Reporters get to experience all kinds of awe-inspiring events. Meeting the president? Yawn. Interviewing celebrities? Pshaw.
The opportunity to sample a bevy of sumptuous pierogi and help decide which one is best? Nothing could be a greater honor for this Polish girl from North Tonawanda.
And nothing could be more difficult.
After three years serving as a judge at Buffalo’s Best Pierogi Contest at Corpus Christi Church’s Dozynki Polish Harvest Festival, you’d think it would get easier. It doesn’t.
Plate after painstakingly garnished plate arrives, each more lovely than the one before. You’re required to score each one on a scale from one to five according to its taste, dough and presentation. By the second round, I was floundering in fives and wishing I could score in double digits.
There was the Golabki pierogi, a traditional Polish delicacy reimagined as a giant dough-robed dumpling and served in a cabbage-leaf bowl. The pastrami-on-rye-inspired New York Deli pierogi looked like something out of Bon Appetit magazine and tasted, as Am-Pol Eagle columnist and seasoned judge Greg Witul described it, like “the soul of Midtown Manhattan in a little pocket of Poland.” And the Sweet Potato Surprise – oh, the Sweet Potato Surprise! I’ve been dreaming about it ever since.
Then there were all those traditional-style entries, expertly stuffed with potato, cheese and sauerkraut and lovingly crimped and folded. There’s nothing like a mouthful of silky pierogi to make you swell with pride for your heritage.
For Sharon Martin, the most difficult part of judging was keeping her poker face screwed on tight as the entrants crowded around to watch her sample their creations.
Another challenge was shaking preconceived notions of what a pierogi should taste like. After years of forking down traditional pierogi, it’s not easy to open one’s palate to other people’s avant-garde interpretations.
“It was hard for me to taste outside the box but it has opened my eyes in a good way,” Martin said. “I really don’t like tofu, but I ended up loving that tofu pierogi.”
Judge Rita Greis, a former Miss Dyngus Day, loved tasting all the “off-the-wall” flavors.
“I mean, someone put a hot dog in one!” she said. “So crazy!”
First-time judge Colin Dabkowski, arts critic for The News, proved he could hunker down in a beer tent with the best of us. Stationed among the plastic cups and 50/50 raffle tickets, he tweeted a picture of Sophia Wagner’s Buffalo Chicken Wing pierogi – a deep-fried dumpling filled with Buffalo-style chicken, garnished with a Buffalo Bills napkin and a Bills shot glass filled with blue cheese dip, celery and carrots.
“Most. Buffalo. Thing. Ever,” he wrote, presumably chewing like a champ.
Exalting just a few of the entries to the top of the heap is a daunting task, especially when each one is so meticulously and affectionately crafted.
“You could tell a lot of care and pride went into each one, and that made it a really special experience,” Dabkowski said.
Behind the scenes, as usual, was Christopher Byrd pulling it all together. The contest’s organizer and preserver of all things Polonia, he’s beloved in the Polish community.
The Dozynki festival, he said, gives people who might never step foot on church grounds a chance to interact with the parish community for a whole weekend and provides a way to showcase the beauty of the historic church.
“Being a Polish heritage and historic site, Corpus Christi and Dozynki are living, breathing links to the past,” Byrd said. “The way we celebrate isn’t much different than the way our ancestors did when they immigrated to the neighborhood from Poland over 140 years ago. That is something I find very cool.”
The money generated by the festival goes directly to the general operating costs of the church.
Entrants into the pierogi contest compete in three categories: traditional, nontraditional and dessert. First-place winners are awarded a golden rolling pin, a certificate, a bottle of harvest beer – and the most coveted bragging rights in all of Western New York.
If you think your pierogi has the right stuff, you can apply beginning in June next year on the Corpus Christi website, www.corpuschristibuffalo.org.
Until then, satisfy your cravings and stoke your imagination with some of the prize-winning entries from this year’s contest.
Sweet Potato Surprise
4 cups flour
½ cup sour cream
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon oil
Hot water as needed
Mix all ingredients together. If the dough is too dry, use hot water to help dry ingredients mix more thoroughly until it is a smooth consistency. The dough should not be wet or sticky. Knead on a floured surface until smooth. Cover with a wet towel in a bowl and let rest two hours.
5 sweet potatoes
4 unpeeled bananas
1 stick butter
¼ cup honey
6 ounces mascarpone cheese
Bake the sweet potatoes unpeeled at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Add the unpeeled bananas to the pan with the potatoes for an additional 20 minutes, until very soft. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half, scoop out the flesh and add to a bowl with the peeled bananas, butter, honey and mascarpone. Mix well. For best results, make the filling one day ahead of time to allow potatoes to stiffen for better handling.
DULCE DE LECHE CARAMEL SAUCE:
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
Place in a 9-by-13-inch pan and bake for one hour until amber in color. Place in a blender and blend until smooth.
Once pierogi are stuffed and sealed, sprinkle the top of each one with brown sugar and pan fry in butter for a crispy, brulee-like crust. Serve on a swirl of dulce de leche. Add another dab of dulce de leche to the top of the pierogi and sprinkle it with chopped toasted pecans.
Secret of success: “The secret to making innovative pierogi is sticking to the original dough recipe and going crazy with the fillings.”
– Deborah Wisholek-Fischer, first-place winner in the “dessert” category
New York Deli
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups rye flour
¼ pound butter, melted
½ cup milk, warm
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons caraway seed
In a large mixing bowl, sift all-purpose flour, rye flour, and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, combine sour cream, eggs, warm milk and melted butter. Pour half of the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing until crumbly. Add the remaining wet ingredients and knead the dough until it is smooth and well combined. Place dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for two hours. Working with half the dough, roll it thinly on a lightly floured surface and cut out circles.
4 ounces turkey, thinly sliced
4 ounces pastrami, thinly sliced
4 ounces corned beef, thinly sliced
4 ounces ham, thinly sliced
4 ounces Swiss cheese, thinly sliced
2 ounces sauerkraut
Deli mustard, to taste
Layer and Julienne the deli meat. Mix it in a bowl with a small amount of deli mustard and sauerkraut to taste. Brush the dough circle with water and place a quarter piece of Swiss cheese on each one. Add a teaspoon of the deli meat mixture along with a dollop of deli mustard. Fold and seal using a fork. Boil in salted water for three to five minutes until pierogi float, then fry with butter until golden brown on each side.
Secret of success: “Sifting flour is the key to making pierogi. It aerates the flour, making it much finer, softer and able to absorb liquids more evenly. It creates a lighter product.”
– Brian Sikorski, first-place winner in the “nontraditional” category
Traditional Sauerkraut and Sausage
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
½ pint sour cream
1 stick butter, melted
½ cup milk
Mix eggs, sour cream, butter and milk together. Mix flour and salt. Combine the wet mixture to the dry mixture and combine until soft. Flour can be added if the dough is too soft. Wrap in cling wrap and chill at least one hour for easier handling. Roll dough on a floured surface until 1/8 inch thick. Cut out circles, placing roughly one tablespoon of filling into each one. Fold the dough over and crimp the edges. Boil in salted water until the pierogi float, then pan fry.
2 curves fresh sausage
2 pounds onion
1 stick butter
1 bag sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
4 ounces dried mushroom, soaked, drained and finely chopped
2 cups good quality beef stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Remove one curve of fresh sausage filling from its casing and smoke both curves in a smoker. Finely chop the out-of-casing sausage.
Carmelize the onions in butter and add mushrooms. Add beef stock and cook covered for two to three hours until sauerkraut tastes cooked. Add salt and pepper. If the mix is watery, uncover and cook on low heat until residual liquid is gone. Add chopped sausage and chill. Roll dough on a floured surface until 1/8 inch thick. Cut out circles, placing roughly one tablespoon of filling into each one. Fold the dough over and crimp the edges. Boil in salted water until the pierogi float, then pan fry.
Serve finished pierogi with sour cream and sliced sausage as a garnish.
Secret of success: “Both the dough and the filling must be able to stand on their own. Also, be aware of how many times you’ve rolled the dough, because rolling it too much will make it tough. Thickness is also important, because the dough will thicken as it’s boiled.”