Words by BY ŽENIJA ESMITS
Pictures by Helena McMurdo
Since before I can remember my family has made Pīrāgi for the Holidays - meant to be ingested at lighting speed and in huge quantity on Christmas Morning.
Pīrāgi are delicious little labor-intensive pockets of Latvian love. Assuming of course everyone substitutes love with bacon. My grandmother made them until she couldn’t, at which point her culinarily stunted son (My Dad) took over . . . – ish. With initial supervision from my Mum, Dad and I began making Pīrāgi. Through trial and error we have been making them for 16 years virtually by ourselves. Mum does ALL the other Xmas cooking but Dad and I tackle Latvia’s answer to the perogy. Every. Single. Year.
To the un-tutored I describe Pīrāgi as bacon dumplings. Inevitably the “Oh perogies!” comment is made - to which I respond with: ”sort of, except they’re baked not boiled.” Cube onion and bacon to miniature proportions and wrap it in yeasty dough to form a perfect little golden brown crescent (roughly the size and shape of a perogy) after baking. Everyone (and I mean everyone) who tries Pīrāgi LOVES them. Binging and begging for the recipe is inevitable.
This year I enlisted the assistance and quality ingredients of Campagnolo Owner/Chef Robert ‘Bo’ Belcham. Having been on the receiving end of our Latvian tradition a couple of times over the years and naturally being enchanted by them, he stupidly agreed to let me infiltrate his pristine kitchen and make a royal mess. Rob had bacon from Campagnolo's ‘Cure’ so these suckers were going to be good. He did the hard stuff ie. chopping the bacon - a tedious job in my opinion. He had me do the onions, which was a colossal mistake as I immediately began sobbing and closed my eyes while I was wielding a very sharp knife – apparently this is not recommended. Rob ended up cutting most of the onion too. Success!
Using a real kitchen was wonderful, we had surfaces, space, and knives that cut as opposed to hack - things Dad and I seem to lack every year.
Traditionally Dad and I bicker and fight over who’s Pīrāgi building technique is better, mainly because he’s jealous of my precision. (According to Wikipedia the smaller the Pīragī the more expert the chef)
Rob played Latvian for the afternoon - Bickering ensued and insults were hurled. We had a great time. Prep and cooking time was a fraction of what it would have been at home in my ill-equipped kitchen. Due to Rob's cleverness we used things like a pasta maker to "roll" out our dough - significantly cutting down the gruelling pouch making process. Industrial ovens that could take 4 dozen Pīrāgi at once meant number of batches were halved.
Normally it's a 6 hour endeavour - including dough rising time and wine guzzling. Minus the booze things went surprisingly faster. Intrepid photographer Helena McMurdo was along for the bumpy ride. She captured the process beautifully – tears and all. Eight dozen Pīrāgi later we were done.