More Finnish Vintage Cooking – Grandma’s Karelian Pies

More Finnish Vintage Cooking – Grandma’s Karelian Pies

To tell you the truth: the best bread in the world comes from Finland. But that’s not the whole truth! The world’s best breakfast, snack, travel snack and emergency food –  the savoury Karelian pie – also comes from Finland! We successfully tackled our acute rye bread shortage last spring – the sourdough starter created then is still alive and kicking, and part of it actually now lives in Northern Ireland! Apart from the hottest summer months, we’ve been baking Finnish sourdough rye bread every two or three days in our sailboat galley. At times it’s been a little difficult to find rye flour, but the situation is very good at the moment, because a local shopkeeper here in Galaxidi, where we are spending the second lockdown of 2020, was able to order it for us.

Rye flour in Greek

The rye bread problem now settled, we started craving something else from the homeland: Karelian pies! We were a little intimidated by the many production phases, especially the crimping part, which seemed like an overwhelming challenge. But the pies are insanely good, so we just had to give it a try. Besides, my heritage includes a good chunk of Karelian genes, so I have a rather pleasant duty to keep the family tradition alive. I remember the speed and ease with which my grandmother handled her rolling pin, while making her famous pies for every special occasion. For my high school graduation she made three hundred of them!


Karelian Pies (20 pieces)

In order to make the pie project a little easier, it’s a good idea to split the work over two days. You can make the filling on the first day. Traditionally the filling was mostly barley porridge, later buckwheat, mashed potato or rice. Rice porridge is the most common filling these days, and that’s what we chose to fill our pies with as well. Here’s a simple recipe for porridge made in the oven. Make a little more than you need for the pies and have some for breakfast – it’s really good and keeps you going all day!

Like in my rye bread recipe, I use the metric system for all units. If you’re not metric, check the amounts with a unit converter.

Rice porridge in the oven (enough for 20 pies)

1 l whole milk (3.5% fat)
2 dl short grain rice
1 ts salt
butter to grease the pot

Grease the pot and pour in all the ingredients, mix lightly. I used my trusted cast iron pot, but a ceramic one works just as well. Make sure the pot is only filled to 2/3 of its capacity, so the porridge doesn’t bubble over the rim. Heat the oven to 175°C, put the pot in the oven and let cook for 1 1/2 hours. Mix lightly a few times during cooking. If you put a lid on the pot, there will be no crust (I don’t like the crust).

Pie Dough (20 pies)

2 dl cold water
5 dl rye flour (you can use about 30% wheat flour to make the dough more manageable. I used 30% whole grain wheat)
1 ts salt

melted butter or butter/water mix for greasing

Mix the ingredients first with a wooden spoon and then knead until the dough feels solid. Make a roll and cut it into pieces. Flatten each piece with you hands into a round shape about 0.5 cm thick.

Now is the time to bring out an authentic Karelian rolling pin, but since we don’t have one onboard, we used the pasta machine instead! Some might consider it cheating, but I know there are people secretly doing it. Our excuse is that we’re doing this in a boat galley, which is a little more challenging than working in a big house kitchen.

Cover the pieces of dough with a plastic wrap or a damp towel so they don’t dry. Take one piece at a time and make a pie shell, using a rolling pin (or a pasta machine). It should be a very thin circle about 15 cm in diameter. Use enough flour on the working surface to prevent the dough from sticking. Make enough to fill one baking tray at a time. To fill the pies, add about 2 tbsp of porridge on each shell. Spread into an even layer, leaving 3 cm around the edges empty. Then turn two sides in the middle so they’re not quite touching each other, and start crimping. Place your fingers in the middle and press lightly to crimp the dough, move towards one end of the pie, then start again from the middle towards the other end. This is where you just have to experiment to find your own technique – my pies seemed to turn out best using just my forefingers. Every baker has their own unique style!

No problem, if you don’t end up with an even amount of shells and filling. In fact, if that happens, you just made your last Karelian pies! Luckily we were left with a few extra shells, so I hope we’ll have many more tries.

Heat the oven to 300°C. For extra crispy pies, preheat the baking tray as well. If you’re using baking paper, make sure it’s safe in high temperatures, otherwise it might catch fire. You can sprinkle rye flour on the tray instead. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the porridge turns golden brown. Brush the pies thinly with butter or butter/water mix while still hot, cover with a cloth, and leave to cool.

The gas oven in our galley only heats up to about 250°C. That’s why I used baking paper. The pies took a little longer to bake and perhaps they weren’t quite as crispy as back in the old Karelia, but boy were they good! To top it off, spread a generous amount of egg butter on your pie and enjoy. It’s the best thing in the world!

Egg Butter

2 boiled eggs
50 g butter
pinch of salt

Peel and chop the eggs finely while they’re still warm. Mix with room temperature butter.

The Karelian pie fever seems to be highly contagious, much worse than the covid. It crossed the Atlantic within hours, and soon there were Finnish sailors crimping their Caribbean versions of Karelian pies in Grenada! Our warmest greetings to the crews of s/y Victoria and s/y Olivia!

So, this was the second Finnish vintage cooking article we’ve published so far. I wonder what we’ll cook next! While Greece is in lockdown, we have plenty of time for galley experiments. The local produce is tasty and fresh. We always buy our vegetables, fish and meat from small, local shops. Here in Galaxidi we are lucky to get our fish straight from the fishermen when they return to port every night. In some other towns we have visited wonderful farmers markets. In our galley the lovely Greek ingredients sometimes turn into very Finnish dishes!

As the saying goes, every Karelian pie looks like the person who baked it. It seems that whoever baked these might have multiple personalities.

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