Saturday, December 20, 2008

Polish Christmas - Pierogis and Chrusciki

I think nearly everyone has some type of food or foods they associate with Christmas. For me, it's my Polish grandmother's cheese pierogis (pronounced pier-oh-gees - hard G) and delicate fried chrusciki (pronounce kroos-cheeky) cookies (also known as Angel Wings).

Every Christmas while growing up in Massachusetts, my grandmother Katherine Komendecki would make tons of both. She always served them at the night before Christmas dinner -- traditionally a vegetarian meal. Another traditional touch to this meal is that there was always hay placed under the tablecloth -- to symbolize the hay in the manger when Jesus was born.

My grandmother (or Babci in Polish) never wrote her recipes down and she passed away over 30 years ago. Fortunately, my older sister had the foresight to watch her make these traditional favorites and take notes.

Cheese Pierogis
(Pictured Above) While variations of this recipe abound -- some are filled with potatoes, some with sauerkraut, others with meat fillings, this is the kind I remember most, especially at Christmas time. If you can't find farmer's cheese you can use cottage cheese, but drain it overnight.

It will help production immensely if at least 2 people make the dish together, although I have made them alone. The most important thing to remember when making the little turnovers is to make sure they are COMPLETELY sealed. If any gaps exists, they will break open and the filling will spill out during the cooking process. Th following link will give you the recipe and detailed photo instructions on how to make Pierogis.

Polish Chrusciki Cookies AKA Angel Wings

These light fried pastry cookies were a favorite of my family when I was growing up in Massachusetts. My Polish grandmother Katherine Komendecki made them for Christmas, Easter, weddings and any other extra special event that was celebrated. She made five huge wicker laundry baskets full of these delicate cookies for my sister Bambi's wedding.

While variations of this cookie recipe abound (my cousin's grandmother used sour cream and heavy cream in hers), my sisters and I agree that this Chrusciki recipe is closest to our grandmother's -- very light, delicate and flaky.

The dough for these cookies is not very sweet -- most of the sweetness comes from the powdered sugar sprinkled over the cookies. The cookies are ultra-delicate, so they, unfortunately, don't ship well, although if you pack very carefully it can be done (but not recommended).

Important Tips and Hints:
The eggs and the butter need to be at room temperature before beginning!

While you can mix this dough by hand, I recommend an electric mixer. It really needs a lot of beating and kneading. Nonetheless, my grandmother did it by hand, so if you don't have a mixer and are ambitious, it can be done.

Traditionally lard was used for frying the cookies. Of course, that was what was readily available in the days of my grandmother. My cousin Arlene still makes them this way. I personally like to use vegetable shortening. My sister Bambi prefers a neutral cooking oil, like canola oil. All three cooking mediums will do the job well, so take your choice.

While one person can make these cookies alone, it is much easier as a two person job -- that way one person is cutting and shaping the dough while the other is frying. If you are working alone, I would suggest rolling out, cutting and shaping all the cookies first, keeping them on a baking sheet, lightly covered with a barely damp clean kitchen towel, until you are ready to fry them.

Variation: Chrusciki Rosettes

Same dough recipe, but shaped differently, these jelly or preserve filled rosettes make a dramatic presentation. While they look like they;d be difficult to make, they're really easier than the traditional version.

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