Pelmeni are the go-to dish for Russian women making a quick dinner on busy days; something every poor student lives off for at least a week at some point of his life; and what you’ll find in a freezer of every Russian bachelor.
Russian pelmeni recipe might remind you of Chinese dumplings and Italian ravioli as they are, too, made of ground meat wrapped in unleavened dough and boiled.
A Few Facts About Russians and Pelmeni
- The best pelmeni are homemade, but nobody’s got time for that. Mostly, people make pelmeni at home for big celebrations like New Year. Otherwise, we get a pack at the grocery store.
- Pelmeni are a must on New Year’s table. The whole family gathers on the evening of the 30th of December to make hundreds of pelmeni while watching a Soviet comedy and chatting. Usually, it’s a factory-like process with, say, a father cutting out rounds of dough, while a mother and a grandma fill them up with meat and seal the edges.
- Traditionally, the filling is made of three kinds of meat: beef, pork and lamb. Nowadays, though, you can find beef and pork mix, beef alone, and even ground chicken. If the filling is anything else, but meat (potato, cottage cheese, mushrooms, cherries), you call it vareniki.
- The choice of sauce for pelmeni is as important and sacred as choosing your religion. There are mayo lovers, mustard devotees, people who prefer their pelmeni with diluted vinegar, some like it with sour cream, others place a piece of butter on top (me! me!) or horseradish sauce on side. There are also weirdos who have it with ketchup (please, don’t be gross).
- Pelmeni are a regular item on the menu of both cheap student canteens and upscale restaurants.
Why You Need Pelmeni in Your Life
Pelmeni, or Russian dumplings, take a lot of time to make. But once you stuffed the freezer with a few kilos, you only spend minutes to prepare a dinner on a busy night or set a table for unexpected guests.
But Where Do Pelmeni Come From?
Theories on origins of this dish are so confusing and contradictory that I am reluctant to cite any here. Most researchers agree, though, that the ancestor of pelmeni are Chinese dumplings.
Some believe that pelmeni were brought to the Ural region of Russia by mongols; others — that they were invented by Komi-Permyak tribes that inhabited the Urals and made their living by hunting.
I tend to believe the latter. What is easier to cook for a hunter who spends most of his time in the forest, but dumplings? They can be frozen, stored for months, then cooked in a few minutes. When Russians moved to Urals and Siberia they adopted the recipe.
Traditional Russian Pelmeni Recipe
When I started out making pelmeni, I looked for the most authentic recipe from the Urals, where I come from. One of the most thorough and detailed recipes I first found about five or six years back belongs to Elena Aizikovich. If you read Russian, jump to her blog and give her pelmeni a try.
Elena got the recipe from her nanny, who was a native Permyak — it doesn’t get more authentic than that. My recipe is adopted from hers, but after years of trial and error (and thanks to my wonderful readers’ suggestions) I made quite a few changes.
Unlike Elena, I took the easier road when it comes to filling. Even though I love cooking from scratch, the idea of grinding meat for pelmeni is still a little intimidating, so I use store-bought mix of beef and pork. I currently live in Germany, though, so the quality of meat is not something I ever worry about.
I also modified the proportions of the dough by increasing water to make it softer and easier to work with. Then, there are a few insignificant tweaks to the technique, but that’s inevitable as every woman finds her own way of mastering the dough.
I strongly believe the dough for pelmeni should be simple; no funky business with adding sour cream, buttermilk or the like. In fact, it’s just a few ingredients: flour, water, eggs, salt. That is it.
Eggs make the dough elastic and easy to roll out. In the original recipe, Elena tells the story of how her nanny used the egg shells to measure water for pelmeni — in her recipe the amount of eggs equals the amount of water. However, I (and a few of the readers — check the comment section!) figured that these proportions result in firm dough that’s hard to knead, let alone roll out thin. As a result, the amount of water is increased in my recipe.
When you are finished kneading and proofing, the dough should be firm enough to not let water get inside pelmeni while they are being boiled, but elastic enough to roll it out paper thin.
As I mentioned earlier, my go-to is a mix of ground beef and pork in 1:1 proportion. I get it at supermarket. Sigh! I want to be one of those cool people who grind their own meat — and on those occasions when I make pelmeni with my parents I am! — but on my own I take the easy way of buying it.
The original Ural pelmeni are not made with ground meat. Back in the day, a wooden bucket and a sechka, a special mincing knife, were used. So the meat was not as much ground as it was chopped.
Working with Pelmeni Dough
The popular way of working with dough is to roll it out thin and cut out rounds with a wine glass. Easy-peasy. The right way, though, is to cut small pieces of dough and roll them into rounds individually.
While I may skimp on grinding meat on my own, I do spend a ton of time rolling out the dough piece by piece for each pelmen. The resulting pelmeni are not as uniform as the ones cut-out by a glass, but the dough comes out thinner and somehow softer.
There’s nothing wrong with using the faster method. If you are short on time, just go ahead and use a wine glass, I won’t judge you. But if you have a couple of hours, a willing-to-help family member or at least Netflix to keep you company, let’s do traditional Russian pelmeni the right way!
Once the dough is mixed, kneaded, and rested, cut out a strip and roll it to be about 2 cm (1 inch) in diameter.
Cut the strip into 2 cm (1 inch) pieces and place them onto a floured surface in front of you.
Note: you can go with 1.5 cm (half an inch) to make even smaller pelmeni which I absolutely love… to eat that is. But making them is gonna take even more time.
Take one piece at a time, press it down, and make a round using your fingers. Then roll it out with a rolling pin. The round should be about 7 cm in diameter with the dough almost transparent. Be sure not to overdo it, though, or it may rip while boiling.
Hold the round in your left hand and place a teaspoon of the filling in the center.
Cover the meat with the upper part of the round and start sealing the edges from center working your way down each side.
Then seal the ends together.
Boil pelmeni for about 8 to 12 minutes. If the dough is done right it should shrink during the boiling process, making “wrinkles” around meat. Make sure to generously salt the water and add a bay leaf.
There are two main ways to serve pelmeni: either drain all the water or intentionally add some to the plate. The first method ensures that once you add butter or sour cream they will nicely “coat” pelmeni (as opposed to get diluted if there’s water left in the plate).
I, however, love the water! You can serve pelmeni in actual meat broth if you have some in your fridge or freezer (just a few tablespoons, it shouldn’t look like a soup). But the easiest way is to use the water you boiled pelmeni in. It’s quite fatty and aromatic.
When you are making pelmeni, arrange them on a board dusted with flour in rows. You can also use plates or anything that will fit in your freezer. Once the board is full, place it in the freezer to let pelmeni harden, for at least half an hour. Then you can transfer them to a plastic bag and place the bag in the freezer.
If you put freshly-made pelmeni straight into a bag, they will stick together into a giant ball of dough and meat.
For the dough:
- 2 eggs
- 1 tbsp any vegetable oil (I use olive oil)
- cold water
- 500 g sifted flour
- a pinch of salt
For the filling:
- 1 kg ground beef and pork mix
- 2 small onions, peeled
- 5 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tsp salt
- freshly ground pepper
- 2 bay leaves
Making the dough
1. Crack eggs into a bowl and add oil.
2. Add cold water to eggs and oil so that the total weight is 300g (2 eggs should take up approximately 100g + 10g for oil).
3. Place sifted flour into a separate bowl and make a hole in the center. Pour egg mixture in.
4. Mix the dough with a mixer for 10 minutes using dough hooks.
5. When all the wet ingredients are mixed in and the dough forms a ball, place it on the table dusted with flour.
6. Knead the dough with your hands until it stops sticking (shouldn't take more than a minute or two).
7. Place the dough in a bowl, cover it with a damp towel and leave to rest for at least one hour. After resting the dough will become softer and easier to work with.
Making the filling
1. Chop onions and garlic cloves finely. Any big pieces might rip the dough.
2. Mix ground meat with onions and garlic.
3. Add salt and pepper and mix well.
1. Cut a strip of dough and roll it into a cylinder approximately 2 cm (1 inch) in diameter. Tip: keep the rest of the dough covered to prevent it from drying.
2. Cut the cylinder into 2 cm (1 inch) pieces and place them on the table dusted with flour in front of you.
3. Take one piece at a time, press it down and stretch with your fingers to make a round. Then roll it with a rolling pin to be about 7 cm (almost 3 inches) in diameter. You want it to be as thin as possible for better taste. Be careful not to roll it too thin, or the dough will break when you boil pelmeni.
4. Hold the round in your left hand (shake off any execess flour) and place a teaspoon of filling in the center.
5. Place the upper part of the round on top of the filling and start sealing edges. Start from the center and work your way down one side, then the other side.
6. Seal the ends of pelmeni together.
7. Repeat to the rest of the dough. Place pelmeni in rows on a board dusted with flour. Once the board is full, put it in the freezer until pelmeni are hardened. Then take it out, transfer pelmeni to a plastic bag. Put the bag back into the freezer.
8. If you want to have your pelmeni right away, you can boil them fresh, without freezeing.
1. Fill a pan with water and bring it to boil.
2. Add salt (1 tsp of salt for each 1 liter of water).
3. Place desired amount of pelmeni into boiling water (about 10-12 per person). Don’t be tempted to put a lot at once. Keep it down to 25 pieces at a time. Immediately mix them with a slotted spoon to make sure they are not stuck to the bottom. After you add pelmeni to boiling water, the water will cool down and you will need to wait for it to boil again.
4. Mix pelmeni carefully from time to time untill all of them come up to the surface. Then cook them for another 3 minutes,
5. Take pelmeni out using a slotted spoon. You can add a few tablespoons of the water they were cooked in to the plate.
6. Serve immediately. My go-to is a piece of butter with lots of freshly-ground black pepper on top of pelmeni. You can also serve them with sour cream, mayo or mustard.
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