Russian food isn’t the food of my childhood. It’s not even the food of my adolescence or my young adulthood. It’s the food of my late-twenties. That’s what I’ll dub it. The two-year (and counting) period when I spent countless mornings flipping through old Russian cookbooks and scribbling pages of notes on yellow legal paper while in a fish curing workshop with Chef Bonnie Morales all in a futile attempt to move some of her culinary brilliance into my own kitchen. Hoping that I’d somehow absorb her talent for filling tables with salty beet-cured salmon and cheese-filled breads through osmosis.
It’s the period where I told every single houseguest who passed through our humble global food-obsessed city, “You cannot miss Kachka.” And they’d inevitably respond with, “Russian food? That sounds weird.” And I’d say back, “Tough. We’re going.”
I really am a not-so-bossy hostess, I swear.
After a night spent with horseradish vodka and a platter full of pickled things and warm soups and some kind of amped up Russian music thumping in the background, they’d turn to me and say, “Okay, you were right. That was the best meal in all of Portland.” And then with those comic-like stars in their eyes they’d follow with, “And those dumplings!” And I’d reply with a somewhat-smug smile and do my best to keep my inner 5-year-old from scrunching up her nose and shouting, “Told ya so!” Thankfully, she usually kept quiet. Unless there was too much vodka at dinner, then all bets are off.
The pelmeni here are my attempt at recreating the epic Siberian Pelmeni in Fancy Broth from Kachka. The dough for these is similar to the kind you’d find in a Chinese dumpling. It’s thin and delicate but also incredibly pliable. I’ve shaped mine into semicircles but some books and recipes will say to pinch the ends of those semicircles together to form more of a crescent moon shape. I preferred the look of the half circle, but the shape is really up to you. The good news is they taste the same regardless of shape.
The filling, though, that’s where this dish really comes to life. Folded into the semicircle of that pliable dough is a seasoned beef and pork combination that’s seasoned with garlic, shallots, and spiked with fresh horseradish. The dumplings are shaped and then frozen with meat still raw for at least 24 hours before serving, done historically, so it goes, to last through the harsh winters. I serve mine here in a rich chicken broth that’s swirled with tangy crème fraiche and finished off with just a few tablespoons of white vinegar to brighten what is an otherwise heavy, umami-rich dish.
It took me about seven iterations and a whole gaggle of New Year’s Eve dinner guest-affirmations before I felt confident in putting these bowls of intense warmth and comfort out there on the Interwebs. Trying to live up to Chef Bonnie’s savory, soothing pelmeni is a tall order, especially for a girl with Cajun roots.
But what can I say? We can’t always choose the food we fall in love with.
- 3 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2 teaspoons of kosher salt or 1 teaspoon of regular table salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup of very cold water
- ¾ pound of ground pork
- ¾ pound of ground beef (ideally, 80/20 lean/fat)
- 3 shallots, chopped finely
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon of freshly grated horseradish
- 1 tablespoon of kosher salt or 1 teaspoon of regular table salt, plus more for salting the cooking water
- 2 teaspoons of freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon of very cold water
- 8 cups of chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons of white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon of creme fraiche
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- fresh chives, chopped finely, for garnish
- In a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, mix the flour and salt. Add the egg and while the dough hook is in motion, add the water in a thin stream until dough forms a ball. Continue to knead until smooth, about 1 minute if you're working with a stand mixer, about 2 minutes if you're kneading by hand. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and let stand for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, assemble the meat filling.
- Combine all of the filling ingredients in a large bowl, mixing gently with your hands until just combined. Do not overmix the meat. At this point, you may want to oil a frying pan and cook some of the meat filling in a patty to test for seasoning. The meat should be well-seasoned, so if you find the salt and pepper is not up to your taste preferences, mix more in. Set aside until dough is rested and ready for assembly.
- Divide the dough into two balls, setting one ball back under the damp towel to keep it from drying out. Flour a work surface for assembling the dumplings. I prefer either marble or wood.
- Roll the first dough ball into a very thin sheet. It does not have to be any particular shape, just get it as thin as you can without ripping. I find about 1/16th of an inch is ideal since this dough casing is meant to be thin but if you can't get it that thin or it intimidates you to work with that delicate of dough, you can get away with a bit thicker. Use a round biscuit cutter or glass rim to cut out 2-inch circles.
- Take a scoop of the meat filling, about 2 teaspoons worth, and place it in the semicircle, making sure the filling doesn't reach the edges. Fold the edges on top of one another and pinch to seal. If you're having trouble getting them to seal, egg white can come in handy. However, I found it wasn't necessary. Place dumpling on a floured baking sheet. Repeat until all of the dough and meat has been used. You should have about 60 pelmeni, though this will vary slightly depending on how thin you stretched your dough.
- Cover the sheet of pelmeni with aluminum foil and place in freezer for 24 hours. Remove and transfer to a plastic bag or storage container until ready to cook and serve.
- When ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While water is coming to a boil, heat chicken broth in a separate pot over low heat. Add vinegar and creme fraiche and simmer until you are ready to serve the cooked pelmeni. If broth begins to boil, reduce or remove from heat.
- Add frozen pelmeni to the boiling salted water and cook until they float to the surface and have cooked all the way through, about 8-10 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes so that they don't stick together. To check for doneness of the meat, you may want to remove one test dumpling and slice into it to make sure it is cooked through. Strain in a colander and toss dumplings with 1 tablespoon of butter.
- To assemble, add several dumplings to each bowl, followed by 1-2 ladles of broth, and garnish each with creme fraiche and chives.