What do you do with mothers on holiday visits? My friend Halina is from a mixed cultural background: She left England for America more than 30 years ago. But her late father was Polish and her mother is British. Despite her mother's Birmingham accent, Bobbie adopted enough Polish ways that all of Halina's friends call her Babsha, Polish for grandmother.
We all know Babsha well. When she goes to the trouble of crossing an ocean for a visit, she makes it worthwhile, settling in for weeks. After raising four sons and a daughter, Babsha takes cooking seriously. That means Halina's friends get treated to plenty of Babsha's cooking at Christmas - Polish walnut torte and galumpki, usually with an English steamed pudding thrown in.
This year, Halina was determined that her mother's visit would include a cooking lesson in pierogies. Actually, she wanted her mother to show the whole Polish repertoire, an idea that made her mother roll her eyes. We negotiated her down to a big batch of pierogies.
I do have some experience with pierogies: My son's godmother is from a Polish family. When she got married in Cleveland, her family hired "the best Polish caterer in Cleveland," a statement pronounced with the hushed reverence of "the best cattle herder in Texas". The wedding banquet featured more kinds of pierogies than I can count or recall, especially since it also included a day of vodka toasts that started in the bride's dressing room at the church before the ceremony.
Luckily, there were no vodka toasts for the pierogie cooking session last week. When several of us gathered in Halina's kitchen, there already was a huge pot of boiled, mashed Russet potatoes. First lesson: Cheez Whiz squirted into the potatoes, along with sauteed onions. It has the tanginess of English cheddar, Babsha explained, but it blends easier.
I sent out a Tweet about the Cheez Whiz and got a disparaging comment from a chef: "British food - go figure." No, not British, according to Babsha. That's a Ukranian shortcut that also turns up among her emigre connections in Canada. Listen, when you raise five kids on platters of pierogies, you don't turn up your nose at shortcuts that work.
Next, she pulled out the biggest mixing bowl in the house, dumped in an enormous pile of flour and made a mixture of eggs, cold water and vegetable oil to work into it with her hands. How much? "Until it's enough."
The kitchen table was cleared off and Halina was put to work rolling out the dough to her mother's specifications: Thin enough? No, thinner. Is that thin enough? No, girl, thinner!
Finally, Halina was granted permission to start cutting out circles with a wide drinking glass. We sat around the table, snow on the ground outside, and shaped teaspoons of potato filling on the dough circles, wet the edges with a little water, folded them closed and pressed them shut carefully, crimping tightly so they wouldn't come open in boiling water. Babsha lined them up on a tray dusted with flour so they wouldn't stick together.
After dropping them in boiling water to cook, they were drained and chilled, to be finished that night by frying them in a little butter. With a big pot of chicken soup and a salad of shredded, roasted beets mixed with lemon juice, sugar and enough horseradish to clear every nose on the East Coast, that was dinner on a winter night.
Can I tell you have to make pierogies? No, girl. But I got plenty of practice in eating them.