March 01, 2014

Pies to Brighten Bleak Winter Days

Pies to Brighten Bleak Winter Days
Alexander Sherstobitov

Karelia, historically the southeastern part of Finland, is home to a rich culinary culture that still thrives today. Much of the region was ceded to Russia after the 1939-1940 Winter War with Finland, and current divisions are a bit mind-boggling: North and South Karelia belong to Finland, while Ladoga Karelia, Olonets Karelia, White Karelia, and the Karelian Isthmus are part of Russia.

Yet what the entire region has in common are the small, rich, open-faced pies known in Finnish as karjalanpiirakat. So distinctive are these pies that in 2003 the European Union granted them TSG (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) status, which indicates their authentic character.

Karelian pies are related to the rich bread and pie baking traditions of Russia. Their name in the Karelian dialect is kalitt — an etymological cousin of the Russian open-faced pie called kalitka, native to northwestern Russia. Some Russian linguists unfamiliar with cuisine insist that the word derives from the Russian kalita, or purse, the shape of which these pies can be said to resemble. In any case, what especially distinguishes these pies is that, unlike most Russian pies, which are made with yeast dough or various forms of short pastry so they will be tender, kalitki are always made with unfermented rye dough. According to food historian Maksim Syrnikov, so important is rye flour to the production of kalitki that even during Soviet times, when rye flour was a deficit item elsewhere in Russia, it was available in the Karelian region for baking these pies.

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