I think half my childhood was spent in the kitchen, watching my Mom and grandmother make koldūnai (kohl-DOO-nayh), the Lithuanian version of a pierogi, by hand at lightning speed. Some Lithuanian cooks make the dough, roll it out into a large flat sheet with a rolling-pin, then cut circles out with a glass or a cookie cutter. But my Mom and grandmother used a different method: they’d roll the dough into a log, cut it into 1″ pieces, and then twirl each piece in their hands to make a flat pancake that they would then fill with a spoonful of meat or mushrooms. It blew my mind that they could crank out over a hundred of these perfectly shaped dumplings in no time, placing them on a sheet pan and freezing them until it was time to cook.
One of the main reasons koldūnai beat pierogis every time is the filling. My Mom would mix ground beef with chopped onions sautéed in butter, a couple of eggs, and milk crackers soaked in milk. She’d add salt and pepper, then take a spoonful of the raw meat mixture and plop it in my mouth. “Enough salt?” she’d ask. I loved the taste of the raw beef like that…probably why I always order beef tartare when I see it on a restaurant menu.
The mushroom filling was usually reserved for special holidays like Christmas and Easter. Italy may lay claim to the porcini, but the fact of the matter is, Lithuania is porcini heaven. They’re called baravykai (buh-ruh-VEE-kayh), and when they’re dried and reconstituted, their incredible flavor is so intense, you don’t need many of them to flavor a large amount of cheaper button mushrooms. We’d get our dried boletes from relatives in Lithuania every year…the real deal. (They’d even have a radiation-free certification sticker on the bag, thanks to Chernobyl!) Mom would place a handful of the dried mushrooms in some boiling water and they would rehydrate, nice and plump, and could then easily be chopped and added to the other mushrooms. She’d pour the mushroom liquid into the pan as well, not wasting a bit of that magical porcini flavor. The mushrooms were simply sautéed in butter, cooled, then used to fill the koldūnai.
Basic Polish pierogi fillings include sauerkraut or potatoes with cheese. There’s no question the Lithuanians got this round.
It was time to try my hand at making koldūnai. As I recall, my Mom simply mixed water with flour to make the dough, kneaded it into a log, and off she went. My challenge was a bit more daunting: I needed to make them gluten-free as well. My sister, whose family lives the GF lifestyle, told me that they simply exchange all-purpose flour for gluten-free flour and it works fine. I had my doubts and first tried a recipe I found online that used a slurry of cottage cheese, eggs, and milk with the flour, but I found that it was overkill. The dough was very sticky and hard to work with. So I tried the simple recipe of water and flour (a half-cup of water for every cup of gluten-free flour) and it worked well.
Wearing disposable nitryl gloves was a stroke of genius. Not only were my hands protected from the sticky dough, it seemed that the dough didn’t stick to the gloves. I poured a cup of GF flour into a stainless steel bowl, added a half-cup of water to it, and mixed it around with my hands until it formed a ball of dough that pulled away from the sides of the bowl cleanly. (Sometimes a little more water or flour would be needed.)
I dusted a board with more flour, and moved the flour from the bowl onto the board. I kneaded it into a long log, about a foot long and 1 1/2″ thick. I cut it into 12 equal pieces, about 1″ wide.
Taking one cut piece, and using my thumbs, I twirled the dough around, flattening it into a small pancake, the way I remember my Mom and grandmother used to do it. I placed a teaspoon of filling in the center of the pancake, then folded one side over so that it met the edges of the other side. I pressed with my fingers to make the two halves stick together and formed a seal.
The beef filling. I decided to wear gloves soon after this photo.
The biggest challenges I had with making koldūnai was my own clumsiness and lack of experience. But once I got the hang of it, things moved along steadily, and it didn’t take long for me to make a couple of dozen. I placed them on a sheet pan lined with non-stick aluminum foil (you can also use parchment paper) and placed them in the freezer to harden. Once hard, they go in freezer bags until ready to boil.
I made 3 types of koldūnai: mushroom, beef, and mac-and-cheese (by my daughter’s request.)
The mushroom filling was nothing more than chopped button mushrooms combined with chopped porcinis that had been rehydrated, all sautéed in butter. The mac-and-cheese filling was a gluten-free mac-and-cheese dinner out of a box.
For the beef filling…
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 pat of butter
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I use gluten-free)
1/4 cup milk
To make the breadcrumbs, I took a couple of slices of whole grain gluten-free bread and toasted them. Then I ground them up in a blender or food processor. The taste is far better than store-bought GF breadcrumbs, which usually are rock-hard rice nuggets.
I finely chopped the onion and sautéed it in a little butter until translucent. I let it cool, then added it to 1 lb. of thawed ground beef. I added the egg, the breadcrumbs, and the milk. I seasoned it with salt and pepper, and I mixed everything thoroughly, keeping the meat mixture in the fridge until I needed it.
Two pots of boiling salted water: one for the meat-filled koldūnai, and one for the mac-and-cheese filled koldūnai.
No Lithuanian koldūnas recipe is complete without spirgučiai…
1 lb. bacon, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
In a large pan, fry the chopped bacon until it’s almost crisp. I don’t drain the fat, but you can if you’re a wuss. Add the chopped onions and cook until they are soft. Set aside. These are called spirgučiai, (spir-guh-chay) and they are sprinkled on top of the finished koldūnai, just before serving. (My Mom always kept a stash of spirgučiai in a container in the fridge, and sprinkled them on anything and everything.)
Once you’ve made the koldūnai, it’s up to you if you want to cook them right away or freeze them for later. Either way, when you’re ready, get a large pot of salted water boiling. Salt, just like when boiling pasta, is essential in giving the dough flavor.) Drop the koldūnai in gently, being careful not to overcrowd them. If the dough is thin, they will be ready when they float up to the surface. A thicker dough will need longer cooking. The best way to know if they’re done is by taking one out, cutting it open and having a look (and a taste!)
You can serve them straight out of the boiling water, but dropping them in a pan with a little butter to lightly sauté them a bit before serving is really the way to go.
When plating, sprinkle generously with spirgučiai, and serve with sour cream.
Enjoying each variety of koldūnai on a cold winter’s night with friends.