Two teenage boys meet and strike a friendship that lasts for decades. One of them, small and quick, with a sly smile and a witty word, is running around a Moscow marketplace peddling meat pies. The other one, tall and gangly, is strolling through the market followed by a small entourage of richly attired older men.
“I want this, – points the tall boy at the steaming tray of pies, – pay him!”
“But Your Majesty, – stammers a boyarin, – it’s probably rotten… You can’t eat off the street!”
“I will eat what I want and do what I want, – screams Tzar Peter, famous for his temper, and turns his attention to the dirty grinning urchin, – What’s your name, kid? Are the pies really filled with rotten meat?”
“Aleksashka, – smiles the boy, – and yours? The pies are good and fresh, here – take a bite, and you’ll love them!”
And the rest is history, or at least one of the versions of it. The story about humble origins of Alexandr Men’shikov, Peter the Great’s right hand and closest confidante, has found its way to a novel and several movies. His Serene Highness, Prince and Generalissimus, the one and only Russian Duke, the most powerful person in Russia after the Tzar, supposedly started his illustrious career by selling meat pies and running into the Tzar at the marketplace.
Small pies of all kinds, with meat, fish, cabbage, mushrooms, baked or fried, have always been popular in Russia. Royalty and peasants alike craved this hot, fragrant, easily transportable and quite filling, simple delicacy. I set out to modernize it by using spelt flour instead or regular white flour and my homemade dairy free prostokvasha, or clabbered milk (for instructions how to make it, click here). If you want to go dairy, use any kefir you like. Please note that spelt might not be suitable for people with celiac disease or those allergic to gluten. Consult your doctor before using spelt or substitute gluten free flour, to be on the safe side. This is the easiest dough in the world: dump prostokvasha into flour, add a pinch of salt and some baking powder, and kneed until you get soft dough. You might want to add some water to soften it, if needed.
Instead of meat, I used a combination of tofu and baby portobello mushrooms, but you can use any meat substitute of your choice or just mushrooms. Traditionally, the filling is flavored with sauteed garlic and onion. As a afterthought, I added a handful of fresh parsley.
Dice everything as fine as you want (some like the filling on the chunky side), and start by sauteing garlic with onions. When garlic is browned and onions are translucent, add mushrooms and tofu, stir, and saute together until most of the liquid evaporates.
I seasoned it with ground allspice, cinnamon, and cumin, and, of course, salt and pepper, but feel free to play with your own seasoning.
Let the filling cool off while you play ball with the dough. Dust a board or working surface with flour. Form balls the size of ping-pong balls, then flatten them, keeping the round shape. Make indentations in the center of each dough circle.
Place a tablespoon of filling into the indentation and firmly pinch the sides closed. Put it on floured surface seam down and continue.
Now you have to make a decision: bake or fry. If you want plump, fluffy pies, bake them at 350 F for about 20 – 25 minutes until golden brown. We prefer them with a crunchy crust, so I fry them for a few minutes on a barely misted with oil shallow frying pan, until the crust is formed.
Here they are, fit for royalty, soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and filled with savory goodness. Have a glass of full-bodied red wine (we are having Victor Cabernet Sauvignon Lazio 2012, and it is a perfect pairing), and feel great – like Tzar Peter!
- 2 cups white spelt flour
- 1 cup clabbered milk (prostokvasha)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- a pinch of salt
- water per need
- 1 package (14 oz) extra firm tofu or any meat substitute of your choice
- 1 cup diced mushrooms
- 1 small onion
- 3 – 4 large garlic cloves
- A large handful of chopped fresh parsley
- A pinch of ground allspice
- A pinch of cinnamon
- A pinch of cumin
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Combine flour with clabbered milk, add baking powder and salt, kneed to form soft dough. Add water if needed. Put aside.
- Finely dice remaining ingredients. Saute garlic with onions until garlic is browned and onions are translucent. Add diced tofu and mushrooms. Season, stir, saute together until most liquid evaporates. Remove from heat, let it cool off.
- Form dough balls the size of ping-ping balls, flatten into circles. Place on lightly floured surface, make indentations in the center of each circle.
- Place tablespoon of filling in each indentation, firmly pinch sides closed, place on floured surface seam down.
- Fry on medium hot lightly misted with oil frying pan until golden and crusty on both sides. Alternatively, bake at 350 F for 20 – 25 minutes, or until golden brown.
- Serve hot. May be frozen and reheated.