Now reading Laulette Hansen’s Sino-Soviet Piroshki

Laulette Hansen’s Sino-Soviet Piroshki

How to make piroshki, with all the tips from a piroshki-making mom.

wemomWe love mom. Which is why, starting this month on, we’re introducing a brand new recipe series celebrating the best in Mom cookery. It’s called WE LOVE MOM. We’ll hear from kids about their favorite things their moms cook, and we’ll hear from moms themselves about those dishes, in interviews conducted by their kids. Since May is MOM month, we’ll feature a mom a day for the entire month. After that, you can expect to find WE LOVE MOM here on the website every Friday. —Rachel Khong

One of my earliest memories is sitting on the counter in the kitchen, kicking my heels against the cupboards while my mother stuffed green beans from her garden into canning jars lined up sideways, each holding an allotment of garlic, dill, and red chili-pepper flakes. I was four, and used to the sight of the practices and produce she’d brought from the ranch she’d grown up on in eastern Montana. She canned dilled beans and made jam and jelly habitually, and kept a huge crock of homemade pickles on the kitchen floor, just as her grandmother had.

What her grandmother had never taught her was how to experiment with food; that’s a habit she plunged into all on her own. My two sisters and I talk frequently about the unusual recipes she’d come up with, combining flavors from all different cultures—like her venison fajitas, or chicken with rosemary and Worcestershire sauce served over egg noodles. Until my parents separated, and we gravitated more toward snack dinners of brie and crackers and huckleberries, we always sat down to a family dinner that had a loaf of bread in a basket and my father’s addictive, dripping salads alongside a main meal that might be familiar but, more often than not, was something my mother was experimenting with.

When I try that, I usually end up with a dish that my husband does his best to be polite about. I am a die-hard recipe follower, and wish I’d inherited half of my mother’s talent for mixing flavors and inventing recipes. She rarely writes them down, and that we constantly badger her to teach us how to make them.

My parents met when my mother was getting her Ph.D. in Russian poetry, and was on a Fulbright scholarship in Leningrad. By the time my father emigrated to America with her, in 1974, she’d already learned a great deal about Russian cooking and recipes from my father’s mother, my Babushka. Things like piroshki and borscht and kotletki were normal in my childhood home, although considered odd by my schoolmates in small-town Montana. I’m not sure that we even had any restaurants when I was a child, much less ones that offered more than meat and potatoes. (Even the fact that my dad made salad and his own bread was out of the ordinary.)

I was lucky enough to have an enlightened English teacher my freshman year of high school, who allowed us to eat food in first period—a godsend for teenagers who actually did have to walk a mile through the snow to catch the bus before seven in the morning. Every now and then my parents would bake and freeze a big batch of piroshki. I’d take one out in the morning, microwave it or bake it in the oven while my sister and I ate our Kix, and then wrap it in paper towels to keep warm.

In school, I started having to bring extras to share. That was almost twenty-five years ago; last year a thread on my sister’s Facebook page ranged into more than sixty comments, mostly from high school classmates reminiscing about how good those piroshki smelled and tasted.

Lately, I’ve struggled with cooking, trying to juggle my job with my two young children and nutrition, creating rituals for my own family. Making the piroshki with my mother reminded me of what she created in her kitchen that I would like to bring to mine: a sense of rhythm and harmony laced with the smells of good things to eat. —Antonia Malchik

RECIPE: Laulette Hansen’s Sino-Soviet Piroshki

Ahn_We Love Mom_Piroshkis

Photograph by Eugene Ahn

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on a homestead in eastern Montana, where my Grandma Hansen—Emma Bachmann Hansen—cooked on a coal and wood stove. She and my grandpa came out to Montana in about 1898 or so. They homesteaded in 1911 in Clear Lake, and they had wind power. They had that coal-and-wood stove, and we got our water from a well and eggs from the chicken. My grandpa milked cows every morning and raised cattle, and he also raised some wheat. Later on, my dad farmed and ranched there, and he raised mostly wheat and just a few cattle. I liked to help my grandma cook, and I liked to pick up sticks under the big willow tree for the woodstove, and I liked to bring in the water from the well, and I liked to gather eggs. But mostly what I liked to do was eat little pieces of her cinnamon rolls, or her molasses cookie dough. And I remember I was always setting the table.

When did you start cooking?

I didn’t start cooking until my mom and dad and I moved to our own house in town. Then I learned to cook from watching my mother, and from what I’d seen my grandma do. My mother taught me a lot about how to measure things, and how to use an electric stove—things like that. But I’ve always thought it was fun to cook on an old-fashioned stove.

But I started really cooking after I got married and had children. I wanted to make my own bread like my grandma did. It always seemed like the things we made ourselves tasted better than the things that came from the store. That was in about the 1960s and ’70s, before there got to be lots of really good bakeries again.

What’s the story behind these piroshki?

As you know, your father was from Russia, and in Russia they make piroshki, which are little meat pies. You can fill them with rice or fish or eggs or cabbage or apples, just about anything you want, and then you can deep-fry them or bake them.

After World War II, a lot of people started doing Chinese and Japanese cooking. When you were growing up, that became really popular. I learned about stir-fry, and I used to make big bunches of it and put it over rice. And, as often happened, I’d cook the meat and there’d be a lot of meat left over—we’d sometimes have pork or venison or beef, but this time it was pork—and I put it together with a lot of vegetables and made a kind of sauce for it, and used it as a filling for piroshki dough. We put them in and sealed them up and put them in the oven, and sure enough, they were delicious. And you could freeze them and reheat them, and you could take them to school with you, and they would smell so good that everyone would want to eat one. And they’re good for you. So there you are.

What were your meals like when you were growing up?

My grandpa would get up around five o’clock in the morning to take hay out to the livestock in winter, or to milk the cows. And Grandma got up very early and made a fire in the wood stove. I remember there would be a big pot of oatmeal cooking most days, and then around seven o’clock or so—usually when it was just starting to get light, sometimes before—Grandpa would come in and we would all have breakfast.

I used to help my dad on the ranch after my grandparents got too old to farm, and sometimes I’d even stay out of school to go out and work for a day or two. We’d take a thermos of coffee with us and good, thick sandwiches with cheese, usually American cheese. I remember, in the summer especially, during the working season, my uncles and aunts and cousins would be there, too, and we’d all get to set the table. It was a big dining-room table, which I still have—in those days, everybody who had a homestead built their own house, so my grandfather had built the pantry and all the cupboards. And then we’d get the water from the well. It would be very cold, and we would always say it was the best water in the world.

My grandma had a root cellar that was full of things she canned from her big garden. There were beets and beans and turnips and all kinds of things. One thing I remember doing with her in the fall is harvesting crabapples. We had a long line of crabapple trees. It was hard to get fruit trees to grow out on the prairie in Montana because the winters can get very, very cold, like fifty below, with very harsh winds and deep drifts. Sometimes you couldn’t even get into town because the roads would be drifted over. We’d have jars and jars of crabapple butter and sliced crabapples and crabapple sauce and stuff, so there was always some kind of fruit and vegetables to eat.

Do you like cooking?

I enjoy cooking very much. But I think there was a time—and maybe it still is somewhat—when there was this idea that everybody has to make a big sit-down meal three times a day. On the ranch there was the noon meal, when people were working, and they did do a lot of cooking for that, especially during the harvest time. But breakfast was mostly as I said—cereal, coffee, something to get you energized and ready for the day, and supper was mostly leftovers. If you’d had a roast, you’d have slices off of that.

I can tell you, although I wasn’t alive then,  that during the 1920s and ’30s out on the prairie, an awful lot of people didn’t make it. But my grandpa and grandma did. My grandfather came from ten or more generations of farmers and homesteaders. Those people knew how to come to a place and take what was there and, with very few basic tools, turn it into a home. They knew how to build houses; they knew how to construct root cellars; they knew how to plow the land; and above all, they knew how to take care of animals. My grandfather farmed the land with horses, and he really liked horses. There are little legends about how he handled them. He taught me to ride horses when I was a wee bitty little child. I thought they were huge. I thought they were as big as elephants.

But my Grandma was the one who loved the kitchen and taught me to think of it as the center of the family. She worked very, very hard, and I would not be telling the truth if I said I thought she enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a very hard life for an educated woman, which she was. But she raised six children, and she did everything by hand. We all loved the food that came out of that kitchen.

Special thanks to Jessie and Zach Farnes.

Antonia and mom

Sasha, Laulette, and Antonia

Laulette Hansen is a singer-songwriter, former Russian translator and professor, and a fourth-generation Montanan. Antonia Malchik is an essayist and the managing editor of STIR Journal