A morning at a Russian dacha or summer-house might start with the quiet chant, lepit’, lepit’, lepit’ — which means, “to shape,” “to shape,” “to shape,” and in this case refers to the rolling of pelmeni, or meat dumplings.
Making pelmeni is a festive occasion in many Russian households and the process becomes the centerpiece of the day. Unlike most Russian feasts, which involve elaborate arrays of appetizers and a table groaning under the weight of multiple dishes, pelmeni are the only thing most people will eat that day, and we’ll be required to eat many plates of them. Around twenty dumplings per guest is a good amount to make for a big blow-out.
There are probably as many pelmeni recipes and techniques as there are Russian households. Generally speaking, the dough is a noodle dough, made with a combination of flour, egg, salt and water (but sometimes milk is added, or melted butter, or yolks instead of eggs). Also generally speaking, the classic filling is a mixture of ground meat and grated onion, made into a paste with the addition of salted water and elbow-grease, but which meat in which proportions also depends on the household. A mixture of beef, pork and veal is most common. You cut and roll the dough, add the filling, shape the dumplings, and then boil them in batches in salted water with black peppercorns and laurel (bay) leaves. Remove with a slotted spoon, butter while hot, and bring to the table, slipping the pelmeni gently from the service plate to the individual plates, and admonishing anyone who dares try to pierce one with a fork, lest the juices run out.
Acceptable accompaniments, to be set out on the table and added by the guests as they wish, are white vinegar, ground black pepper, butter, soy sauce, sour cream and hot Russian mustard. Done properly, guests should be at the table for the next several hours, the toasts should go on all night, songs should be sung, and everyone should be forced to eat much more than expected. Fortunately, pelmeni are delicious, so no one will mind.
↑ It’s easier to have multiple people at work on this task
The following recipe makes around 60 dumplings, which could serve four (or more) under normal conditions, or fewer during a big blow-out.
Tools and accompaniments
Stand mixer with dough hook attachment.
3-4 trays, ideally of a size that fits in the refrigerator
8 (or more) shot glasses, to use to stack the trays
Large stock pot, 20-25cm deep and 35-40cm in diameter (optional)
10-15 black peppercorns
4-5 laurel (bay leaves)
Russian mustard (optional)
Soy sauce (optional)
Ingredients for the filling
You can choose meat or
450g lean beef
(top loin, tenderloin, filet)
90g lamb (shoulder)
1 small onion, grated,
including the liquid
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 cup cold water
1 1/2 tsp salt
Black pepper, finely ground,
Purists would recommend chopping the meat by hand, or grinding your own or just asking your butcher to do it. Buying ground meat at the store also works, but will be less juicy.
Grind or finely chop the meat using your method of choice. Place the ground meats, the onion and the garlic in a large bowl, and mash together with your hands until all ingredients are fully incorporated.
Dissolve the salt in the water, make a well in the centre of the meat mixture and pour it in. Pepper the mass liberally. With your hands, mash and squeeze the mixture until the water is fully incorporated and it forms a sticky, homogenous mass. Set aside. This process can be done the night before.
Ingredients for the dough
450g flour (3 1/2 cups)
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp water
Place the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. In a separate bowl, or large pyrex measuring cup, whisk together the water, salt and egg until well combined. Add the liquid mixture to the flour, gradually, stirring with the dough hook on low. Continue until the dough forms a smooth, elastic ball, adding more water or flour if necessary to get the right consistency. Continue to knead/mix on low for 10 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
To shape the dumplings
Dust a clean, dry work surface with flour. Set the filling, a tablespoon-measure, and a bowl of cold water on an adjacent work surface. Prepare a tray to receive the shaped pelmeni by liberally coating it with flour. Make room in the refrigerator for the tray(s). Since you will probably need multiple trays, you can use shot glasses as supports to allow you to stack one tray on top of the other.
Shape the dough into a thick log with your hands, and then cut into 8 equal portions. Place one portion on the work surface, and cover the rest with a damp kitchen towel. Roll the portion into a small log, about 18cm long, then cut into eighths. Roll out each chunk individually into a round-ish wrapper about 8-10cm in diameter and about 2mm thick. If the dough sticks, add more flour to the work surface. You want the dough to be very thin, but not so thin that the filling shows through.
It’s easier to have multiple people at work on this task, but if you’re doing it alone, you’ll want to fill and shape the wrappers of dough in batches as you roll them out, otherwise they’ll dry out. To fill, place 1 tbsp of filling in the centre of the wrapper. Dip your finger in the water and slightly moisten the rim of one half of the circle of dough. Fold the dough up from both sides over the filling and carefully pinch the edges together, making sure you have a tight seal and that there are no crumbs of meat in the seal (or the dumpling will come open during cooking).
You can do a little fancy crimping if you know how. You could bring the two points of the crescent together, to form a circle. Place the filled and shaped dumpling on the floured tray, not touching each other or else they’ll stick together, and repeat, using all the rolled-out rounds of dough. When you’re done, put the tray in the refrigerator, take another one-eighth portion of dough from beneath the towel and start again, until all the dough and all the filling is used up.
To cook the
Fill a very large pot 3/4 full of water. Add 10-15 peppercorns, 4-5 bay leaves, 2 tbsp salt, and bring to a boil. Add about 10-20 dumplings depending on the pot size (you don’t want to crowd them too much). Boil until the dumplings float to the top, and then for three minutes longer, or until the meat is cooked through. Dot a serving plate with butter. Gently lift the dumplings out of the water with a slotted spoon and slip them onto the tray. Cover and keep warm while you make enough dumplings for a portion per guest. Boil the rest in batches as the evening progresses.
Set the table with the following condiments: white vinegar, sour cream, black pepper, Russian mustard (optional) and soy sauce (optional). Bring the first serving of dumplings to the table and slip them gently onto the guests’ plates, being careful never to pierce them with a fork. Each diner uses the toppings of their choice. Join your guests and eat, before continuing to boil batches of dumplings for seconds, thirds, fourths, and so on.