Sunday, August 26, 2012


by Zinta Aistars


 3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 envelope dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 eggs, beaten
3 cups flour
1 pound bacon, diced
1/2 medium onion, diced
salt and pepper to taste

Heat milk to almost boiling. Remove from heat and add butter and salt. Allow to cool, add sugar.
In a small bowl, prepare dry yeast in warm water and allow to expand. Add to milk  mixture.
Add one beaten egg to milk mixture, then add flour one cup at a time.
Dough will be stiff but sticky. When it begins to leave the sides of the bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured pastry board or table top. Work enough flour into the dough so that it does not stick to hands or board. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes. Cover bowl with a towel and leave in a warm place to double in size (about 1 1/2 hours).
In a hot pan, fry the diced bacon for about five minutes without letting it get crisp.
Season bacon with salt and pepper. Place in bowl (blot with paper towel if too fatty) and cool in refrigerator. In the same pan and in the bacon fat, fry onions until they are almost clear, but again without letting onions crisp. Pour off any remaining fat (if there’s a lot of fat, may blot onions with paper towel) and add onions to cooled bacon.
Split the dough into two portions and roll each into 20" long strand. Cut each into one inch portions. This will give you 40 pieces.

With your hands briefly roll, then flatten into a thin circle of dough, large enough to put a teaspoon of filling into the middle. Don’t touch edges of circle with greasy fingers. Fold edges over and pinch tightly together. It is important to make a tight seal around the filling so that the dough doesn’t separate during baking.

Place on greased or non-stick cookie sheet (or cover pan with aluminum foil), pinching the seam of the dough under to prevent separating during baking.  Shape the rolls into a crescent.
Brush tops of crescents with a beaten egg (for shine) and bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 12 to 15 minutes until golden brown.

It's a week to my daughter's wedding, and on the Friday before, family, hers and his, are meeting for dinner after the rehearsal. We are all gathering first at the church in Chicago (where the soon-to-be-wedded couple live) so that everyone can go through the steps. My son will walk my daughter down the aisle, and that's the moment I expect I will be in danger mostof turning into a sopping mess of motherly tears.

It's a bit of a break with tradition, but some traditions are meant to be broken. It's right that those two make that walk together. Growing up, we were the three musketeers, mama and her two babies, and it wasn't an easy life. Sibling closeness was especially important. Those two were, and still are, always there for each other when the rest of the world went missing.

And then, the new couple will join their lives, stand at the altar side by side. With that moment, with the promises made, two families will be connected. My daughter wanted to bring something of her heritage to the new family she will be joining with this marriage. She asked me and her grandmother, my mama, to bake a favorite, classic Latvian treat: pīrāgi

Mama (Mam-mam to her) and I got busy. It was a particularly hot Saturday, hitting 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but we cranked up the air conditioning in mama's house and got busy. Mama was a bit worried; she hadn't been baking for a while, years making themselves known to her. Her energy was not what it used to be. But we both wanted to do what we could for my baby girl's special day. I couldn't even remember the last time I had made pīrāgi. Certainly years. But they were the first treat I reached for on a Latvian table, and they appeared on all of them whenever Latvians gathered for a special occasion.

Mama opened her Latvian cookbook (see recipe above), and we measured, diced, minced, beat, mixed, kneaded. During the hour and a half when the dough had to rise, we had glasses of wine, merlot with plums and black cherries, and talked about what we would wear. I had just picked up my dress from the store that morning, but wasn't sure about jewelry. I'm not much for frill, and over the years had actually sold a lot of my jewelry, finding it of little use as I got more and more into a simpler lifestyle, now living on a 10-acre farm in southwest Michigan. Digging my hands into garden dirt left little use for rings and bracelets.

But oh my mama loves her jewels! Latvian amber especially. She brought out her collection and let me sort through to find something that would go well with my new dress. And I found it! A piece as if created for my dress, with tiny beads strung on rows of tiny chains, glittering blues and blacks. Perfect.

Back to kneading. The dough had risen to double its size. I loved the feel of it. Years before, when time seemed less rushed, I used to bake my own bread, and kneading the dough lightly now with floured hands brought back memories of warm bread fresh from the oven. Surely nothing as delicious. I must get back to baking bread again ...

For all her wondering if she had the energy anymore to make and bake more than 100 pīrāgi, my mama got busy, rolling dough in her hands, flattening it out into neat little circles, spooning in filling, shaping crescents on the cookie sheet. I made rows beside hers, and I painted beaten egg with a small brush over each one. 

Something about working in the kitchen together ... magic happens. We started cracking jokes, mama got flour all over her nose, the delicious pīrāgi came out golden from the oven, and our bowl filled with more and more of them. We had a few to spare, and we ate, sharing them with my father, who was a very willing taste-tester. 

"I should make these more often," mama said, wiping flour off her nose and getting more on instead.

"Me, too," I popped another one in my mouth, steaming hot.

Food bonds. Shared meals, the trading of recipes, families sitting down together at a table. Every culture has its own favorite dishes, and with these dishes comes a history of families and nations.

I look forward to that moment of two families sitting down to one table and breaking bread together.


  1. Thank you! Thank you! I've been trying to make my Grandma's Piragi for years. She passed a few years ago. Since she was never able to write her recipes down in the camps and then it became second nature to her. Your recipe and pictures are the closest I've ever come to hers. I'm so excited to make yours for Christmas this year. Thank you also for sharing your story. It truly touched me and brought back such wonderful memories.

    1. So pleased you enjoyed it and will be making piragi. They really are wonderful. I am about to make another batch for another special occasion in our family ... my daughter's baby shower.

  2. This is wonderful! I love family traditional recipes. My favorite family traditional recipe is my Grandmother's Sand Tarts (cookies). I've blogged about that too. Also my mother's Orange Cookies. for the sand tart recipe. And for the Orange Cookies.
    I would love to try your Piragi...but it looks like I'd need to borrow your mother to help! Enjoy!!!

    1. This time around, alas, making piragi without my mamma's help, but I taste my childhood in them. I will check out your family cookies ...

    2. What is it about tastes and smells that take us right back to our childhood? Pretty wonderful stuff!