Sometimes it’s just too difficult to understand a dish in isolation.
For the piragi bacon pie and Latvia, this was definitely the case.
Luckily, we had the help of Jani to help us learn what we needed to know.
Piragi and Jani
Before piragi, let’s first familiarize ourselves with one of the biggest days in the Latvian year.
The celebration of Jani originally began as an ancient festival in honor of the Latvian pagan god Janis. In order to connect most deeply with their oft-considered “son of God,” the ancient Latvians would celebrate on days near to the summer solstice, although at some point the dates were more formally locked into June 23-24.
Jani is a ceremony rife with earthly costumes and wreathes, large bonfires, and jovial singing of ligo and reciting of dainas. Of course, there are massive quantities of delicious food, but that’s a discussion for a bit later. To top it off, the celebrations continue pretty much non-stop through the night.
Make no mistake about it… Jani is a good time for all.
Jani and Superstitions
Celebrating Jani corresponded with its fair share of superstitions. When the holiday was more deeply rooted in pagan beliefs, people lined their houses with branches from the rowan tree (which held great significance in Northern Europe) and thorns as a form of protection from the witches and evil spirits flying overhead. Doubling as a further safeguard and a promise for prosperity and fertility in the upcoming year, these people would set up and jump over large bonfires that burned from sunrise to sunset. Especially considering the summer solstice sometimes meant 21+ hours of consecutive daylight, this feat was particularly impressive to us.
Over time, the theme of fertility grew increasingly important to the central celebration of Jāni. One of the common practices for the celebration involved gathering various herbs that were believed to possess magical powers on these special days. With the herbs, the people could perform rituals to predict the productivity of their upcoming crops and to heighten livestock fertility. For the humans, there was the fern flower, a flower strongly tied to mythic powers, good fortune and for being quite an aphrodisiac.
And above all, don’t get caught sleeping during Jāni, or you risk being doomed to sleep an entire summer of sleep and sloth.
Then again, that might not be too bad either.
The Jani Feast
For a celebration that brings together friends and family and is full of songs and dance, of course you’d expect there to be a delicious accompanying feast. In this respect, not only does Jani not disappoint but goes above and beyond expectations.
The two most prominent elements of the feast are (traditionally home-brewed) beer and Jāņu siers, or a rich cheese made with caraway seeds. Not too far behind, however, is today’s bacon pie special, the piragi.
Especially back in the times when Latvia was a primarily agrarian society, piragi served as a form of bragging rights, especially around celebrations and holidays. For those with bountiful wheat harvests or extra healthy livestock, making these bacon pies was an effective yet tasteful (pun intended) way to boast their fortunes to their neighbors and community.
Coming to the party with delicious piragi usually preceded high praise and adulation from others. Coming to the party with slightly burnt or less-than-stellar bacon pie, however, meant “special treatment” when singing the teasing ligo songs.
About this Bacon Pie Recipe
When making these bacon pies, there are three distinct phases: making the dough, making the filling, and putting it all together.
First, your piragi dough will be similar to what you’d expect when making any sort of other bread products with yeast as a leavening agent. The key difference for piragi specifically, however, is the dairy ingredients used, which will give you a dough that’s far richer than normal.
To start, you’ll activate your yeast in a mixture of heated milk and sugar. As the yeast activates and bubbles up, you’ll want to sift your flour to get rid of any clumps as well as prepare your other dough ingredients for a speedy assembly. Once your yeast is nice and active, add it to your flour followed quickly by your remaining ingredients. After a good bout of stirring, you should have a nice, firm dough that you’ll set aside and let rise for at least an hour.
The next component to your bacon pie (and certainly the tastiest) is, well, your bacon filling. The most traditional ingredient for piragi filling will be some sort of bacon, but really anything can go in if you feel brave enough to weather any potential ligo songs. When preparing your filling, it’s helpful to pre-cook your ingredients and to soften them up, especially since the piragi won’t need very long in the oven to cook. In fact, we’d definitely recommend that you do pre-cook your filling here.
Once you have both filling ready and a dough that’s risen nicely, you’ll knead and roll your dough to a ~1/4 thickness on a well floured surface. Cut out circular pieces of your dough from the larger piece, and place it in your hand.
And here’s when the fun really begins. With a pristine piece of circular piragi dough in your hand, use your thumbs to slightly lengthen the dough from all sides because, hey, a little extra pliability never hurt anyone. Take a small spoonful of filling – a teaspoon is more than enough – and place it right in the middle of your dough.
For the best chances of success, you’ll want to take one side of the dough, fold it over to the other side and then tuck it underneath the filling. Not only does this secure the filling in its place, but it will make it far easier to create the charming crescent moon shape you see with piragi. From there, fold the other side in towards the middle and pinch both sides together, and there you have it!
Place your piragi onto your well-greased baking sheet and line the top with a nice bit of egg wash. After ~15-20 minutes of baking in the oven, your piragi are ready to go and enjoy.
Our Take on the Recipe
Especially with a more decadent dough expected, we wanted to make sure that we had the right original reference recipe to go off of. We found it here, although we nevertheless did make our own adjustments.
For one, we actually found the root recipe to have a dough that (at least for us non-Latvians) came out a bit too heavy. To remedy this, we omitted the heavy cream altogether. To regain a bit more of the richness, we then substituted sour cream with Greek yogurt. Net-net, the flavor of the dough came out the same with these adjustments, but the consistency of the dough became far more agreeable to us.
In the spirit of Jāņu siers, we added some caraway seeds to our filling, and it was a very enjoyable call. In addition to some extra diced mushrooms added, our piragi filling took on an entirely new dimension of flavor from these simple additions. Non-traditional as it very well might be, we can’t recommend enough what it does for the dish overall.
Finally, as we do with most dough-based recipes here on Arousing Appetites, we made some substitutions for our preferred ingredients. Instead of regular sugar, we used a slightly healthier coconut sugar, and we used organic pastry flour instead of traditional industrial all-purpose flour.
All in all, both between the exploration of Jāni and its fun traditions, superstitions and food, this was an incredibly fun culinary exploration we’d readily recommend you try.
Have you celebrated Jāni or tried piragi? Comment below!
- 1 cup milk (preferably full-fat)
- ¼ cup coconut sugar
- 2 packages dry active yeast
- ¼ cup butter, cubed
- ¼ cup Greek yogurt
- 1 egg, lightly whisked
- 2½ cups organic pastry flour
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- 1 pound smoked bacon
- 1 medium sized yellow onion, diced
- ½ cup mushrooms, sliced
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)
- Take a small saucepot over medium heat. Melt your butter and add your milk in order to bring the milk to slightly above room temperature. Make sure not to get the milk too hot, though, since you don't want to kill the yeast!
- As the milk is heating up, whisk in your coconut sugar and dissolve it in the liquid. Take the saucepot off the heat and let it cool for ~30 seconds
- Next, add your yeast and whisk into the milk. Once whisked in, let everything rest for ~15 minutes as the yeast activates (if done right, the yeast will 3x in size pretty easily)
- While the yeast is activating, take a large mixing bowl and sift your flour to remove any clumps
- Once the yeast has activated, pour your milk/yeast liquid into the mixing bowl with flour and stir around
- Add your Greek yogurt and egg to the mixing bowl, then continue to mix the dough. The dough should start to firm up, but add more flour to help it become firm and less wet
- Cover your dough and let it sit for 1½ hours in a room temperature area. The dough should roughly double in size
- While the dough is rising, take a pan over medium-high heat and add your onion. Cook for ~1 minute as the onion starts to become translucent
- Next, add your bacon and caraway seeds and mix well. Cook for another 1 minute
- Add your mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook for another 2 minutes. The filling will be ready to go once the mushrooms have slightly shrunk and are much softer
- Take the pan off your heat and set aside for once the dough has fully risen
- First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- Once the dough has risen, take it out of your mixing bowl and onto a flat, well-floured surface
- Using a rolling pin or anything similar, roll the dough flat and to a roughly ¼ thickness. In case the dough is still a little too sticky, flour liberally here to keep it from sticking
- Once your dough is rolled out, using either a mug or a flour cutter, cut out circles from the dough. Cut as many as you can (although you might have to rinse and repeat with any leftover dough)
- Take one circle of dough in your hand and begin to pinch it out to slightly elongate it. Pinch all around the dough to get an even elongation
- Next, take a spoonful of your filling and place it in the middle
- Take one side of your dough and fold it over to the other side. Tuck the dough under your filling, and pull slightly to tighten the dough around the filling
- Take your other edge of the dough and bring it up to close out the dumpling. Use your fingers to pinch both sides of the dough together
- As you finish pinching, maneuver the shape of your bacon pie into a moon shape, then turn over and place on a greased baking sheet. Continue until you've done this for all your piragi
- Before placing in the oven, brush some egg wash over the top of the bacon pie.
- Place in the oven and bake for ~17 minutes. Especially with the egg wash, the piragi should develop a beautiful golden brown color to them
- Only once the piragi have developed that golden brown color, take them out of the oven. This might take an extra minute or two, so just be patient until they're ready