The impending birth of my daughter’s first child makes me nostalgic about how holidays and special events were marked by my Latvian mother and father. The first order of business: Bake the pirags!*
My mother, a fine baker, would prepare the rich dough and my father — “Pup,” as he was called by his children and grandchildren — would prep the onions, ham and bacon for rendering. He thoroughly enjoyed the task, mincing with precision. Meanwhile, the dough would attain lofty heights and soon their next tag team effort would commence. (It’s much more fun to do this recipe with help!) The dough was rolled and circles were stamped out to be filled (with a moderate amount lest the baked rolls split open), then they were folded and shaped into lovely little crescents, docked and glazed with an egg wash. Baked and cooled, they would then be placed in the heavy mixing bowl, (Hall’s China Company Autumn Leaves design, which I still possess), and covered with a snowy linen towel. I remember my teen-aged brothers swooping in, grabbing handfuls – the rest of us were only slightly less lust-filled for the pillowy buns.
I loved “pirags” but there was a collateral benefit to the baking session which I greeted with equal or possibly greater enthusiasm: Kuchen. When my mother was young and had energy to spare, this thin sweet bread, baked in a baking sheet or jelly roll pan using part of the rich piragi dough, would be offered up in three flavors: apple, sweet cheese (similar to blintz filling), and damson jam with streusel topping. In later years, the apple-cinnamon version was her default.
Mum and Pup were health conscious, legendary walkers and modest eaters who made a point to enjoy pastry, caviar, Baltic black rye bread, and a bit of schapps not only as occasional indulgences but as a way to tap into their limited well of early happy memories. Those years included World War II, becoming refugees, and eventually emigrating to start a new life in the United States. Thanks to them my own memories are untainted by loss and hardship. As I prepare for the trip to meet my new grandson, I am packing my “pirag” recipe in order to celebrate his arrival properly. I think I’ll bring the cheese and the streusel kuchen recipes, too!
*Pirags is actually the singular form, piragi the plural. My Latvian-American brothers and I have always called and thought of them as ‘pirags.’ My parents tolerated our ignorance for some reason – this makes me a bit weepy right now.
For another story about my family please read Irene’s Alexander Cake.