How a Polish delicacy brought a family together.
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Overhead view of pierogi with sour cream and chives
Credit: Getty Images

It's become a cliché to say "my family revolves around food." Of course our most celebrated traditions stem from dishes that have been passed down for generations, but I'm wholeheartedly convinced that no other family prioritizes mealtimes more than the Skladanys. 

I'll put things into perspective with one of my favorite stories, as told (quite frequently) by my mother. When I was an infant and my family members (her in-laws) were in town to dote on me and shower me with much-deserved love and affection, my grandma (who we adoringly call "Grama") announced that it was dinner time and literally handed me to back to my mom as if I was a soccer ball or discarded piece of fruit rind. My aunts, uncles, and cousins naturally followed suit, as it is customary in any Skladany household to march straight into the kitchen or dining room the second after you're summoned to eat. 

A newborn baby? Kinda' cute. A feast? The bee's knees. Let's just say our priorities have and will continue to be love in the form of carbohydrates. Shortly after this dinner, my mom yelled at my grandma for sneaking me a cookie. 

"Oh he's fine," she said, shrugging her shoulders with indifference. I didn't even have teeth. 

Joey Skladany and grandma
The author and Grama
| Credit: Joey Skladany

Of course I don't remember this sequence of events (and as far as I can tell, I have no permanent emotional scarring from the evening), but the one thing that has remained a constant is that we still drop everything (and that apparently includes children) to gather around the dinner table and nosh until we're sick to our stomachs. And there is no binged food more defining of my childhood than my grandma's perfect pierogi. 

Imagine a heavy-set woman with thick-rimmed clear glasses, fire-red curly short hair, and a boisterous laugh that complements a strong Pittsburgh accent. That's Grama — similar in appearance to the type of beloved characters we see in Disney movies or storybooks, but with an even louder and more dynamic personality that could go toe-to-toe with any outspoken politician or sharp-tongued comedienne. (She did raise six kids, after all). 

For big family reunions, our matriarch would wake up before the sun rose to boil potatoes and hand-fold hundreds of pierogi, the pillowy Polish delicacy. We never once tried to make them at home; it was only special with Grama's touch — her fingerprints embedded in the dough — and an accompanying butter and onion sauce that took the meal from delicious to downright sinful. 

As years passed and reunions were less frequent, my craving for Grama's pierogi grew stronger. In true grandma style, her cooking was always performed by memory, but as she got older and part of this memory became a bit clouded, so did her instincts in the kitchen. 

While visiting for Thanksgiving a few years ago with my dad and sister, we ambitiously attempted to imitate her famous recipe. Though still sharp as the knife set she's owned for decades, she just couldn't remember each and every ingredient or their precise measurements and ratios. But that hankering for the dough and potato duo was powerful and we made do with the information we had. 

The result: a strong "okay." Not amazing, not terrible, but a disservice to the cherished recollections of soft and slippery, two-bite discs that you could eat with all too great of ease. Something was missing and we couldn't quite put our finger on it (literally for Grama, who now suffers from neuropathy in her hands). 

Flash forward to a couple years later when I was visiting my cousin Karly at her home in Nashville. On her kitchen counter was a binder labeled "family recipes" with none other than Grama's famous pierogi, right smack in the middle of the stack of papers. Needless to say, I had a minor freakout. 

"How long have you had this?!" I exclaimed. 

"I've always had it," she replied, dumbfounded that the treasured recipe wasn't practically tattooed into my forearm. 

After perusing the list of ingredients and measurements to see what we were missing from our desperate attempt to recreate them, there was one glaring omission: Velveeta cheese, of course. It's classic Grama to incorporate something that doesn't really belong, but makes the recipe so special. 

Since taking a photograph of the page, I have yet to bring myself to make them. It just seems wrong, at least while she's alive, to not have her feed them to me or at least sit down at a table to help her prepare them. 

But it does seem entirely right to share this recipe with the world so that others can enjoy my favorite meal and a symbol of my very-well-fed upbringing. After all, Grama has always shown her unconditional love through food and I've been taught — since infancy — to do the same. 

Grama's Famous Pierogi Recipe

Yields approximately 3 dozen pierogi.

Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 2½ cups flour
  • ¾ cups sour cream
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder

For the filling:

  • 10-12 potatoes, boiled
  • 8 ounces Velveeta cheese, shredded
  • prunes (optional)
  • salt & pepper

Directions

  1. Mix flour, salt and baking powder.
  2. Add sour cream and eggs and mix well.
  3. Roll out dough onto a floured surface.
  4. Cut into 3-inch squares
  5. Drain potatoes and add cheese, salt, and pepper. Mix well. 
  6. Spoon around 1 ½ teaspoons of filling into each square. Add a prune for sweetness and fiber, should you desire. ("Remember to make your last batch with prunes," says Grama. "All of that cheese and dough will constipate you. You add a prune for fiber." )
  7. Fold the dough over to create a pocket around the filling. Pinch the edges with your finger to seal. You can also use a fork. 
  8. In a large pot with salted boiling water, add 10 pierogi at a time. When they float, they're done. 
  9. Serve as is, with sour cream, or with any standard onion and melted butter sauce.