~ Mel's Deconstructed To-Die-For Pirogi Casserole ~
Pirogi -- a subject I know a thing or three about. I grew up eating these pillowy handmade-with-love potato-stuffed-dumplings in the kitchens of my Baba and Tettie (my Eastern European grandmother and her sister). I was about age seven when they added me as a semi-skilled laborer to the assembly line of their twice-yearly day-long pirogi-making marathon. Once filled and formed, they were frozen flat on trays, packaged into bags and divided amongst their two families -- to be cooked and served as a meatless main course or a side-dish to my mom's holiday baked ham or a roasted pork loin with sauerkraut to ring in the New Year.
For the purposes of this deconstructed pirogi casserole, I am talking about potato-stuffed dumplings that get boiled in water, drained and enrobed in a saucy butter and onion mixture. I mention this because, my grandmother (more so than her sister), stuffed them with other things too -- sauerkraut, steamed ground meats (beef, pork or lamb) and stewed fruit (usually sour cherries or prunes). Except for the type of dough (noodle vs. pasta), the technique and method is almost identical to making Italian ravioli -- both are time consuming labors of love.
Like ravioli, pirogi are impressive. They make a statement -- you are an accomplished cook. Over the decades, thanks in part to my husband's Italian family and friends, I've become an accomplished Italian cook. That said, one thing I learned early on: When you don't have the time to make ravioli, you make lasagna, and, when you have a large crowd to feed, you make lasagna instead of ravioli. In my mind, lasagna is basically a casserole full of deconstructed ravioli. Then came the day this Eastern European gal applied the same principle to pirogi.
I named it the: Turn pirogi into a casserole principle.
Note: I am using my favorite potato and cheese pirogi filling recipe and my favorite pirogi butter (& onion) recipe in conjunction with uncooked store-bought lasagna noodles. If you are Eastern European and you have your own favorite recipes, use them -- they will work and it is important your casserole taste the way you want it to. For example: I hate bacon garnishing my pirogi, so, I don't use it, and, my grandmother used dried mint flakes (a common herb which grew like a weed in their harsh climate and was dried for the Winter) in place of fresh chives or green onion (which were only available in the short Spring and Summer). Don't knock it 'till you've tried it.
Part One: Making the Potato & Cheese Filling
3 pounds peeled, quartered and 1" cubed gold potatoes (3 pounds after peeling)
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 pound + 2 cups grated white, cheddar cheese (total throughout recipe)*
3 jumbo egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons white pepper
3 tablespoons dried mint flakes
* Note: I like using LOTS of extra-sharp white cheddar, and, I use white cheddar because, in general, I don't like pirogi that have orange-colored filling with a manufacturerd "Mrs. T's" taste to them, but, that choice is yours. One last thing: pirogi filling is NOT like making mashed potatoes. Do not be inclined to add milk or butter to it. The filling should be, for lack of better words: stiff, thick, pasty (and even a bit chunky if that's your style), and, well-seasoned with traditional (not exotic) herbs or spices. Remember, this is simple, rustic, peasant food.
~ Step 1. Place the cubed potatoes in an 8-quart stockpot and add enough of cold water to cover them by 1/2"-1". Bring to a boil over high heat and add 1 tablespoon of salt. Reduce the heat to a gentle, steady simmer and continue to cook until the potatoes are fork tender but slightly undercooked, about 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and drain potatoes into colander.
~ Step 2. Return potatoes to the still warm stockpot and return the pot to the still warm stovetop. Add 1 pound grated cheese, pepper and dried mint. I do not add salt, as I find the cheddar cheese has an adequate amount of salt in it.
~ Step 3. Uncover the pot and stir briefly. The cheese will be melted or mostly melted. In a small bowl or 1-cup measuring container, using a fork, whisk the egg yolks together. Add and stir them into the mixture.
Egg yolks you ask? Yep. This is a secret I learned from my Tettie (Baba's sister). Egg yolks are going to add a decadent richness to the potato and cheese filling. Trust me.
~ Step 5. Transfer the filling to a bowl or food storage container and cover with plastic wrap or a lid. Do not refrigerate. Experience has taught me it's best to keep the potatoes soft and slightly-warm for the assembly. Set aside while preparing the sautéed butter and onion mixture.
Step Two: Making the Butter & Onion Sauté
4 cups small diced yellow or sweet onion
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Note: Ignore this photo which represents twice as much as the quantity listed above. It's because I am making two casseroles today.
~ Step 2. Remove from heat and transfer to a 4-cup measuring container. You will have 3 1/2 cups. Why use a measuring container? It's simple. A measuring container will make it easier to measure the proper amount of butter and onion sauté onto each layer.
Part Three: Assembling & Baking the Pirogi Casserole
One evening, sometime back in the 1990's, while watching Chef Emeril Lagasse (on The Food Network) prepare his lasagna without cooking the noodles (using conventional lasagna noodles, not the "no-boil" kind, which are not a favorite of mine), I felt like the weight of the lasagna world just might be lifted from my shoulders -- and it was, because it worked perfectly. I never boiled another lasagna noodle to make lasagna again -- and nor should you.
~Step 1. Spray a 13" x 9" x 2" glass casserole (I use glass to keep an eye on it as it bakes) with no-stick cooking spray. Place 3 uncooked lasagna noodles in the bottom and break a 4th to fit the empty space. Using a large slotted spoon, and allowing a good bit of excess melted butter to drizle back into the container, evenly distribute a generous one-third (1 cup) of the buttery onions over noodles.* Using a tablespoon, dollop half (3 1/2 cups) of potato mixture over top. Using your fingertips, lightly pat, press and spread the potatoes, to form an even layer.
Note: You are going to have some leftover butter in the bottom of the container after the casserole is assembled. It can't be helped. It was the minimum needed to adequately simmer 4 cups of onions, and, it is was my goal for this recipe to: not bake it drenched in butter. This is not because of calories. You want just enough of the butter's moisture to soften the uncooked noodles as the casserole bakes, but not so much as to render the casserole mushy.
~ Step 2. Break and place 6 more lasagna noodles, in the opposite direction of the first layer, over the top of the potatoes. Distribute the second one-third (1 cup) of the buttery onions over the noodles, once again allowing the excess butter to drizzle back into the measuring container. Using the tablespoon, then your fingertips, dollop, pat and press the second half (3 1/2 cups) of the potatoes evenly over the top.
~ Step 3. Place 4 lasagna noodles, in the same direction of the first layer, evenly over the potatoes and break a 5th noodle to fit in the empty space. Using the slotted spoon, distribute the last third of the onions over the last layer of noodles, once again, allowing the excess butter to drizzle back into the measuring container. Top casserole with the 2 cups additional grated white cheddar cheese.
Allow casserole to rest 45-60 minutes, for noodles to soften a bit.
~ Step 4. Cover casserole with aluminum foil and bake on center rack of preheated 325° oven for 1 hour. Remove the foil and continue to bake an additional 15-20 minutes.* Remove casserole from oven and allow to rest 20-30 minutes prior to slicing and serving.
*After 1 hour, when the foil is removed, the casserole should be lightly and nicely browning on the bottom and around the beginning-to-bubble top edges too. There is more. A sharp paring knife inserted into the center should reveal the noodles are soft too:
Special Equipment List: vegetable peeler; box grater; cutting board; chef's knife; 8-quart stockpot w/lid; colander; vegetable masher; 2-quart measuring container; 4-quart saucepan; 1-quart measuring container; 13" x 9" x 2" (3-quart) glass casserole; large slotted spoon
Cook's Note: Would you like to deconstruct another Eastern European favorite? Trust me, it will make your life easier just before the holidays. Check out my recipe for ~ Unstuffed: Deconstructed Stuffed Cabbage Rolls ~ in Categories 3, 12 0r 20.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)