For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

September 17, 2012

I Learned From the Best

I’ve written about the amazing karjalanpiirakka – Finnish/Karelian rice pies – before.  I even made an attempt to bake some little less than a year ago with rather satisfactory results. On top on that, I actually managed to inspire a young Turkish woman to try making them. That was cool! And she did an excellent job, to say the least.

But now, I can write about this superb Finnish delicacy again, since this time, I can say that I know how to make the traditional pies the way they really should be made. Not only was my teacher an elderly woman from Karelia, but she is, in fact, ranked among the country finest karjalanpiirakka bakers! That is cool!

People have different ideas about how to spend a sunny Saturday night.  Parties, dinner parties, dates, cinema, theater, concerts... What is expected out of a Saturday night is for something out of the ordinary to take place. Something intoxicating – literally and figuratively speaking. Usually, the preferred activities involve reaching a euphoric state of mind in one way or another. Expectations are most often sky-high and disappointments are commonplace. Sure, I can recognize the aforementioned in myself too, but still, for me, staying in on a Saturday night making karjanlanpiirakka with a jolly old lady couldn’t be more perfect.

I arrive to the home of the master of karjanlanpiirakka in the late afternoon that Saturday. Seija Raitanen greets me with a big smile and a hug that almost breaks my ribs. It has to be a part of the charm of Karelian women, I thought to myself, and squeeze her back as hard I can. She’s full of energy and all ready and prepared for the occasion, “I woke up at 6 am today, so I’ve already prepared the rice porridge” (the filling for the mouthwatering pies). Damn she’s effective. I need to step it up to stay in her pace and not disappoint her. Even though I have the advantage of age, she would beat me any day in what she has been doing all her life. I simply have to hand it to her, respect!

Before I know it, her fingers are working the dough. It’s beautiful watching her work and soon I find myself utterly dazzled by both the speed and perfection that surrounds her culinary performance. “Earth to Edith! Did you come here to daydream or to work?” she asks. I love this woman! No time for apologies or unnecessary babbling, I have pies to make.

So this is the drill. The dough is rolled into a long slab about the thickness of a big carrot. Then, the slab is cut in small 2cm wide pieces. The pieces are then flattened with a push of a thumb. The stack of flattened round dough pieces optimizes the work. Logical and efficient, it all seems pretty easy and I’m, seemingly, doing a great job. I keep trying to lock eyes with Seija for her approval. She approves with a firm but encouraging “Hyvä!” (good). No need for nonsense and worthless praising. She’s happy with my work and that’s all I need to know.

When the stacks of flattened dough balls are done, we are all set to start rolling the dough pieces thinner than thin pie bases. Seija starts talking, “I used to hate this sound” (the karjanlanpiirakka roll pin makes a pretty distinctive and constant knocking sound as it hits the table when working the dough). “My mother woke up early on Sundays to make karjanlanpiirakka and on purpose made a terrible racket as to wake me up. I usually came home late from a dance on Saturday nights and making karjanlanpiirakka was the last thing I wanted to do. But I had no choice. Newly baked steaming karjanlanpiirakka were an integral and vital part of the Sunday lunch. That’s how it had to be and that’s how it always was”. All the while Seija talks, her hands work. A scoop of rice porridge on the thin dough base, fold the sides and do the “rypytys” (literally “wrinkling”) and voilà! Her reflexes and the technique lie on decades of experience. “I used to do much more beautiful pies and a lot faster. I’m old now and my fingers hurt”. So modest and unpretentious. I can only smile.

Seija made five Karelian pies or so and left the baking duty to me. After a few not so pretty ones, I start getting the right feel to it. Some of the pies were exquisite, if I say so myself. When the first oven plate has about a dozen pies lined up side by side, Seija puts them into the extra hot oven. “Be sure to have the oven as hot as possible”, I nod and register the information. A few minutes later her little kitchen smelled heavenly. My mouth is watering and I suddenly feel very hungry. Seija asks me to prepare the “munavoi” (egg butter – hard boiled eggs mixed with butter) and I obey her command.

When Seija opens the oven, the sight of beautiful, sizzling, golden brown Karelian pies made my legs weak. Psyched out of the feeling of joy, I start jumping around the kitchen like a little kid. “Now we dip them in a mixture of milk and butter and let them cool down”. Oh no, I still have to wait before I can sink my teeth in the most perfect karjanlanpiirakka I had ever seen.

I hate waiting and ten minutes felt like an eternity. When Seija finally told me to eat, I thought I’d explode of happiness. I took a warm and crispy karjanlanpiirakka in my hands and smeared a thick layer of egg butter on it. Orgasmic! Amazingly delicious! One pies, two pies, three pies, four… after that I stopped counting. Seija’s smile when she watched me eat was priceless.

Thank you Seija!

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