Dumplings with filling (called “pelmeni” if they are filled with meat, “vareniki” if the filling is cheese or some vegetable) came to Russia from Central Asia. It’s the perfect fast food for a region with long, intensely cold winters. Making pelmeni — which is how I will collectively refer to them from now on — making pelmeni from scratch is a time-consuming and laborious task, as you shall see shortly, but once you’ve made a bunch, you can always have a hot, tasty and filling meal in mere minutes. As long you take simple precautions against freezer burn, pelmeni will keep indefinitely in subzero temperatures. And so it became a tradition in Siberia and northern Russia for women to make thousands of pelmeni for the long winter as soon as temperatures fell reliably below freezing sometime in mid-November. A day or two of hard work paid off, for the family would have a good source of quick hot meals all winter long. Pelmeni and vareniki would be kept in canvas bags in unheated sheds or barns. If you needed to make dinner, you could just scoop a bunch of dumplings out of a bag with a bowl and take them to the kitchen to be prepared.

Nowadays, there is little reason to make pelmeni from scratch. Frozen pelmeni of very good quality are mass-produced, and given that the process of making them yourself IS quite time-consuming and labor-intensive, most Russians opt to get them from the freezer section of their market. Store pelmeni typically come in three varieties: “Siberian”, filled with a combination of beef, pork and onions; veal, which have a somewhat milder flavor than Siberian; and chicken, whose chief recommendation is that they are lower in calories. Sometimes you can also find “farmer” or “peasant” pelmeni, where the meat filling is stretched with cabbage; they produce a pungent odor with cooked. Farmer pelmeni are traditionally considered inferior (after all, poverty would be the only reason to cut the meat with cabbage), and I don’t recommend them. Central Asian cousins of pelmeni — manty (large dumplings filled with lamb and raw onion) and khenkali (manty’s rough Georgian equivalent) — are also widely available in Russian markets.

The very few people who make pelmeni themselves falls into the following categories: (1) culinary purists with entirely too much time on their hands (guilty as charged); (2) people who are preparing pelmeni with unusual fillings, such as fish or duck; (3) people who follow dietary laws or rules that render industrially produced pelmeni unacceptable; and (4) people who are honing their skills for the impending zombie apocalypse. These days, I don’t, in fact, have much time on my hands, and I think making pelmeni from scratch is more trouble than it’s worth, but since I am writing this long entry already, what the hell, I’ll include a recipe. A word of advice: spread this project over two days. Prepare your filling and put it in the refrigerator overnight, then prepare the dough and form the dumplings the next day. And, before you decide to do this, something to think about: your standard family of four — mom, dad and two kids — can easily put away FIFTY pelmeni in one sitting.

Making pelmeni from scratch: Assuming you already have your filling (more on that later), start with a cup of tepid water, one large egg and a teaspoon of salt. Whisk it all together in a large bowl until slightly foamy, then begin sifting flour in the liquid about ½ cup at a time. Keep adding and whisking in flour until it becomes too thick to whisk, at which point turn the dough out onto a large floured surface and start kneading. Add flour in smaller and smaller increments until you end up with dough that is elastic, but does not stick to your fingers.

Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for one hour. Then, take out of the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature (still wrapped) for at least 45 minutes.

Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead some more. Cover your ball of dough with a moist towel.

Break off a tennis-ball-sized piece of the dough and roll it out until no more than 1/16 inch thick. (The thinner the skins, the tastier and more tender your pelmeni will be.) Use a glass or a cup with approximately a 2-3 inch diameter to cut rounds from your sheet of dough.

Now for the fun part.

Take one round skin and lay it flat on the palm of your hand. Put 1 teaspoon of filling in the center. Fold over the skin and pinch it together, as if you were making an empanada. Make sure to seal the edges well. At this point, you have a half-moon. Now take the two corners of the half-moon, bring them together towards the middle, and pinch to seal. You now should have something that looks like this:

If you are making vareniki, do not merge the corners, leave them in the shape of tiny empanadas.

Continue making more skins and filling them as described above. Arrange shaped pelmeni in a single layer on a shallow, lightly floured tray, cover, and freeze promptly. (Unfrozen pelmeni should not touch each other on the tray, or they will stick together.) Once pelmeni are completely frozen, you can pack them into sealable bags. They will keep in the freezer for a couple of years before the skins begin cracking and disintegrating.

Fillings: In addition to not having much time these days, I am no longer a culinary purist, either. Fill your pelmeni with whatever you want, be creative. A few caveats, though:

First, for meat-filled dumplings, use fatty cuts and a coarse grind. Filling made from lean meats or meats that have been ground at regular grind tend to lose moisture and shrivel during cooking, producing noticeably inferior pelmeni. So don’t trim (and don’t use chicken, unless you are on a diet) and either use the sausage grind on your grinder or mince the meat by hand. Adding raw onions helps to retain moisture, hence the manty filling recipe — 1 part lamb, 1 part lamb fat, 2 parts raw onions — is ideal. The Jewish version of dumplings, known as “kreplach” contains previously cooked and ground beef mixed with brown onions. Although this is a good way to use leftover roast or brisket, kreplach tend to be dry, which is why the traditional way to serve them is by adding them to soup.

Second, for vegetable vareniki, the main problem is the excess of moisture that you usually have in vegetables. In fact, moisture creates TWO problems. For one, soupy fillings retain heat longer than the outer skin, with the result that such dumplings will burn your mouth when you bite into them. Second, soupy fillings tend to taste bland and unseal the skin. So use starchy vegetables and do not add any liquids to them. Take potatoes, for example, the most common ingredient in vareniki. Regular mashed potatoes do not work as filling. You need to make special, very thick mashed potatoes, which do not incorporate milk, cream, or any other liquid. Boil the potatoes with skin on (or better yet, bake them in salt), peel and mash with butter. Season generously with salt and pepper, and that’s your filling. You may add browned onions for extra flavor, and grated cheese would serve as a further thickening and binding agent. Vegetables and legumes that either contain a lot of water or absorb it readily do not work in vareniki. Mashed beans and chickpeas simply do not work (believe me, I’ve tried).

Classic Siberian pelmeni consist of equal parts beef (I suggest you use short rib) and pork, with a generous addition of onions. There is some degree of disagreement as to whether the onions should be browned beforehand. I prefer adding raw onions, as in my experience, they are better at keeping the filling tender and moist.

Cooking pelmeni: Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add salt, peppercorns and bay leaf. Add frozen pelmeni and run a spoon along the bottom and sides of the pot, to prevent sticking. When all the pelmeni float to the surface, reduce heat and let simmer for 5-8 minutes. Drain and serve.

Serving pelmeni: The traditional way to eat pelmeni is to dress them with vinegar and sour cream. Typically, pelmeni are served undressed, and individual diners add whatever they want to them. The addition of mustard to vinegar and sour cream is common. Another, more rustic way to eat pelmeni is to serve them in their own cooking liquid, with a dollop of butter. Some people pan-fry cooked pelmeni, although this is more common in southwestern parts of Russia, closer to Moldova and Poland, less so in other regions.

In an Afghan restaurant one day, I was served meat-filled dumplings dressed with pureed fresh tomato and sour cream. Although this would not be traditional in Russian cuisine, I thought the flavors were fabulous.

Cooking and serving potato vareniki (“pierogi”): Simmer vareniki in salted water for no more than 2 minutes. Drain and pan-fry on both sides until golden-brown. Serve with browned onions and sour cream.

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