Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How to Make Borscht with Beef/Onion Dumplings

My mum-in-law gradually let out the specifics of this familial recipe through time--on one visit to her Yorkshire home, she admitted the lemon juice must be added shortly before serving, so as to prevent bitterness; in a car ride going through the snowy Alps, I was able to get her to confess she uses milk instead of water for making up the dumpling dough; on a visit to our Grenoble apartment, she divulged the addition of cèpes.   Her recipe is a Polish variant of the Ukrainian classic which means the borscht itself is a clear, ruby-coloured soup served over large beef/onion pierogis.

Though this recipe is labour intensive, it is truly worth it.  Traditionally served at dinner on Christmas Eve, it has now become such a favourite, we eat it throughout winter.  Garden-fresh beets impart a satisfying earthiness to this soup, so if you don't have your own, try to get some from a friend's garden or a farmer's market.

Scrub beets well with a veggie brush.  Trim tops from an inch or so above the root.  The tails can be left on or also trimmed an inch below the beet.  Such judicious trimming lessens bleedingBoil the beets till tender, around 30 minutes. Test if ready by inserting a small knife into the centre of a beet--does less damage than a fork--starting with the smaller ones.   Strain the water in which the beets were boiled and reserve.  Rub off skins under running water. Slice a bit off the frequently bitter top and bottom parts of the peeled beet. The beets can be used in recipes right away or frozen.  The vibrantly delicious greens themselves can be braised in a small amount of water and butter or olive oil along with some minced garlic and seasoned with a dash of vinegar and fleur de sel.

If you can only locate already cooked and shrink-wrapped beets, so be it.  However, I am ignorant regarding canned beets, but I suspect they would work also.

This recipe takes two days:  first day is devoted to simmering the broth and the simultaneous stewing of the beef, and the second is spent making the soup, dumpling dough, and dumpling filling.  I make the broth by covering about two kilograms of a bony, braising beef cut with cold water and slowly bringing to a boil.  Bay leaf, parsley, thyme, black peppercorns, several quartered onions, lovage or a few stalks of celery, several carrots, and a large pinch of powdered cloves are added to the pot. The meat usually becomes tender within three hours.  I remove it, separating the meat from the bones and return the bones to the soup pot for another hour.  The broth is then strained and any fat skimmed off, while the meat is trimmed of any undesirable bits and cut in chunks.  Keep both in the fridge until needed.

A caution I am afraid is necessary though I want everybody to try this recipe:  a food processor is rather important for kneading the dough, mincing the onions, and grinding the cooked beef. Of course the dough can be kneaded by hand, and the beef and onions minced via a knife.  But this recipe is lot of work even with a processor. 


  • Beets, about 4-5 medium, about 500 grams, cooked and diced small
  • Beef broth, 1.5 liters, preferably homemade, or the best quality you can buy
  • cèpes, dried, a small handful
  • Beet juices/cèpes liquid, about .5 liter
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Lemon juice from a freshly squeezed lemon
  • Onions, finely minced, 250 grams
  • Butter, 60 grams
  • Beef, cooked and ground,  600 grams
  • Flour, 600 grams
  • Milk, 325 ml

twelve servings

Cover cèpes with boiling water and let soften for about fifteen minutes.  While waiting, start making the dough (See below).

Once cèpes are soft, rinse them at least twice, straining the liquid. 
Taste a bit to ensure you washed all the grit out.

Mince them and put into a large pot along with the measured, strained, soaking liquid, beef broth, and beet juices.   It will be the beet juices that will give the lovely colour to the borscht.  Bring just under the boil and simmer for about ten minutes until the cèpes are tender Cube the beets and add them.  Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Reserve off the heat.

When ready to serve, reheat and add the lemon juice.

Dumpling dough

Put flour in a standup mixer, add milk and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Process for about twelve minutes until smooth and elastic.  Add additional flour to get a non-sticky dough.  The dough however needs to be moist and pliable.

Weigh out into four equal balls and keep moist under a clean, well wrung-out tea towel.

Dumpling filling 

Mince finely the onions and saute slowly in the butter over low heat until onions are a mellow yellow and have hardly any raw taste.  Reserve.

While onions are being sauteed, grind the meat with two beaten eggs.

Add the sauteed onions into the large bowl with the minced beef.  Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Mix thoroughly.  The filling needs to be moist without being wet.

Assembling the dumplings
makes 30 large dumplings

Take one ball and flatten it.  Put a tea towel under a floured board to prevent it from moving.

Roll out to about 1/4 inch thick. Sprinkle flour to prevent the rolling pin from sticking if necessary.

Trim to make a neat rectangle--collect all the trimmings to make a fifth ball--and partition into 6 equal parts, each measuring about three square inches.

Place a rounded tablespoon of filling in the centre of each of the squares, pulling up two diagonal corners and press them together.

Seal in such a way that there will be--you may need to make pleats--little triangles remaining on both endsThis ensures that the sealed dumpling will be a pleasing, triangular shape.

The seal needs to be placed evenly along the top edge

Finish the sealing.   Putting the dumpling on a side, starting from the edge and going in about not more an inch, squeeze the air out of the filling so as to have a nice, plump dumpling.  Then make a pleated edge:  starting from the left side of the dumpling, slip your left, middle finger under the dumpling's edge with the thumb on top of the edge, moving your index finger close to your thumb and as the pleat is formed, lift your thumb.  Do a series of pleats to the other end of the dumpling.  You can do a trial run first on some test dough edges.  This edge finishing is good for empanadas and calzones so it is a nice technique to know.  Any scraps of dough can be made into small balls to be boiled along with the dumplings.

Note the pleated dumpling in the background

Boil in batches of six for about six minutes, using a medium-sized pot.  Just after they are put into the boiling water, gently stir up from the bottom and along the sides to prevent the dumplings from sticking.  The dumplings will rise to the top and look shiny when done.  Remove gently with a slotted spoon and keep warm on a serving plate or shallow bowl.

Put two dumplings in a soup plate and cover with a few ladles of borscht.

Though it takes planning and time to make this low caloric, inexpensive, and nutritious soup, it is a superb meal.  Surplus, cool soup or dumplings can be easily frozen.  Also, boiling the dumplings makes the kitchen nice and steamy, a comforting effect on a nippy day--not to mention fun, because steamy windows invite your fingers to trace patterns on them.  I usually draw flowers...or houses with working chimneys...or geometric figures...

In the potager, the cold nights call for my covering certain crops with horticultural fleece and putting vulnerable pots inside on a sunny sous sol window sill or keeping them in the cold frame outside.  Dayo does his best to keep warm the potted-up strawberry runners in the cold frame.

À la prochaine!


Foraging for cepes
Propagating strawberries