I learned at the last minute that last Monday [October 8th] was National Pierogi Day [after seeing Chef Kevin [winner of Bravo’s Top Chef Season 7] at Sbraga tweet a segment he did on TV with Mrs. T’s Pierogis].
Instead of doing my usual and running out to the closest grocery store to pick up a few boxes of Mrs. T’s [my favorite! so easy to glam up with a few additions, or just as delicious on their own] I decided to make a recipe that’d been on my mind for a while now – Pierogi Casserole. I was inspired by Jessica at How Sweet It Is who blogged her easy and delicious version last year.
National Pierogi Day is pretty much an awesome holiday in my book not only because the mashed potato + cheese filled pasta dumplings are my favorite comfort food, but because they have some pretty personal significance to me and my life.
[my mom + I around the time of this memory]
My parents are both American-born, but the generations before them on my mom side were born and raised in Russia and in Lithuania on on my dad’s. That pretty much just means pierogis are in my blood! I remember when I was in elementary school traveling with my mom on a cool fall Saturday morning from our home in New Jersey to her cousins home town outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was there that once a year, we’d attend the local Russian Orthodox church’s fall fair. One of the first tables my mom + I would look for once inside the ancient church basement would be the one with the sweet, old babushkas serving up their love and heritage in small cheesy pockets of potato-stuffed pasta. Mom and I would sit down and eat our fill before wandering the crafts, often picking up a matryoshka doll or two, and then visiting the pierogi table again to load up on more delicious dumplings to take home and savor.
And of all places in the world that this could happen, I actually learned how to make pierogis myself while I was living in Hong Kong. I had become friends with a trio of sisters whose parents were Pittsburgh-bred but the daughters of whom were raised overseas. One Friday night at a quintessential teenage-girl-sleepover we gathered the ingredients to make these Eastern European staples based off of my friend Jenna’s family recipe. These delicious treats were time intensive – making the dough, preparing the filling, and assembling the pierogis. But the hours flew by as we stood in the kitchen of her townhome that was hang-out central due to it’s location just around the corner from our International School, covered in flour, rolling out circles of dough, spooning in piles of cheesy mashed potatoes, and boiling then sauteeing the dumplings. And I will never forget the secret ingredient [the one of which my mom is still skeptical to this day] that made the pierogis so perfectly creamy and cheesy. Velveeta. Yep, the very one that comes in shelf-stable block form. And to that I say, don’t knock it till you try it!
Loaded Pierogi Casserole
Prep Time : 30 minutes Cook Time : 45 minutes Yield : 8-12 servings
1/2 lb pasta [short and ridged or curly noodles best – i.e. gemelli, rigatoni, penne, etc.]
5 medium Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes [approx. 4 lbs]
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese [I used a small [8 oz] loaf of Tillamook Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese and used the smallest holes of my grater]
8 oz Velveeta, grated or diced small
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter [for mashed potatoes]
1 1/2 lbs yellow onions [about 4 medium]
5 TBSP unsalted butter [for caramelized onions]
1/2 lb bacon, diced large
1/2 lb baby portabella mushrooms, diced small
6 garlic cloves, minced
for serving: sour cream, chives, tomato, cooked + crumbled bacon, etc.
1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Cook pasta to package directions. Drain and set aside when cooked. Be careful not to overcook pasta – if you’re extra cautious, it doesn’t hurt to undercook the noodles slightly. They will continue to cook while the casserole bakes and we don’t want them to turn to mush!
3. Wash and scrub or peel potatoes. I like to keep the skin on in this dish – it adds another layer of texture. That’s entirely a personal preference. Slice potatoes in half lengthwise, then in fourths width wise – cutting the potatoes into 8-10 medium pieces. This will help them to boil more quickly and for the skin to separate into small, bite-size pieces.
4. Place cut potatoes in the bottom of a large pot. Fill with water, making sure to have about 1-2 inches of water above the top of the potatoes. Salt to preference. Boil until potatoes are fork tender [about 20 minutes once water has begun a rolling boil].
5. While pasta and potatoes are cooking, prepare the add-ins to the casserole. Start with the caramelized onions. In a large nonstick skillet, melt 5 TBSP unsalted butter over medium-high heat. Peel and slice onions in half and then into half-moons. I like to keep mine fairly large [about 1/4″ thick] as I like the onions to be identifiable in the casserole and not just melt into the potatoes. Again – personal preference.
6. Add onions to melted butter and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the onions do not burn. Add to very large mixing bowl [I mean it! the largest one in your arsenal] and set aside.
7. In the same nonstick pan, cook diced bacon over medium-high heat. I cooked mine extra-crispy so there would still be some bite when mixed in with the potatoes + pasta and baked in the casserole. Remove bacon from pan, adding to bowl with onions, and reserve about 1 tsp bacon fat in pan.
8. In same nonstick pan, add minced garlic and diced mushrooms with bacon fat. Cook over medium-high heat until mushrooms have released their moisture and are dark brown and shiny.
9. Add mushrooms to bowl with onions and bacon. Once pasta is cooked and drained, add it to the bowl with the onion/bacon/mushroom mixture as well.
10. Drain fork-tender potatoes. Return to pot, add 1/2 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup unsalted butter and 3 cups shredded cheese. Mash until smooth. [*warning – this makes more mashed potatoes than you need for the casserole. I mashed the potatoes, added in the onions, bacon and mushrooms, then set aside about a cereal bowl’s worth that The Husband and I devoured as is. Believe me. You won’t bemoan the fact that you have a bowl of sinfully delicious mashed potatoes in your fridge.]
11. Combine potato and onion/bacon/mushroom mixtures in large mixing bowl. Stir until well combined. Spread into 9×13″ baking pan. Top with grated or diced Velveeta. Cover with aluminum foil.
12. Bake, covered, for 30-40 minutes. Uncover and let brown for last 5-10 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.
13. Cut casserole into 8-12 slices. This is a very rich and dense casserole, so we cut our servings on the small side and serve with a big green salad packed with veggies to offset the cheesy-carby-goodness. Top as desired [I love some diced tomatoes, scallions and a big dollop of sour cream]. Enjoy!
I’m already imagining other great varieties of this casserole!
How about a healthy/fancy one where you use mashed sweet potatoes and fresh goat cheese and a leafy green of some sort and pair it with whole wheat noodles and some chopped, spiced pecans?
Or what about a dessert version with lasagna noodles, a combination of mascarpone and ricotta combined with the mashed [skinless] potatoes and paired with a tart cherry pie filling? Top cassrole with a cinnamon/brown sugar mixture that will brulee in the oven for the last 5 minutes and serve slices with fresh homemade whipped cream on top.
Let me know if you make any of these version. And invite me over! :)