Pelmeni: Siberian Winter Food

Pelmeni (plural, пельмени in Russian) are dumplings consisting of a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough. The typical filling for pelmeni is minced meat with chopped onion, salt, and pepper. According to a legend I’ve heard, pelmeni was the favorite food of postal coachmen and hunters who had to cross endless snowy Siberian steppes. Sometimes coachmen could spend days without meeting a single living soul, excluding inns or any other en-route facilities. Minding this and particularly fierce winter weather, coachmen had to think carefully about their food. Pelmeni seemed to be a perfect solution: nutritious, compact, could be kept frozen for weeks, and was easy to cook.

To me, pelmeni is a taste of New Year. There was a tradition in my family to make pelmeni before the New Year night. We made them together: my mom was in charge for the filling, dad made the dough and then flattened the round cakes with a rolling-pin. My sister and I added the filling to the cakes and shaped pelmeni making them look like a funny bread ears. When we got two or three large baking sheets filled with straight rows of pelmeni, dad put them outside to freeze (baking sheets were too large for a fridge). Pelmeni would be served for New Year dinner, and for many other dinners throughout the long winter. In my childhood, there were store-made pelmeni, but they were half not that yummy and therefore not so popular. Home-made pelmeni were beyond compare.

Time changed. About ten years ago or so, hand-made pelmeni of quite high quality appeared in Russian stores.The tradition of making pelmeni at home has been almost forgotten because it is so much easier to buy a pack of ready-made frozen pelmeni and spend 10 minutes cooking instead of two hours making them from scratch.

When I immigrated to Canada, I started missing my favorite food.Of course, there are Russian food stores and markets where I can buy the food from Eastern European countries, but I decided to make pelmeni by myself, reviving the memories of my early childhood. My husband helped me with the ambitious project, and the result exceeded our expectations. Our pelmeni were really good! Here are the recipe and step-by-step instruction.

Step 1. Dough.

Take 2 pounds/1 kg of bread flour, make a heel with a crater on the top. Break an egg and pour it into the hole. Add 0.5 teaspoon of salt. Pour about 1.5 – 2 cup of water and start kneading the mix until the dough is rubber-like. Put the dough ball to the bowl and cover with a kitchen towel, so it won’t dry. Normally I ask my husband to help me with the dough because I can not knead it well enough.

Step 2. Making the filling.

Take 2 pounds of ground meat (the classic Siberian feeling is 50% of ground beef and 50% of ground pork, but you can also use lamb if you like). Chop one large onion finely, add to the meat. Add 0.5 teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper, and ¼ cup of water. Mix well.

Make sure your onion is fresh and fine. Otherwise, the smell may spoil you the dish. Do not prepare the filling in advance. The onions may start smelling very unpleasantly if they come in contact with meat. When the filling is ready, start making pelmeni immediately.

Step 3. Dust your working surface with flour.

Cut off some dough from the dough ball, make a ‘sausage’, and cut it into small chunks, about 1 inch each. These will be your round cakes. Press the chunk with your thumb. Dust a pin-roller with flour too, so the dough won’t stick to it. Roll the chunks into the cakes. They should be thin as paper, but not too thin, so the dough won’t tear when you add the filling and wrap it. The outer side of the cake that contacts the surface of your table gets more flour on it, while the inner side stays relatively clear and sticky. You’ll need the sticky side to wrap each pelmen.

Step 4. Wrapping.

Add a small amount of the filling to the very center of your round cake. I normally put about 1 teaspoon of the filling. In your mind, divide a cake into two half circles. Stick the opposite sides together, so you get one half-circle with a meatball inside. Make sure the sides glue together well, so when cooking, the filling remains inside the pelmen. Wrap the opposite ends of your half-circle together, and you get the roundish thing that resembles an ear. Here is your first pelmen. Continue wrapping pelmeni until you run out of cakes. Then repeat step 3 and 4.
If you decide to make round cakes out of the entire dough ball, they’ll get dry, and won’t stick together. Making smaller portions is much better.

Step 5. Storing.

Put pelmeni onto the baking sheet and freeze, if you prepare them in advance. If you want to cook them immediately, boil water in a large pot. Add salt and 2 to 3 bay leaves. Add pelmeni to the boiling water, steer them gently, so they don’t stick to the bottom. After a few minutes, pelmeni will start getting up. When all pelmeni are up, cook them for 5-7 minutes, drain and serve with butter, mustard, or sour cream.

The best way to make pelmeni is with one or two helpers because otherwise, it would take you too long, and you’d feel too tired. Now you know how to make a genuine Siberian pelmeni, so you can surprise your guests with a Russian Style New Year party!

Приятного аппетита!