In the case of many mothers of young children who are in various stages of transforming their families’diets to one wise in traditional nutrition, often the last vestiges of modern, convenience meals to bite the dust are macaroni and cheese, either in the dry boxed form or frozen. Why one doesn’t make this simple dish from macaroni boiled at home and baked with milk and cheese of known origin is best understood by mothers of young children, I suppose, but the appeal of noodles needs no explanation. Yet of the wide variety of pastas available commercially–with or without egg, organic, whole grain and so forth–unfortunately none have been soaked or fermented to properly process the anti-nutrients in the flour. This is true also for the many recipes for pasta made by hand or machine commonly found in modern cookbooks. Imagine my complete surprise, then, to discover a recipe for pasta dough that requires a 2 to 3 day lacto-fermentation! Even more amazing, the recipe calls for whey!
The source of this recipe is a Russian cookbook (in Russian), a recent compilation of ethnic dishes called simply Russian Cuisine, published in 1998 and edited by V. Mikhailov and M. Riurikova. The first chapter, entitled “Siberia: Motherland of Pel’meni,” begins with the history of this well-known and universally loved dish.
Pel’meni are delectable meat-filled dumplings (forerunners of ravioli) associated with the ancient tribal culinary tradition of native Siberian peoples, in particular the Komi-Permyaks, inhabiting the Kama River basin along the Ural Mountains. In the Komi-Permyak language, this dish is called pel’ nyan’: pel’ means “ear” and nyan’ means “bread” so literally these are “bread ears,” and in Russian cuisine a variety of pel’meni is also called ushki, or little ears.
Ritual surrounded the preparation of pel’meni, which was a communal event. Only women who had borne children were permitted to prepare them, and they wore particular garments with ornamentation propitious to the success of their endeavor. The women sang special songs to provide rhythm and gentle encouragement to the careful task of preparing hundreds of pel’meni at a time; the dough had to be strong and elastic and sealed properly so that the dumplings would not open during boiling. The meat filling was usually reindeer, moose and horsemeat, chopped finely in a wooden trough, and although most modern pel’meni are made with ground meats, aficionados maintain that the best taste is still obtained from hand-chopping in a wooden vessel.
The Komi-Permyaks were hunters of the forests of the taiga (the moist, subarctic coniferous forest), and took sacks of frozen pel’meni with them on hunting expeditions. Since temperatures were below freezing for many months of the year, this was the perfect “convenience” meal. When the hunters reached their winter shelters it only remained to melt snow over a fire, drop the pel’meni into the boiling water and in a short time dinner was ready. Indeed, the editors of Russian Cuisine implore their readers to make a winter picnic of their own; to go to the forest and build their own fire and boil and eat pel’meni outside; it is an experience to remember all one’s life, they say.
Next follows my translation of the master recipe for the pel’meni dough with my additional comments in brackets.
“We recommend the following proportions of ingredients for pel’meni dough: 2 cups wheat flour (the highest quality), 6 egg yolks, 1 cup whey.
“Sift the flour, pour it onto the table and make a well in the center. Mix eggs yolks, salt [they never give a measurement for this, but I would assume a pinch or two], and whey carefully together until homogenous. Pour this into the well in the flour and begin to mix all together until the mass forms a ball. It should be elastic, but not too stiff. Knead and work the dough until it no longer sticks to your hands or to the table.
“You want to let the dough remain at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, adding a bit of flour and kneading once or twice a day. [No mention is made of placing the dough in a bowl and covering it, but I would assume one would do just that. Also, the assumption is that after the 2 or 3 days, your dough is ready to be rolled out, cut, filled and simmered in broth.]
“In order not to have to deal with the dough constantly, if pel’meni are made day after day, we advise you to use the leaven, or sour starter, method which has always been in the armamentarium of folk cuisine. To do this, you will add to a remnant of your dough [made as per instructions above] a mixture that is prepared thus: Bring a cup of salted water to a boil [in a pan], add 2 cups of flour, stirring quickly so that no lumps form. Continue to cook the mixture for another several minutes, then cool slightly and add 3 egg yolks and [a bit more] flour so that an elastic dough is produced. Combine this mixture with the remnant of dough [from above] and carefully knead to amalgamate. Leave this mixture to ferment at room temperature for several days. [Again, in a covered bowl.] In this manner, you will always have a supply of pel’meni dough. The resulting product is very elastic and durable and will not easily tear. [Very important as the dough must withstand being rolled thin, and then cut, filled, sealed and cooked in broth.] In the refrigerator the dough will keep for about a week.”
Instructions follow next for adding vegetables to the dough (carrot and beet)–rather like making spinach linguine–and then about 20 pages of recipes for fillings! Combinations include pork and beef, as well as mutton, veal, wild game, fish, eggs, cabbage, sauerkraut, mushrooms, pumpkin, liver and kasha, nettle, horsetail, lambs quarters, and sorrel! Filled pel’meni may be gently cooked and served in broth, or served alone drenched in melted butter or sour cream, or, in the Siberian style, with a sprinkling of vinegar.
I tried this recipe, using durum semolina flour, but decided right away that 6 eggs yolks were certain to be too many. I had large eggs on hand, and used only 3 yolks. Even so, I did need to add more flour to keep the mass of dough from sticking. This didn’t bother me, though, since I wasn’t making something like a cake where strict measurements would matter more to the final product. After the first 24 hours at room temperature, the climate in our part of Michigan suddenly contorted in a sickeningly typical manner: after weeks of cloudy, 45-degree April days, the temperature shot up to 87 with howling, blast-furnace winds. My dough reacted equally violently, lifting the glass plate on its bowl several inches as it bubbled forth. This behavior rankled me since I had never seen pasta dough act like bread dough! I punched it down, kneaded it and brought it down to our cool basement for the night. Over night, however, it bubbled aggressively up again, and I decided to use about a third of the dough to make flat noodles that day to see what sort of product all this excitement had caused. The dough was very springy and resilient, yet I managed to roll it out thin, and hand-cut the ribbons. I cooked the noodles in salted water and dressed them with a spring “pesto” of dandelion greens pounded in a mortar with garlic, salt and olive oil. To my great relief, they were very tasty indeed with no hint of over-souring; in fact, they were tender and sweet and noticeably light on the stomach.
The evil weather continued one more day, and I punched down and kneaded my poor dough periodically throughout. On the third day, temperatures returned to “normal” and I felt I was ready to try the pel’meni.
The editors of Russian Cuisine described the Komi-Permyak women making pel’meni by rolling the dough into a rope (after kneading it vigorously beforehand) and then pinching off a bit and rolling out each dumpling to fill one at a time. This method worked fine for me since I was only making about 15 the first time. I pinched off a piece of dough the size of a smallish walnut and rolled it out to about 1/16 of an inch thick, placed a heaping teaspoon of filling (I made a simple one of minced onion and carrot sauteed in lard added to some minced, cooked chicken seasoned just with salt) in the center and folded over and pinched the seams to seal. When all were made I dropped as many as would fit without crowding in one layer in a pan of simmering, salted chicken broth. After about 12 minutes they were done–we had them with rice wine vinegar and a splash of tamari; the second batch we had with sour cream. They were just delicious; the dough was tender and flavorful, the filling succulent, both benefitting from their bath in the flavorful broth.
The digestibility of these dumplings was also a noticeable virtue; they were very light on the stomach while at the same time satisfying to eat. For this toothsome aspect we can thank the lactic acid bacteria at work on the flour from the whey. Not only are anti-nutrients such as phytic acid neutralized by the acidic long soaking period, but recent research has shown that the lacto-bacilli present in sourdough cultures effectively neutralize the toxic components of the wheat gluten molecule responsible for the allergic reaction in celiac-sprue sufferers.1 Mere soaking with the addition of acetic acid showed no effect on the gluten molecule. This discovery is truly exciting for those who are gluten-intolerant, as it may be the door to food that is traditionally prepared and safe to eat, with the welcome bonus of being both tasty and extra-nutritious. The lacto-bacteria in a sourdough culture can be boosted by the addition of whey (in place of water) for baking bread, and as the liquid component of noodle dough, as we see in this traditional recipe for pel’meni. And just as with the traditional Komi-Permyak women, we can make a satisfying ritual from preparing these nutritious, delicious dumplings. They can be assembled and laid on trays in the freezer for about an hour, then transferred to freezer containers until you need them.
As they say in Russian Cuisine, we wish you success in your culinary masterwork!
Editor’s Note: We look forward to receiving reader feedback on their success with pel’meni.
Although properly prepared bread is tolerated by many people who can’t eat gluten in supermarket bread, there are some who need to be completely gluten-free. The usual gluten-free bread offerings are mainly starch–white rice flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, or might include soy, or other unsoaked grains. Deb Gully of New Zealand has developed the following soaked flour, gluten-free, dairy-free bread. The base recipe is dairy-free as well, for those who are very intolerant. Those who tolerate dairy products can use kefir or yoghurt for the soaking.
Whole grain, gluten free bread (Can be made dairy-free)
1 cup flour* (1/3 each quinoa, amaranth & buckwheat)
2 tablespoons whey or lemon juice
1 cup less 2 tablespoons warm water (i.e., total liquid = 1 cup)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or melted butter
1 cup arrowroot powder
1/2 cup sesame seeds, freshly ground in coffee grinder (comes to just under a cup of meal)
1/4 cup flaxseeds, freshly ground in coffee grinder (comes to just under ½ a cup of meal)
2 teaspoons pectin, xantham gum or guar gum**
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
pinch of fine celtic sea salt
The night before you want to make the bread, mix together the flour, warm water and whey. Cover and leave in a warm place. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat the eggs with the oil until well blended. Mix in the soaked flour. Mix remaining dry ingredients together well in a large bowl, and then add the batter, whisking as you go. The texture should be a fairly heavy batter. Let stand for a few minutes while you prepare the loaf pan. The flaxseeds will soak up some of the moisture and thicken the batter further. By this time, it should be thick and similar to a bread dough. The thicker it is, the better it will cook. If you need to, add a little more sesame meal.
Spoon into a buttered and lined loaf pan. Smooth the top, then make a small dip in the centre to allow for rising. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Cool before slicing.
* If you can’t get all 3 flours, try half and half of any 2 (not tested). All quinoa also works. Or try amaranth flour (not tested). All buckwheat also hasn’t been tested.
** Some people react to guar gum, so xantham is better. If you also react to that, try pectin. If still no go, try the bread without it, it will just be a little heavier.
Variation: Coconut bread
Replace butter or olive oil with 5 tablespoons coconut cream and replace the flaxseeds with 1/2 cup fine desiccated coconut.
Bread Machine Bread
Luisa Perkins of Cold Spring, New York, has supplied us with the following soaked recipe for a bread machine. She uses a Zojirushi bread machine (available from the King Arthur flour company), which has a “homemade” cycle.
1 cup purified water
3/4 cup homemade whey
5 cups freshly ground hard wheat flour, preferably white wheat, not red
3 tablespoons Rapadura or Sucanat
4 tablespoons lard or butter
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons yeast (SAF brand recommended)
Put the water, whey and flour into the bread machine loaf pan. Set the homemade cycle to the maximum time allowed on preheat and rise cycles–this should be at least 6 hours. The baking time should be set to zero. After preheating and kneading, the dough has about 6 hours at about 100 degrees. Add the remaining ingredients and set the machine to the wheat cycle, which should be another 3 hours at least. The two cycles together give the dough more than seven hours for the whey to do its work. The bread comes out nicely browned, risen to the top of the loaf pan and flat on top. It has a good, even structure and texture. If you start in the morning, the bread is finished by early evening and will be cooled off and ready to eat the following morning. Makes a 2-pound loaf.
- 1. DiCagno, et al. Proteolysis by Sourdough Lactic Acid Bacteria: Effects on Wheat Flour Protein Fractions and Gliadin Peptides Involved in Human Cereal Intolerance. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, February, 2002, p. 623-633, Vol. 68, No. 2
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2004.