Lwow Pierogi for Christmas Eve

Every year, at this time, we spend at least half a day making the Lwow pierogi that my father loved. I can't believe that we used to make them on Christmas Eve itself, and then invite friends and neighbours in at 5 o'clock for mulled wine and pierogi. It was a fairly huge undertaking, and I don't know why we weren't more frazzled, especially when we went out to the midnight service in the local kirk afterwards. But perhaps we were just younger and more energetic. 

Now, even in a normal year, we make them in advance and freeze them. In yet another wretched Covid year, we're still making them and freezing them so that we and a few friends can eat them in stages. Not as difficult as last year though, when we sat in the garden in the freezing cold, wrapped up in coats and blankets, to drink wine with our next door neighbours, with whom we were in a 'bubble'. 

My mum and dad used to make these pierogi, and I've eaten them in Poland too. The traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal is meatless but consists of many courses, and generally includes carp. We always had pierogi. There are many variations on this recipe, and pierogi associated with different regions. But this is how to make Lwow Pierogi - with a few additions of our own. 

You begin by preparing the filling. It seems to be obligatory to make twice as much filling as you need, but that's OK, because you can bake or fry any leftovers as an accompaniment to other meals. 

We use any large all purpose potatoes - Maris Piper  - five or six depending on size. Peel and boil till tender. Meanwhile, finely chop 2 medium or 1 large onion and fry gently in a little oil till translucent, not brown. Grate about 200 grams of any good strong cheddar. NB, the genuine Polish cheese to use is Twarog, and Quark is a good substitute, but we like a stronger flavour. It would be worthwhile experimenting with Wensleydale or Lancashire, which have more of a curd texture, but are also quite sharp. Mash the potatoes while they're still hot, with the grated or crumbled cheese and stir in the onion. Set aside to cool while you make your dough. 

Sieve 500 grams of plain flour with a teaspoon of salt. Mix in two beaten eggs and enough cold water to make a soft but not sticky dough. It will be very elastic. Set aside to rest for half an hour or so. 

You'll need a cup of cold water, and a pastry brush. Divide the dough into two halves, and roll out on a very well floured board until thin, but not so thin that it disintegrates! Now for the fiddly bit. Use a fairly large biscuit or scone cutter to cut out your dough into circles. A cup or glass will work just as well. Holding the circle in your left hand, put a good teaspoonful of filling onto it, brush the edges with water, and fold into half circles, like a small pasty. Gently but firmly nip the two edges together all the way along the join. If you don't get this bit right, the filling will all boil out at the next stage. But luckily, the dough is very 'self adhesive' and should form a very good bond. It's a knack and once you've done a few, it becomes easier. Curve them slightly into an ear shape. Lay them out on a floured tray. Do NOT let them overlap, or they will form a horrible mass and you will have to start again. (The voice of experience!) 

You need a large pan of boiling salted water. Using a slotted spoon, carefully put the pierogi into the boiling water, five or six at a time, although a huge pot will take seven. Bring back to the boil, very gently keeping the pierogi moving so that they don't stick to the bottom, and once they are floating in boiling water, simmer each batch for five minutes, or a little longer depending on size. Take them out carefully with your slotted spoon, and lay them (still separately) on lightly greased oven trays. You'll find that you need to top up the water if you're making a large batch, and turn up the heat from time to time to keep it at a rolling boil. 

After that, there are options. These would traditionally be slightly dried out and kept warm in the oven on a very low setting, and then served as one of the courses on Christmas eve, liberally covered with melted butter. 

You can freeze them as soon as they have cooled -  freeze them on a tray before putting them into bags or packets once they are solid, otherwise they will stick together. Thaw them before you intend to use them. We fry lots of chopped smoked streaky bacon in a little oil, and then gently fry the pierogi until they are heated all the way through, the outsides are just becoming golden and the bacon is crisp. This wouldn't be done on a Polish Christmas eve - which must be meatless - but my dad was very fond of them cooked in this way and this is usually the way we make them. 

You can experiment with other fillings. Some regions use a combination of cabbage or meat and mushrooms. Lwow pierogi are made with traditional Polish curd cheeses.My dad used to make them in summer, filled with wild blueberries from the Galloway hills, served with powdered sugar and single cream. 

It is, let's face it, such a faff, that you're better to make a lot at the same time - the above recipe makes about forty. They keep well in the freezer. They are much easier to make if there are two or three cooks - one to do the fiddly bit with the dough and filling, and one to man the pan and kettle, so that you can keep the batches coming. We did it this year while Carousel was on the TV, so I put together forty  pierogi while weeping over poor Billy Bigelow. 

Good luck! And here's hoping for the return of proper Christmas Eve parties, as soon as possible We're heartily sick of restrictions. We're physical, social beings. Isolating is, for most of us, bad for our mental health. 

But Wesołych Świąt anyway!

If you want to read a bit more about a traditional Polish Christmas Eve, you'll find a country Christmas described in my novel The Amber Heart available as an eBook or paperback. And if you can wait until Christmas Eve, the eBook will be on a special deal for Christmas week.


New Shoots - The Winter Solstice

In the picture, you can see a couple of hyacinth bulbs in a pair of vintage bulb glasses that were a gift from a friend. I love them and use them every year. They're sitting on my office windowsill, alongside an oak block from some ancient shipwreck. It washed ashore at the south end of the Isle of Gigha, and lay there waiting for us to find it, one long gone summer. 

The other day, after a bitterly cold, misty spell of weather, the sun shone and I walked around the village, dropping off Christmas cards. It was quiet in the village with not so much as a dog barking, although one or two of them popped their heads up as I passed by. As I walked along the winding drive to the old manse of Gemilston, I was suddenly aware that the verges were already starred by bulbs, peeping through, little clumps of pale spikes, tiny teeth. I'm not sure whether they were snowdrops or crocuses - snowdrops possibly, because they come first. Before the end of January and well into February, they will be in bloom here in the west.

I don't much like winter, but if anything, I like autumn even less. I can admire the colours, enjoy the apple harvest, the brambles, the sloes. All that. But nothing lifts my heart like the first signs of spring. I'm a springtime person, and for me, spring comes early. As soon as the Christmas decorations are put away for another year, I like to bring springtime into the house, in the shape of snowdrops, catkins and early indoor hyacinths. 

Today, at 15.49, the time of the winter solstice, we were waiting with our bottle of fizz (Cava today!) and a couple of Victorian champagne glasses, and we raised a glass to the turning year and the return of the sun. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I find the way the light leaches out of the days in October and November profoundly depressing. (Especially at this miserable Covid time) - but almost as soon as the year turns I feel a small lifting of my spirits, a sensation that only grows as the weeks go by. 

I hope you do too. 

Another Outing for my Radio Dramatisation of Ben Hur

Back in the dear dead days when I was writing lots of radio drama, I dramatised Ben Hur in four episodes, for BBC R4. Now, you can hear it again on R4 Extra, and you can also catch up with it online, here

I've been listening to it again myself, because my only copies of it seem to be on cassette (although I still have the scripts filed away somewhere, I think.) To my surprise, it has stood the test of time. Not everything does, but I've occasionally listened again to my dramatisations of Kidnapped, Catriona and Treasure Island, and found that I've enjoyed them. A lot of it is down to the original material, the skills of the producer/director (with Kidnapped and Catriona it was my friend, the late Marilyn Imrie) the music, the editing and perhaps most of all to a brilliant cast. Radio, like all drama, is collaborative.

Ben Hur was directed by the late, much missed and exceptionally fine radio producer Glyn Dearman, with a cast to die for, including Jamie Glover as Ben Hur, Samuel West as a suitably villainous Messala, and Michael Gambon, no less, reading the relevant bible passages. The sound - the amazing sound and music - was by Wilfredo Acosta. 

The original novel, should you want to give it a try, is still available. I found it quite hard going. And when I was dramatising it, I found one or two significant plot holes that I had to fill in,  in the course of the drama. But it is undoubtedly a very good story indeed - as anyone who has watched the film will already know.

The most fun bit to write and record was definitely the chariot race. If you want to hear how it was done, though, you'll have listen yourself! 

End of Shift: Summer - another amazing picture by my artist husband!


End of Shift: Summer

I'm not sure what else I can say about this new piece of work, except that I think it's amazing. It's big, as well - 3ft by 3ft in acrylics on a stretched canvas. 

It is a companion picture to Alan's earlier painting: End of Shift,Winter. We sold the original of that one some time ago, but prints are still available. This new work is for sale in our Etsy store: the 200 Year Old House. You'll find more images of it there, as well as a few close-ups. The detail is extraordinary. 

For anyone who doesn't have deep pockets, you can still buy very reasonably priced giclee prints of the first End of Shift on Etsy, and prints of this new image will be coming soon.

Do browse through our shop as well - you'll find all kinds of interesting things!