Meditations

Karelian Piirakkaa: a new-old twist on sandwiches


Finnish piirakkaa make a savoury alternative to sandwiches or bread.

Perhaps due to their inscrutable spelling, piirakkaa are one of those foods that few have heard of—but everyone seems to love, once they’ve finally encountered.
This Finnish staple, a kind of salty-bland cross between a sandwich and a pierogi, is pronounced “peer-a-kah,” and makes a tasty substitute for bread when placed beneath cold cuts. It’s also a quick meal in itself with a smear of butter, cream cheese or pate. Basically a rye-flour dough wrapped around porridgy rice or mashed potatoes, it’s a traditional Finnish food that my grandma has prepared her whole life—at last estimate, she’s probably baked close to 500,000 of these little hand-sized pies.

Piirakkaa, like my grandma, originated in Karelia, the part of Finland that shares a border with Western Russia. The area was disputed during the Winter War of 1939-40, and my Gram tells stories of making piirakkas for my Grandpa to take along as he skied off to fight the Russians. Finland lost, by the way, and a large chunk of Karelia ended up as part of Russia. All of this is to say, history might be in the stories, but the stories are sustained by the food, and Gram still makes piirakkaa the same way she always did: by hand, effortlessly, at least once or twice a week.

Today, I’m not sure if I love piirakkaas because of my carb-loving tendencies, or because they contributed directly to the origins of my carb-adoration. Either way, it’s hard to find a good Finnish piirakkaa in a restaurant, at least where I live (though if I had a street food cart, they’d be first on my list of perfect hand-held treats). So it’s up to me to whip them up for myself.

Of course, my Gram isn’t one to fuss with recipes and stuff like that, so when I tried to cajole her into telling me how to make piirakkaa, she rolled her eyes and dragged me into the kitchen to watch. But she’s cunning—whenever I was dutifully writing down what she was doing, she’d quickly toss an ingredient in, or do some other sleight-of-hand that left me wondering, really, how she did what she did.

I was thrilled, then, to find an actual printed recipe in The Finnish Cookbook, by Beatrice A. Ojakangas, a 1964 edition that seems as up-to-date as it needs to be.
Here’s what Ojakangas said:

Karelian Piirakkaa

Filling
Prepare a 2-cup batch of mashed potatoes, however you like them, or make the following rice filling:
1 cup uncooked white rice (I used basmati, but Arborio or long-grain would be fine)
1 tsp salt
2 TB butter
5 cups milk (I used 4 cups milk and 1 cup water because, well, my grandma would’ve done that).

Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
Cook at a low simmer until the milk is absorbed and the rice is creamy. To do this, I put the covered rice pot into my Aga’s simmering oven for about 2 hours. You can also cook it on the stovetop over a double boiler, or just turn the element really low and check it frequently, like my grandma does. A slow cooker would also work.

The rice filling is creamy and savoury, like a really great porridge.

Crust
1 cup water
1 tsp salt
2 TB melted butter or oil
1.5 cups white flour
1.5 cups rye flour

Mix together water, salt, oil, and white flour, stirring until smooth.
Add rye flour and stir until well blended, then knead until you have a smooth dough. (Gram does this by hand in a large bowl, and scoffs at me for using my stand mixer.)
On a floured surface, roll out the dough into ropes about 3cm in diameter, then cut the dough into marshmallow-sized chunks.

Slice the dough-rope into marshmallow-sized chunks, and roll them paper-thin.

Flour each chunk well, and roll it out with a rolling pin until it forms a paper-thin oval. Gram uses an old wine bottle for the rolling-out, because it’s lighter to handle than a rolling pin. You can use whatever suits you, as long as the resulting dough circles are paper-thin.

Spread about two tablespoons of filling in the centre of the dough.

Once you’ve got a circle of dough, use about two tablespoons of the rice or mashed potatoes to spread an oval shape down the centre of the circle. At this point, you can get fancy if you want—add a sprinkle of shredded cheese, some roasted garlic, snippets of sun-dried tomato, a dash of dillweed—but a grandma who lived through the Winter War and survived on bark and dandelions would be shocked at your extravagance.

The trick with piirakkaa is in the folding and shaping. My relatively inept technique sends Gram into fits of giggles. Basically, you’re folding the edges of the dough around the filling, and crimping them to form a kind of zipper-like shape up the centre. The end result is like a pleated oval pie.

You're aiming for a crimped zipper up the centre of the pie.

To bake, line them up on a greased or parchment-lined baking tray, and bake in a 450-degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until the outer dough is hard, dry, and slightly golden brown.

As soon as the piirakkaas are out of the oven, brush them with a mixture of warm milk and melted butter, or dip them into a bowl of warm water topped with a spoonful of melted butter if you’re still thinking about the war. Cover them tightly with foil wrap to cool—they’ll steam soft and pliable, just perfect for toasting or eating straight up.

Spread piirakkaa with egg butter, or top it with lower-cholesterol toppings.

Piirakkaa is often eaten with munavoita, a kind of cholesterol nightmare version of egg salad involving 3 or 4 hardboiled eggs mashed with about a cup of softened butter and salt. No really, that’s it. It’s delicious. And while it may seem inadvisable to consume such vast quantities of pure carbs and cholesterol on a daily basis, like many Finns do, I’d have to point out one more thing: Gram’s going on 94, and can outbake me any day of the week.

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