It’s my favourite time of year. Not Christmas exactly, and not quite New Years Eve, either. No, it's the lovely time warp in between; the Sunday evening to the calendar year, a time out, untouchable, slowed down. During this week I’m never quite sure what day it is, but there's a few things I can always count on: a fire in the fireplace (first time since last Christmas), books read, books completed, board games, long walks, and - most important of all - overeating of good food (without feeling the slightest bit bad about it).
I want to share a dish that’s perfect for the days between Christmas and New Years Eve: Karjalanpiirakka (Kar-ya-lan pee-rakka), or “Karelian pasties” in English. A classic Finnish dish, they are simple and they are delicious. They are perfect to make during the days between Christmas and New Years because at this time of year it’s okay to spend a whole day in the kitchen and make a mess and produce obscure Nordic foods to share with friends who have long overstayed their welcome. And if you totally fuck it up, that's okay, too. At least you've warmed up the kitchen with the oven (cranking the oven to max is mandatory for this recipe). So gather round your toasty kitchen, let your friends keep raiding your liquor cabinet, and share a round of piping hot Karelian pasties.
Traditions, old and new
In Finland, it’s tradition at a housewarming to give the new settlers a bag of rye flour and salt. The idea is that you’ll never go hungry with these humble ingredients. So when my sister moved into her new house last year shortly before Christmas, and when I moved into my new apartment at the same time of year this year, we both received rye and salt from our loving mother who was visiting for the Christmas holidays. On both occasions we decided to make Karelian pasties. A new tradition was born!
What the heck is a Karelian pasty?
“Sounds like something invented during the Winter War!”
We're all entitled to our opinions, of course. This was my girlfriend’s father's opinion on the Karelian pasty, after he asked me to describe some classic Finnish dishes.
Stoic and simple, a Karelian pasty is a small savoury pasty (a small folded pastry) with a thin crust made from rye flour and a filling made of rice. But before you condemn it to the survivalist genre of Nordic foods (alongside birch bark bread and various fermented fishes), I urge you I taste it. These pasties are special because the simplest of ingredients are transformed into something delicious - akin to the magic of flour and leavening producing life-giving bread. Steeped in tradition, among the Nordic countries you'll find them them only in Finland. Within Finland, they have their origin in South-Eastern Karjala (or “Karelia” in English), a region rich in culture that was almost lost entirely to the Soviets during the Second World War. Karelian pasties are also commonly made with mashed potato filling, but the rice ones are my personal favourite.
Start with the rice porridge filling. Put the rice in a large wide-bottom pot and add 500 mL (2 cups plus 2 tbsp) water along with 1 tsp salt. Bring to a boil and stir constantly. Lower the heat and stir in the milk one splash at a time, gently simmering and stirring all the while for about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. If it becomes to thick you can add a splash of milk. Stir in the the butter and mix gently for an additional 5 minutes. Set the rice porridge aside to cool to room temperature.
Next, make the rye dough. Add the rye flour and 1 tsp salt into a large bowl. Pour in 215 mL cold water (¾ cup plus 2 tbsp). Work the dough with your hands until thick. Roll them into two logs and cover with a clean, damp cloth to prevent them from drying out.
Cut out small portions from the log (approx. 2 tbsp each) and shape them into balls. Next, on a well dusted and clean work surface, use a rolling pin to roll the dough balls out to a very thin discs about 12-14 cm (4 ½ - 5 ½ inch) across. Dust each disc with flour and stack them under a damp cloth to prevent them from drying.
Get ready for baking. Preheat the oven to 250 C (450 F). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper suitable for high heat.
Place a generous spoonful (approx. 2 tbsp) of rice porridge filling onto each disc. Fold the edge of the disc in toward the middle, crimping them as you fold. See the GIF below. There's some technique to this.
Arrange the pasties onto the sheet and bake for 10 minutes, then broil for an additional 5 min, keeping a close on eye so they don’t burn. They are ready when they are lightly golden on top.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan with the milk at low temperature and pour into a bowl. When the pasties are ready, take them out and dip them one at a time into the warm butter / milk bath, arranging them to drain on a wire rack as you go. This takes away the brittleness of the cooked rye crust. Let them dry out for about 3 minutes, then place a towel over them to prevent them from drying out. They can be eaten hot, at room temperature, or cold. They last for about two weeks refrigerated and 6 months frozen.
It's traditional to serve with Karelian pasties with egg butter. To prepare, simply mix hardboiled eggs (boiled for 9 minutes) and room temperature butter until a rich, chunky consistency is reached that permits spreading. Enjoy!
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.