I’ve been taken to task for snubbing a potato dumpling. So cepelinai, I belatedly salute you. Russian pelmeni, Polish pierogi and all manner of Alpine/Italian cousins were spotlighted in a recent piece of mine on noodles and dumplings.
Absent, because I’ve never tasted it, was Lithuania’s national dish. Literally it means zeppelins because their shape resembles the rigid airship developed by Graf von Zeppelin at the turn of the 20th century.
Didžkukuliai was the original name for these sizeable dumplings made from grated and riced potatoes stuffed with ground meat, dry curd cheese or mushrooms. After boiling, the cepelinai (pronounced sep-elle-in-ay) are often served with sour cream sauce or pork rinds, apparently. I’m still seeking a restaurant that serves them; no hope of unearthing another traditional fave, deep-fried crow meat, on any menu soon.
In common with all Eastern European and Baltic states, Lithuania has a vast appetite for potatoes. In the global spud league table it trails troubled Belarus, but an annual average consumption of 100kg per capita is mightily impressive, some three times the world average. Few dishes are unique to one country. Similar to cepelinai are pyzi in neighbouring Poland, Norwegian raspeball, the Acadian poutine râpée in Canada and from Germany Kartoffelklöße.
It’s a sign of the times that the Lithuanians are developing lighter versions of their centuries-old signature dish.
A release from Lithuania Travel https://lithuania.travel/en/ informs me: “Cepelinai used to be the perfect hearty meal delivering the necessary energy that our predecessors needed to endure the cold climate while working the fields. The times have changed, so has Lithuanian cuisine: over the last few decades, the local chefs have introduced foreign flavours to cepelinai and have transformed it to a healthy everyday dinner or lunch option.” Fillings now range from buckwheat to cottage cheese and mint, carrot and hemp seed.
New fillings are everywhere – upmarket Burna House in the capital Vilnius recommend their pulled duck and offer a pink dough version, using beetroot, another Lithuanian favourite. See the recipe below, but first a simpler more trad version…
400g waxy potatoes; a beaten egg; one diced shallot; 250g minced pork; ½tsp ground caraway; one crushed garlic clove; 1tbsp plain flour plus extra for dusting
For the sauce:2tbsp dried porcini; 1tsp butter; two diced shallots; 200g sliced mushrooms; 200g crème fraîche.
To serve: two rashers smoked streaky bacon; chopped dill.
Divide the potatoes into two batches. Chop one batch into chunks and boil for 15-20 minutes until tender, then drain and mash. Finely grate the remaining spuds and tip into a bowl lined with a tea towel. Squeeze tightly to expel any liquid; keep 2tbsp of this juice and discard the rest. In another large mixing bowl, add the reserved potato juice, the grated potato, mashed potato and half the beaten egg. Beat everything together, seasonand leave to cool, then chill while you prepare the filling.
Mix together the shallot, minced pork, caraway seeds, garlic, remaining egg with salt and pepper. Now blend 1tbsp of flour into your potato mixture and divide into 8. Flour a work surface and lightly shape the potato dough into flat round patties, approximately 1cm thick. Put 1 heaped tsp of the pork filling in the middle of each one, then gently encase the pork and form a dumpling. Roll them in your hands to achieve the signature zeppelin shape. Repeat with the rest of the patties and filling. Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer. Gently lower in the dumplings, cover and cook gently for 30 minutes. The water must not boil or they might start to disintegrate.
Meanwhile, fry the bacon until crisp, then chop into small dice and set aside. To make the sauce, pour 100ml of boiling water over the dried porcini and leave to stand for five minutes. In a saucepan, heat the butter and add the shallots, frying gently until they are soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook for a few minutes more. When they are cooked, pour in 1tbsp of the liquor from the porcini and discard the rest. Chop the porcini and add them. Fold in the crème fraîche, bring to a simmer, then season.
To serve, place two dumplings on each plate and pour over the mushroom sauce. Sprinkle the dill and bacon pieces over just before serving.
Burna House Pink Cepelinai with Curd ‘Raudonieji Cepelinukai su Varške’
For the potato mixture: 800g raw blended potatoes; 300g fresh potatoes (peeled); 100g finely chopped onions; 60g milk; 60g butter; 250g fresh beetroot juice; 40g potato starch
For the stuffing: 400g cottage cheese; 2g fresh tarragon; 40g soured cream.
For the white wine sauce with sundried tomatoes and capers: 400g heavy cream; 100g dry white wine; 80g sundried tomatoes; 10g capers; 5g cornstarch; 15g salt; 10g fresh thyme; 20g cooking oil
For garnish: chopped dill, spring onions and parsley; black pepper.
Cook the freshly peeled potatoes in salted water and drain them. Heat the milk until it starts boiling, add it to the potatoes along with the butter. Mash until smooth. Mix the mashed potatoes with the raw blended potatoes and the beetroot juice. Add 5g salt
For the stuffing mix the cottage cheese with the tarragon, sour cream, and 3g salt.
To form a single cepelinas take 50g of the potato mixture and pat it flat in the palm of the hand. Place 20g of the stuffing in the centre and, using slightly dampened hands, fold the potato mixture around the cottage cheese stuffing into a zeppelin shape, sealing well.
Mix 2.5 litres of water with the beetroot juice and bring it to a boil. Gently lower the cepelinai into the boiling water and juice mixture and cook for 15 minutes on low-to-medium heat.
For the sauce saute the onions on some cooking oil until golden brown. Add the wine and fresh thyme. Cook for 7-10 minutes until the alcohol evaporates. Add the cream, bring it to a slow boil and simmer for 15 more minutes on a low heat. Add the sundried tomatoes and the capers and bring it to a boil. To thicken the sauce, add the cornstarch.
Serve the cepelinaiwith the white wine sauce and garnish with fresh dill, spring onions, ground black pepper, and parsley.
Consume while watching Part Two of Jonathan Meades’ BBC polemic travelogue, Magnetic North (find it on YouTube), which features The Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site in Northern Lithuania. Dating back to the 1831 Uprising, this small hill in the middle of farmland holds up to 100,000 crosses of all sizes, from tiny wooden crosses to huge handcrafted metal specimens. Destroyed several times and suppressed by the Soviets, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a symbol of the nation’s tenacious survival. Christians from across the world flock to pay homage, but it also eerily reflects Lithuania’s unquestionably pagan roots.
I’d love to visit one day, first having feasted on didžkukuliai and Midus Lituanian Mead, naturally. And if you also plan to go down the fried crow route here’s a full-feathered report from the rather wonderful meateater website.
Many thanks to Lithuania Travel, Burna House, Vilnius and Andrius Aleksandravičius for the cepelinai images.