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Eric Akis: Piragi fits bill as favourite snack for Mother's Day or any day

It’s Mother’s Day, and in this column over the years I have written about my mother, Julie, and the food she cooked when I was growing up. Today, though, I thought I would talk about my father’s mother, my grandmother.
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Bacon-filled piragi, a savoury baked good and popular party snack in Latvia.

It’s Mother’s Day, and in this column over the years I have written about my mother, Julie, and the food she cooked when I was growing up.

Today, though, I thought I would talk about my father’s mother, my grandmother. Her name was Austra Akis and she died in 1992.

Austra, like my father and her husband, my grandfather, immigrated to Canada from Latvia after the Second World War. They fled Latvia when the Soviet Union reoccupied that country in 1944. After the war, they ended up in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, and from there, made their way to Canada.

All three of them first worked in a bush camp near Nipigon, Ont. My grandmother was a bull cook, the person helping to prepare meals at the camp who also did other chores.

My father eventually joined the Canadian Air Force. My mother and he had four boys, and in the 1960s and 1970s, places we were stationed included Winnipeg and Moose Jaw.

When I was a kid, for summer vacation, we would drive from those places to Thunder Bay, Ont., to visit my grandparents who settled there after working in the bush camp.

Evidence that my grandmother — who was well-dressed and liked nice things, including roses — actually once worked in a rugged bush camp was the giant cast iron skillet she always had on her stove. It was an implement she used at the camp that, because of its enormous size, could prepare a lot of food, which was handy when she had four hungry grandkids visiting.

In that skillet she would fry a whack eggs for breakfast; flour and fry many pieces of fish, such as pike, for lunch; and fry thick pork chops or Latvian-style hamburger steaks for dinner.

Everything cooked in that skillet tasted so much richer than they did at home, and it wasn’t until I was an adult and training to be a chef that I figured out why. She fried everything in lard, or a mix of lard and butter. Some would not call that healthy, but my grandmother lived to 89 and, beyond cooking with lard, also enjoyed a daily shot — or two — of vodka.

Another thing my grandmother cooked in that skillet was the filling she used to make piragi — small, savoury Latvian-style bacon rolls. In an old cookbook I have called Latvian Cooking: Recipe Collection from a Baltic Cuisine, it says piragi, since ancient times, have probably been the most popular party snack in Latvia.

Whenever we visited my grandmother, she always made dozens of piragi. And that was a good thing, because every member of the family loved eating them, day or night.

As you’ll see in today’s recipe, baked until golden, piragi are made by forming yeast dough —rich with milk, eggs and sour cream — into crescents that are filled with a bacon and onion mixture. They take a bit of time to prepare, but your reward will be a savoury baked good you’re family will happily gobble up, whether they have Latvian heritage or not.

Piragi (Latvian-style Bacon Rolls)

These small, golden, tasty, bacon-filled rolls can be served as a snack or as the bread item served with other dishes on a buffet or with soup. If 40 piragi are too many for you, the ones you won’t eat now will freeze well, to thaw, warm and enjoy another time.

Preparation time: 60 minutes

Cooking time: About 25 minutes

Makes: 40 buns

1 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus some for the bowl

1 Tbsp + 2 tsp granulated sugar (divided)

1 tsp salt

1/4 cup lukewarm (not hot) water (about 110 F/43 C)

1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) traditional (active dry) yeast

2 large eggs (divided)

1/4 cup sour cream

• about 4 cups all-purpose flour (divided), plus more as needed

500 grams sliced bacon, cut into very small cubes (see Note)

1/2 medium onion, cut into very small cubes

• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place milk in a small pot, set over medium heat and bring to just below a simmer. Remove this scalded milk from the heat; mix in the oil, 1 Tbsp sugar and salt, and then cool until lukewarm.

When milk has cooled, place the 1/4 cup lukewarm water in a large mixing bowl.

Mix in the yeast and 2 tsp sugar. Let mixture stand five minutes to dissolve the yeast.

In a small bowl, combine one large egg with the sour cream.

Add the milk and egg/sour cream mixtures to the dissolved yeast, along with 1 cup of the flour. Beat until the thoroughly combined with a large spoon. Mix in another 2 cups of the flour, until a loose, wet dough forms.

Sprinkle 1/2 cup flour on a work surface. Turn the dough on to that flour. Sprinkle top of dough with 1/4 cup flour. With your hands, knead and work that flour into dough. Now knead the dough seven to eight minutes, slapping it forcibly down on the work surface, at times. Sprinkle dough with more flour as you go along if it’s sticking to your hands.

Lightly grease a second large bowl with oil. Place dough in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 75 minutes.

While dough rises, place bacon and onion in a large skillet set over medium, medium-high heat. Cook and stir bacon until most of the fat has been rendered out, but the bacon is not crispy or browned. Drain the excess fat away, season with pepper, and let bacon/onion mixture cool to room temperature.

When dough has risen, line two large, 18-x-13-inch or similar sized baking sheets with parchment paper, unless non-stick. Place the second egg in a small bowl, beat well and then set it aside for now.

When dough has risen, transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Cut the dough in half. With floured hands, roll a half piece of the dough into a 20-inch long log. Cut the log, widthwise, into 20 one-inch wide pieces.

Press each one-inch piece of dough into a three-inch round. Set a heaping 1 tsp of the bacon mixture into the centre of each round. Fold the dough over the filling and pinch the edges together tightly to seal.

Bend each piragi (roll) into a crescent shape, and then set on one of the baking sheets, spacing each one about two inches apart. Brush piragi with the beaten egg and let rise, uncovered, 30 minutes.

Roll, fill and turn the other half dough into piragi as you did the first one and set them on the second baking sheet. Brush with beaten egg and let piragi rise, uncovered, 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 F. When the first baking sheet of piragi have risen 30 minutes, bake in the middle of the oven 16 to 17 minutes, until puffed and golden. Bake the second sheet of piragi as you did the first batch. Enjoy them warm or at room temperature.

Note: A thicker cut, sturdier-in-texture bacon is best for this as you can more easily cut it into small cubes. Local brands to consider using include Red Barn Market bacon and Hertel’s bacon.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.