WHEN IT comes to pierogie, I have been to the Mount - a Ukrainian Catholic church - where an octogenarian works her magic on this mixture of pasta dough and mashed potatoes. Hers are so light you wonder how they keep from floating off the plate.
While there were once many church ladies supplying our city with pierogies, the tradition is dying, as younger generations don't have the time or the touch.
Enter Marie Thorpe, owner of the Pierogie Kitchen in Roxborough. When she took over her aunt's ice cream stand about 10 years ago, Thorpe decided to keep the art of pierogie alive and began making them during Lent.
One thing led to another and instead of scooping ice cream these days, she's freezing about 30 varieties of pierogie.
If you are orthodox in your pierogie tastes, there are the traditional Eastern European versions. But Thorpe also takes the pierogie into modern fillings such as a spicy, wing-inspired Buffalo Blu Cheese or a Philly-centric cheesesteak.
As Thorpe says, "If I can put it inside dough, I will."
Call it a reformed pierogie.
She's developed a process that takes the assembly somewhere between church lady labor and Mrs. T's industrial. The dough is made in small batches to keep it soft and supple, and each pierogie is still hand-formed the way Thorpe's grandmother taught her. Thorpe concedes that the dough pinch is the most difficult part of employee training.
Once formed, the pierogie are boiled and individually frozen, so that all you have to do is thaw at room temp for 20 minutes and brown them in some butter. Prices are generally $7.95 a dozen for the traditional flavors; the gourmet version runs $7.95 to $9.95.
If that's too much work, you can purchase them hot at six for $ 5.20 or a dozen for $9.40.
Overall, these pierogie are a close second to my church-sourced delights. The wrapper is almost as light and takes on a beautiful sear in butter or olive oil. (My favorite is a blend of both.)
Everyone enjoyed the basic, authentic versions - potato-filled and sauerkraut-filled. The favorite was Loaded Baked Potato, studded with bacon bits, cream cheese and chives. Think of it as a gateway to the more offbeat combos Thorpe has devised.
Her Gourmet Pierogie include combinations from the expected - mushroom - to shrimp or crab.
Bar food finds its way into the gourmet wrapper with the cheesesteak. One taster said it needed more cheese, but another saw it just right. The Buffalo Blu was enthusiastically received by all.
While Thorpe makes some plausible leaps for pierogie usage - they dress everything from soup to sandwiches here - this works better in theory than practice.
The Original PK Stacker Sandwich ($6.25) had some great elements going for it: smoked kielbasa, sauteed sauerkraut and spicy mustard, topped with a Potato-Cheddar Pierogie.
The pierogie topper makes sense - it's much like the iconic Pittsburgh Primanti Brothers sandwich with a layer of fries between the meat and toppings. Sadly, though, the toasted rye bread fell apart before I could get to a first bite. There are other sandwiches built on a Kaiser roll, which might fare better, but I'm thinking a top- or side-loading bread is the way to go here.
One of the best parts of the sandwich was the side of Apple Horseradish Cole Slaw, a satisfying contrast of sweet, sour and crunch. It's also available by the quart ($4.99). Extra points also go to the Kissling Sauerkraut and Zayda's perfect pickles.
French Onion Soup ($4.65) had the same issue as the sandwich: much too hard to eat, especially as take-out with a plastic spoon. The large, rough-cut onions convinced me they were hand-chopped, but their size added to eating woes. The broth's origins were definitely something manufactured.
Unfortunately, the Authentic Stuffed Cabbage ($7.95) was a big disappointment. What should have been a rich, unctuous dish with long-simmered flavors melting together came off as underseasoned and flat. As one taster exclaimed, "I can't remember the last time I've accused Eastern European cooking of being under-salted!"
The cabbage was nicely wrapped, but al dente instead of a soft casing, and the tomato sauce seemed as if it came straight from the can.
There are Dessert Pierogie, but we opted for the Cheese Babka ($1.95 slice, $13 cake). It comes from a bakery but there's no harm in that, especially when it's a fine example of the yeast cake - light and just a hint of sweet.
While pierogie remains an Easter tradition for many families, don't overlook the ease and convenience of these frozen dumplings for a quick workday meal. I'll frequent my neighborhood church pierogie purveyor for as long as it exists, but I am reassured that the next generation of pierogie is solidly in Thorpe's command.