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Top Cooks: Mom, daughter build churches and schools, one pierogi at a time

Decades-old operation at a Ukranian Catholic church has been churning out the tasty treats, which are a Christmas tradition.

Nadia Opuszynski and mother Anna Matkowsky at their home on N. 22nd St. in Fairmount in Philadelphia on Tuesday, December 18, 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Nadia Opuszynski and mother Anna Matkowsky at their home on N. 22nd St. in Fairmount in Philadelphia on Tuesday, December 18, 2013. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )Read more

DON'T KNOW how many churches and schools pierogi have built," said Nadia Opuszynski, as her mother, Anna Matkowsky, vigorously nodded her head in agreement.

The mother-daughter team, 91 and 66, respectively, are the ring leaders of the St. Nicholas Ukranian Catholic Church pierogi sale. The weekly sale has roots back to the 1970s - with a few breaks when the church at 24th and Poplar streets didn't need the money. About four years ago, as parish numbers diminished, volunteers revived the sale to raise money and help young families learn the tradition.

It's a year-round operation, but the holiday demand is high because the dumplings are a Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner tradition.

"Ordinarily we have six ladies volunteering. My mother rolls the dough - no one can do it like her - and then four women stuff and roll them, and one cooks and bags," Opuszynski said. "This time of year we need about 14 volunteers and we are still swamped."

Matkowsky came to the United States in 1950, when her daughter was about 2 1/2. The family settled in Fairmount, joining the region's postwar Ukranian community. Matkowsky worked in several city clothing factories but Opuszynski remembers that there were always delicious, home-cooked meals.

"My father also cooked," she recalled. "He made a dish out of cornmeal that is similar to polenta, but Ukranian. He also made the best bean soup ever. People always say they miss his bean soup."

The bible of Ukranian home cooks, typically given to young brides, is Traditional Ukranian Cookery by Savella Stechishin. Long out of print, the book is a collectors' item that sells for hundreds of dollars online. Neither Opuszynski nor Matkowsky has a copy, but neighbors do, so there is always one available for consultation.

Pierogi are known as varenyky in Ukranian, but the Polish "pierogi" is more universal. The filled dumplings are much like Italian ravioli or Chinese wonton. Opuszynski and Matkowsky say making pierogi is a good activity for families, particularly at holiday time.

It's best as a two-day affair, especially if you are making a big quantity. Matkowsky finds the dough improves from an overnight rest, and you can make pre-measured potato balls and refrigerate them.

The second day is simply forming the pierogi and boiling them.

Both mother and daughter offered a few tips. Opuszynski said: "It is better to err on the side of your dough being too sticky, because you can always add a little flour. If it is too stiff, you have to start all over. And don't even think about using instant mashed potatoes."

Got it. What else?

Always double check that the pierogi have a tight seal before putting them in the boiling water. "Otherwise," Opuszynski said, "you are going to have a pot of potato soup."

Finally, Matkowsky advised not to overcook the pierogi, suggesting they be treated as any fresh pasta would. The innards are already cooked, so they only need to boil long enough to cook the dough.

It's impossible to make dough and filling amounts come out even in this endeavor. Matkowsky uses leftover dough for apple strudel. Potato and cheese fillings can become potato pancakes.

Pierogi sales at St. Nicholas have ended for this year but will begin again in January. Find out more at 215-769-1991.

Too Good to Be Forgotten.