of my youth added flavors of the American immigrant, inverting the classic Pilgrim-noble savage model.
Sure, we had all of the traditional dishes, lovingly prepared and fussed over. Especially Wild Turkey! But I’m first (and a half!) generation American, so ethnic food has always been a part of family celebrations for as long as I can remember. You already know about the Puerto Rican side of me. Here’s how the Latvian side of my family also holds a central place in any holiday.
When I was young, I actually thought it was weird that I had grandparents with odd names and accents presiding over holidays like Thanksgiving. There were times when I thought that it was unfair that I didn’t have a “Grandma Shirley” or “Grandpa Ben,” settling instead for a mixed heritage that was impossible to explain to other 80-year-olds. But with the benefit of hindsight and (alleged!) maturity, I can see how damned lucky I was to grow up with all of those wonderful foreign sounds and smells in the kitchen each Fall.
For as long as I can remember, the sight of wax paper-wrapped goodies toted in bundles by my grandmother Mirdza signified one thing: the annual treat of Latvian piragi. Light, buttery dough in the shape of a crescent moon encasing bacon and onion, the rarity of their appearance — along with being guarded rabidly by my grandmother, uncle and father — imbued these savory pastries with a mythical and ceremonial aura that made the anticipation of eating them unbearable for a child. Their aroma alone dwarfed the now-pedestrian turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, and sweet potatoes: familiar as a presence yet foreign as a flavor.
So, for me, piragi are the perfect holiday food: reserved for special occasions, sort of a pain in the ass to make, jealously hoarded and lustily consumed with a speed that immediately made you question why Grandma hadn’t made 4 dozen more.
I’ve had the privilege of eating my Latvian grandmother’s piragi as a kid, but I’ve also had piragi in their native habitat as an adult: in Riga’s vast Centrāltirgus and a random bakery in Ventspils. A bag of 20 piragi got my wife and I through the harrowing drive to Cape Kolka. This recipe is legit and authentic, even though it borrows heavily from my wife’s Lithuanian grandmother’s recipe for “bacon buns.” Since Latvia and Lithuania share a ton of cultural, linguistic, and culinary traditions, it’s perfect for starting my own Baltic family holiday tradition.
1 cup milk
2 packages active dry yeast
2 tbs sugar
1 tsp salt
3 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup + 2 tbs unsalted butter
1 egg yolk + 1 tbs milk or cream
I’ve sucked at making dough, but my wife excels at it. So I stick to the fillings.
In a small saucepan, heat milk until lukewarm (about 100 degrees). In a small bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and salt. Stir in 1/2 cup of milk until dissolved. Place the mixture in a warm, draft-free place for 5 to 8 minutes or until the mixture begins to bubble or almost doubles in volume.
Place the flour into a large mixing bowl and make a deep well in the center. Drop in the yeast mixture, egg yolks, remaining milk and 1/2 cup of butter. Using a large wooden spoon, slowly stir the flour into the wet ingredients. Beat vigorously until a firm dough is formed.
Cover the bowl loosely with a towel and place in a warm, draft-free place for 45 minutes or until the dough has doubled in bulk. Punch dough down, turn over, cover and let rise again until doubled (another 45 minutes).
In the meantime, prepare the filling.
1 lb sliced bacon
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 lb fully cooked ham steak, diced in 1/4-inch cubes (2 cups)
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp black pepper, or to taste
vegetarian filling options
rich cheese, like gruyere
mushrooms and onions
In a large skillet, saute the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon to a paper towel and crumble. Stir the onions into the bacon drippings and cook until translucent and golden, then add the ham, stirring until it’s combined with the onion. Stir in the caraway, pepper and bacon, and remove from heat.
Remove the filling with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Reserve the drippings for something fun! I’ve also made vegetarian versions by cutting gruyere into small 1/4” cubes and combining, unmelted, with onions and mushrooms sauteed in butter or olive oil.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease 2 large cookie sheets.
Cut the dough in half and on a lightly floured surface, roll out each half into a large circle. Using a 3” round cutter, cut rounds from each circle of dough. Place about 1 tsp of the bacon mixture into the center of each round and fold the edges over. Crimp the seam with the tines of a fork for flair! Or set them seam-side down on the cookie sheets, forming crescent or half moon shaped rolls. Place them in a warm, draft-free place for 15 to 20 minutes until each crescent rises further, doubling in size.
Bake for 10 minutes, then brush each of the piragi with the egg yolk/cream mixture. Bake another 10 minutes until golden. Makes about 2 dozen.
Piragi serve as an ideal appetizer, snack, or replacement for the boring dinner roll. They may not be a meal in themselves — though Lord knows I’ve tried! — but it’s pretty easy to go through 10 of them while the Detroit Lions line up a field goal.
When reheating these — assuming you make enough to save or freeze, which you should! — do NOT throw them in the microwave. It’s sacrilege to treat piragi in this manner, and results in rubbery dough and dried-out fillings. Place them on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes, or on the “medium” toast setting in the toaster oven.
John Ore is also fond of vāvere.