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Economy vs Taste
Growing up in my family you used margarine in cooking and baking and you reserved butter for the table. My parents’ generation believed that this, along with iceberg lettuce for salads, were good economies, as iceberg almost never wilted and the more expensive flavor of butter was lost in baking. Iceberg lettuce has never darkened my crisper drawer in the fridge, and I stopped buying margarine quite a few years ago. I’ve had a few heretical moments since when I wondered whether in certain cases, it might be better than butter to cook with. Because margarine actually has more water than butter (80% fats to 16% water), baked goods last longer, have a chewier texture, some say are more tender, and in the case of pie crust, might be even flakier. But there is no arguing that margarine does lack the flavor punch of butter.
An Army Marches on Margarine
Margarine has such a fraught history, too. Its first appearance arrived via a French chemist – Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès 1869. Napoleon III, in his ongoing battle with the German Kaiser, issued a decree and reward for an inexpensive butter replacement for his army. Mège-Mouriès, who actually had previously patented a process to increase bread production, developed a method for churning beef tallow with water and milk. He named his patented invention “oleomargarine” – loosely coined from the Greek terms for olive oil and luster – a euphemism for the somewhat pearly look of his whiteish gray invention.
Even though this inexpensive fat was beneficial not only to the French military but also for the poorer classes in France, a penniless Mège-Mouriès had to sell his patent to a Dutch company. In a few years several companies were creating margarine as a cheap alternative to butter throughout Europe. At the same time, the profitability of selling tons of an inexpensive butter substitute caught the eye of American businesses. They produced a margarine by combining animal fats with vegetable oils, so popular that the dairy industries, primarily from Wisconsin, lobbied successfully to have a law that placed heavy licensing fees and taxes on oleomargarine production in 1886. And some states with dairy-friendly legislatures banned the sale of margerine outright.
Two world wars, however, made oleomargarine production a necessity, and the battle between butter and oleo became one of color. The dairy industry employed several strategies to restrict margarine manufacturers from making their spread look like butter instead of lard. Restrictions were enforced to keep margarine from being dyed yellow at point of manufacture. At one point, the dairy industry forced margarine manufacturers to dye their product pink, a law that was finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 1898. In the 1940s, margarine manufacturers, realizing that their consumers really wanted this spread to look like butter, enclosed packets of yellow dye that you or your children kneaded into the whitish/grayish mass to make it look more like butter.
The H Word
It was not until 1990 that the link between increased heart disease and trans fats produced by hydrogenated margarine and other similar products was discovered. Hydrogenation – where water and a plant oil could be chemically induced to create a solid fat – was a game changer. Beef tallow, which remained during two world wars in short supply, was no longer needed to be the base for this cheap butter substitute. In the US, the advance of this hydrogenated mixture of any vegetable oil zeroed in on the readily available cottonseed oil and water. With the ability to chemically standardize the spread, hydrogenated margarine was more dependable than much of the butter offered in grocery stores. And of course, the burgeoning growth of the soybean and corn commodity crops increased production of this inexpensive ingredient as a breakfast spread and for cooking,
The dairy industry, long a foe of the margarine industry, also had a health problem to counter. Already more expensive, by the 1960s, scientific articles began to appear demonstrating that products with animal fats contributed to heart disease. I remember my father (who did suffer from heart issues) berating a waiter in a restaurant for serving him whipped cream on a dessert. It really was not until about the mid 1990s that the evils of trans fats had enough scientific research and data to counteract the nation’s slavish devotion to non-animal fat and chemically enhanced spreads and food products. And it was not until 2018 that the FDA banned partially hydrogenated fats from food products.
Butter Is Not Better
Valeria Lishack is a Hungarian American pastry chef, and in the early years of La Cuisine had a wonderful little boutique bakery, The Poppy Seed, in my neighborhood of make believe. Many years later she worked at the shop, set clients straight on baking issues and ran some incredible baking classes in the shop space. She also made these delicious potato dumplings. Val married a Polish American, and their vows were made in a Ukrainian church in Pittsburgh. She adapted her recipe from the “church ladies” of this very Ukrainian parish. Like so many immigrant recipes (Italians substituted cottage cheese for ricotta, for example) three slices of American cheese were added to the potato mixture. Her daughter, Kat Tines, has this recipe memorized and carries on the tradition. Val swears that the inclusion of margarine in the dough made a better piereogi than butter. I cannot argue. These, with a little practice, and sautéed in some melted butter, are awfully good!
N.B, I do not have a pierogi-making bone in my body and love this tool. Manufactured by Kuchenprofi in Germany, this stainless steel dumpling/empanada tool is invaluable. It comes in three sizes. Here I use the one that is 4.25 inches in diameter. The underside acts as a cutter. You place the dough circle on the other side and fill it with a heaping tablespoon of the potato filling and press down firmly. I don’t wet the dough to seal it as Kat Tines told me it wasn’t necessary for this dough, which is elastic enough to seal perfectly well without additional water. When re-rolling the leftover dough, wrap it in cling wrap and wait for half an hour. This dough is so stretchy that it springs back if the gluten isn’t relaxed enough for a second roll out. You can fold over the pleated area if you are worried that the pierogi will open at the seam, but mine never do. Make a large batch and then freeze the rest that you don’t gobble down for as long as three to four months.
- Measurements are approximate
- 4 oz (113gr) margarine
- 1 cup (237ml) hot water
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- one egg
- approximately 3 cups (360gr) all purpose flour
- 2 1/2 lbs (1 kg+)red skinned potatoes
- optional additions
- 3/4 cup (177ml)grated melting cheese
- 1 cup (237ml) diced sauteed onions
- or 1/3 (79ml) cup sour cream with the addition of chopped chives or dill
- Combine the margarine and water in a saucepan, and over low heat, melt the margarine in the water and allow to cool to lukewarm.
- Add about 2 1/2 cups flour and salt to a mixing bowl (reserving the rest for flouring the board and dough - you may use a bit more).
- Whisk the egg into the cooled margarine and water mixture.
- Pour this liquid into the flour and with a spatula or wood spoon pull the ingredients together to make a soft dough.
- Sprinkle the remaining flour on your counter and knead the dough for several minutes until it is smooth and soft.
- Wrap it thoroughly in cling wrap and chill in fridge for at least an hour before rolling out.
- Put the potatoes in a pan of cold water salted water and bring to a low boil.
- Cook the potatoes in the skin until tender.
- Drain and cool and then peel off the skin (you can do this with your fingers or the tip of a paring knife)
- Rice the potatoes, add some cream, and your choice of optional ingredients.
- Taste and adjust the seasoning and get ready to fill your pierogi circles.
- Roll out on a lightly floured surface as you would a pie crust.
- Cut circles with a large glass or cutter (see note about ravioli cutter in text) - 4 inches is a nice generous size but you can make them smaller.
- Fill with the potato mixture - you will have to experiment with the size of the filling depending on the size of your circles - 1 rounded tablespoon works well with a 4 inch circle.
- Fold over, and pinch the seams together.
- When you have finished your batch,, you can freeze them on a tray and then store them in freezer bags for 3-4 months.
- For the ones your are making now, start a pot of boiling water and add some salt.
- Add your pierogies, you don't want too many crowded together as they sink to the bottom and then will float to the top when they are ready to remove.
- Have ready a frypan heated with a small amount of sizzling butter and some diced fried onions if desired.
- Saute the pierogies in the butter and onions and remove to a warm platter or individual plates and ssrve with some of the melted butter and onions, with a dollop of sour cream as well.
- If you lightly fry some diced yellow onions in butter (not margarine) you can had a small portion of them to the filling as an option.
- Save the rest and add them to the finished dumplings when you saute them in butter.
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After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.