Lithuania’s national dish, cepelinai — a filled dumpling made from potato dough — has been loved in that country for over a century and a half.
The dumplings are often stuffed with pork (although cheese or vegetable fillings are also used) and served with a topping of sauteed onions, crispy crumbled fried bacon, and a dollop of sour cream. Cepelinai are a filling comfort food created to feed hungry Lithuanians and sustain them through the country’s harsh winters.
Because making cepelinai is somewhat labor-intensive, in Lithuania they are usually made by home cooks only for special occasions, as a treat for guests, or to feed workers harvesting potatoes or hay from the fields. In Lithuania, people often choose to get their cepelinai in restaurants or food stalls when the urge for the dumplings strikes.
Originally called didžkukuliai, or “big meat-balls” or “dumb bells”, they were renamed in honor of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, innovator and driving force behind the construction of the first zeppelin airship because the dumplings somewhat resembled the zepplin. That said, there is nothing wrong with making them more round than oval if that works for you (it does for me with my arthritic hands).
As popular as ever in Lithuania to this day, the dish is like so many other “peasant/comfort foods” — every cook has their spin on the recipe with most personal touches and deviations coming from the need to make substitutions depending on ingredients available and personal tastes.
In addition to the fillings, other variables in individual family recipes include the ratio of raw to cooked potato in the “dough” and the choice of sauces in which to dress the cepelinai.
Tips and hints
Not particularly difficult to prepare in theory, cepelinai can be frustrating in some ways to the first-time maker and do take some practice. There are some pointers that can help the newbie.
Although the recipe calls for “finely grated” potatoes, this does not mean grating the potato into “shreds”, it means grating it into a “mush”. This is accomplished by either using the finest side of a box grater or with an electric potato grater.
My recipe makes a small batch of cepelinai; perfect for experimenting and for a single meal or small family. It is easiy doubled or up-sized to suit your needs.
Best results are obtained by using a “dry” potato: namely Russet. All-purpose white or other types yield more moisture than Russet and can make the potato mixture more difficult to work with and cook.
Once properly grated, the potatoes will get squeezed in cheesecloth to remove moisture. The resulting liquid is left to separate resulting in a layer of potato starch that will settle to the bottom of the bowl and be added to the dough.
A potato ricer is recommended for preparing the potatoes that are cooked. The potatoes need to be very smooth and this result is more difficult to obtain using a regular potato masher. If you do not have a ricer, a food mill will work. If you don’t have a ricer or food mill, you can use a fork for mashing.
Dice the onion for the filling very fine; the filling ingredients cook inside the cepelinai as they boil, so large pieces would remain crunchy and uncooked.
If your first attempts at cepelinai are less than satisfactory, don’t give up! Give them another try sometime; your skills at making them will improve with practice.
Lithuanian CepelinaiCourse: EntreeCuisine: Eastern EuropeanDifficulty: Intermediate
- Potato dough
2 1/4 pounds Russet potatoes (unpeeled weight)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of dry potato starch (can be found in grocery stores and online)
2/3 pound ground pork, beef, chicken, or turkey (or combination)
1 medium onion, very finely diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Chopped fresh parsley and dill to taste for the filling
1/4 pound bacon, fried crisp then crumbled and set aside
1 medium onion, diced
Bacon grease or oil
Chopped fresh dill and parsley, to taste, if desired
- Wash potatoes. Place 1/3 of the un-peeled potatoes in a pot, cover with cold water, and bring to boil. Boil for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain then cool slightly until able to handle; peel. Put the potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill or mash them until very smooth. Set aside.
- Meanwhile as potatoes cook and cool, prepare the filling by mixing the meat with very finely chopped onion. Season with salt and black pepper, add finely chopped parsley and dill to taste. Mix together well. Set aside in refrigerator until ready to use.
- Peel the remaining raw potatoes and very finely grate them using the finest side of a box grater or an electric potato grater. Line a bowl with cheesecloth or a clean cotton towel, dump in the grated potatoes. Use cloth to squeeze out all the juice into a small bowl; reserve juices. Allow the juice to sit aside for 5 minutes; it will start to separate and the heavier potato starch will drop to the bottom. Reserve for use in the next step.
- In a mixing bowl add the riced/mashed potatoes, the squeezed raw potatoes, salt and the 1 Tablespoon dry potato starch. Now pour off the top watery potato juice slowly from the bowl you squeezed the juices into; you should see a wet potato starch in the bottom of the dish; add this starch to the potato mix, too. (The dry and wet potato starches bind the mixture together.) Mix together well.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a pinch of salt
- Divide potato mix into 6 parts. Taking one, shape it into a flat patty in the palm of your hand, then add a tablespoon of the filling to the middle, bring up the edges of the potato patty to completely enclose the filling, pinch and shape into an oval or round dumpling. Repeat with the other 5 pieces of potato mixture.
- Put in half or all of the cepelinai, depending on the diameter of the pot; boil for 15 to 20 minutes (until filling is thoroughly cooked), stirring gently and occasionally. Remove with slotted spoon to serving plate. Top with onion sauce (below), crumbled bacon, sour cream, parsley, dill.
- Dice onion. Heat 2 Tablespoons butter and 2 Tablespoons bacon grease or oil in a frying pan. Add onion, season with salt and pepper, if desired. and saute about 5 to 7 minutes or until golden and translucent.
- Spoon sauce over cepelinai, top with dollop of sour cream and the bacon bits, chopped fresh dill and parsley if desired.