One of the things I love about food are the common threads connecting different cultures, the similar flavors or forms popping up on different continents with different names. These tasty meat dumplings, wrapped in a layer of dough, are kind of the Russian cousins of pot stickers or tortellini. I learned how to make them at a “pelmeni party” that a Russian friend named Inna threw while we were working together in Hamburg, Germany.
Inna says that during her childhood in the Soviet Union, pelmeni were her favorite food and that her mother cooked them often. But with the end of communism came supermarkets and fast food restaurants, and she says her mother and most other Russians stopped making the pelmeni by hand.
There’s a reason most people stopped making pelmeni by hand once they could buy them ready-made and it’s the same reason it makes sense to have a pelmeni party: they’re a lot of trouble! But once you’ve made the dough and mixed up the meat, many hands will make light work of it.
After the pelmeni party in Germany, I realized that I’d actually eaten them before. In high school an exchange student from Turkmenistan, once also a part of the Soviet Union, had wanted to cook us something from home and pelmeni is what he served us.
2 1/2 cups flour (plus more for dusting your work surface)
1/2 cup of water
3 teaspoons salt divided
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
2 medium-sized onions
1 teaspoon pepper
Mix up the dough. You can do this by hand by piling up the flour, sprinkling 1 teaspoon salt over it and then forming a well in the middle. Break the two eggs into the well and begin mixing with a wooden spoon with only a little flour incorporated with each stir. Continue mixing, slowly adding water into the well.
Alternatively, you can use a mixer with a dough hook. Either way, knead the dough until it comes together in a nice ball but remains quite tacky. Cover the dough in a bowl and set aside. It should rest for about half an hour, which gives you time to prepare the filling.
Chop the two onions very finely. Add to a large bowl with the ground pork and the ground beef. Season the meat with salt and pepper to taste and then mix together. I used 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper, but I always cook up a little of the meat first to be sure I’ve got the right amount.
Once you’re happy with the flavor of the filling and the dough has rested, you can start your assembly. If you have helpers, you can do all of this at once. If you’re working on your own, only work on a quarter of the dough at once and keep the rest covered so it doesn’t dry out.
Lightly flour a work surface. Divide the dough into four parts. Roll each section into a long snake and then cut into small sections.
Roll each section into a ball and then use your fingers to flatten each piece into a small disc.
With a rolling pin roll each of the discs as thin as possible, while more or less maintaining a circular shape. Place about a teaspoon of the meat filling in the middle of the circle.
Fold the dough in half, sealing the edges together carefully. Then bring the ends around and squeeze together.
Set the finished pelmeni on a sheet of parchment paper. When they’ve all been assembled, bring two pots of water to boil. Carefully add the pelmeni to the water, only as many as will fit in one layer of the pot with no crowding. You might have to cook them in a couple of rounds.
Once you’ve added the pelmeni, stir once or twice to make sure they don’t stick to each other or to the bottom of the pot. When they’ve risen to the top, cook for another five minutes.
Remove each dumpling with a slotted spoon. I’ve always eaten pelmeni with sour cream, but you can also serve them with butter or vinegar.
Variations and tips:
Some recipes suggest browning the onions before mixing them into the meat. Others suggest using a food processor to get the onion pieces really small.
Once the pelmeni are cooked through, they can be browned in butter in a frying pan. This is a good way to reheat leftover pelmeni too.
The pelmeni can apparently be frozen uncooked and then tossed right into the boiling water frozen. I haven’t tried this yet, but they would definitely need to cook a little longer.
Tuck a whole peppercorn into one of the pelmeni. It gives the person who finds it in his or her dinner good luck!