Cepelinai for Beginners [Recipe]
The first time I made cepelinai I failed miserably. And the second time. And probably the third time. After that, I called it quits and resolved only to eat cepelinai that had been prepared for me by someone who knew what they were talking about – either at a restaurant or by one of our Lithuanian friends.
It’s not that cepelinai are particularly difficult to prepare, it’s just that the concepts were so foreign to me. I was told that they were made with grated potato, so I grated my potatoes the same way I would for hash browns. But that’s not what’s required. Although many recipes for cepelinai call for grated or even finely grated potato, what they actually mean is pulverized potato. If using a simple box grater you would use the zesting side, not the grating side.
The concept of making a potato dough using a combination of grated raw and cooked potato was also new to me. I thought we Irish ate a lot of potatoes, but our potato-eating habits pale by comparison with Lithuanians. Lithuanians have made potato-eating an art form, with a wide repertoire of dishes based largely around the humble spud.
To the uninitiated, cepelinai (pronounced sep-elle-in-ay) are dumplings made with potato dough and a meat, cheese or vegetable filling. They are the national dish of Lithuania, having been prepared here for over 150 years. Originally called “didžkukuliai” (which literally means “big meatballs”), they were rechristened cepelinai early in the 20th century due to their similarity in shape to the zeppelin airships.
Cepelinai are stodgy, hearty fodder designed to feed hungry workers at harvest time or to provide sustenance and warmth during the harsh Lithuanian winters. Calorie-wise, they pack a real punch. A single 200 g dumpling contains 385 g of potato*. This is because two-thirds of the weight of the grated potato is lost when you squeeze out the water. Add to this the fatty mince (ground pork) and the even fattier pork belly, plus a nice dollop of sour cream, and you can see how the calorie-conscious might shy away from them.
*Based on my recipe, using a ratio of 60% raw potato to 40% cooked potato.
Despite being the national dish, cepelinai are only prepared in Lithuanian homes on special occasions. They take quite a bit of time and are really only worth making in large batches. They are typically made as a treat for guests or, as mentioned, to feed hungry workers bringing potatoes or hay in from the fields.
Like all traditional dishes, every Lithuanian family has their own cepelinai recipe. If you have a tried and tested recipe that you love, far be it from me to tell you how to make them! This recipe is designed for those who might be new to making cepelinai. As such, I have tried to make it as foolproof as possible and have provided detailed instructions and photos on how to build your dumplings.
After an extensive search both online and in cookbooks I could find no consensus as to the correct proportion of raw to cooked potato for the dough. I know people who make them entirely from cooked potato (adding potato starch to stop them from falling apart) and others who make them almost entirely from raw potato. Having experimented for over a month I have settled on a 60/40 split. (60% or 750 g grated and strained raw potato to 40% or 500 g cooked and mashed potato.) This yields a dumpling that is sturdy enough to hold together during cooking but at the same time is soft and not too heavy to eat.
I don’t use either egg or onion in the meat mixture. It doesn’t need egg to bind it together. In fact, adding egg tends to make the cooked meatballs a little hard. Because the meat is cooked inside the dumpling, even the smallest pieces of onion don’t soften and cook in the time. There is plenty of onion flavour in the spirgučiai so there’s no need for any in the meat.
Cepelinai can come with a variety of sauces and toppings, but the most common is spirgučiai (pronounced spir-goo-chay), made with fried onion and bacon belly (side), and a generous dollop of sour cream. Lithuanian sour cream is very rich, typically being 30-40% fat. You could substitute crème fraîche, lower-fat sour cream or even Greek yoghurt if you prefer.
For the potato dough:
3 kg | 6 lb 9 oz potatoes
2 tsp salt
Potato starch or cornflour, as required. (See method below.)
For the meat filling:
500 g | 1 lb 2 oz pork mince (ground pork)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp garlic powder
2 Tbsp cold water
For the topping:
250 g | 9 oz smoked bacon belly (side) or pancetta, finely diced
400 g | 14 oz onion (about 4-5 medium onions), finely chopped
2 Tbsp potato starch or cornflour
100 ml | ½ cup cold water
8 Tbsp sour cream / crème fraîche
- Peel the potatoes, placing the potatoes into a large bowl of cold water as they are peeled to ensure they do not turn brown.
- Take 500 g | 1 lbs 2 oz of potato, cut into quarters and place in a saucepan. Cover the potatoes with boiling water, place on a high heat and bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and simmer for 8-12 minutes until the tip of a knife can easily be inserted into the potato pieces. Drain and set aside, uncovered, to cool.
- While the potatoes are boiling grate or purée the remaining raw potato. If you’re not lucky enough to own a specialist potato grating machine, then use either the zesting side of a box grater or purée the potatoes to a very fine pulp in a food processor. If using a food processor you will need to process the potatoes in two batches to ensure there are no small lumps left in the purée.
- Pour the purée into a large piece of butter muslin or cheesecloth (I use a cotton pillowcase) set over a large bowl. Gather the corners of the material and twist to squeeze out all water from the potatoes. This can take 5-10 minutes depending on the variety of potato and the strength of your hands.
- When no further water can be squeezed from the grated potato, carefully transfer the dry grated potato to a large bowl. Keep the liquid that came out of the potatoes – you may need this later
- Using a potato ricer or masher, mash the cooked potatoes until no lumps remain. (Do not add any liquids or fats to the potato as you might if you were making mashed potato.) Add the mashed potato to the grated raw potato.
- Add the salt to the potato and mix well with your hands to fully incorporate the ingredients.
- The resultant dough should be roughly the consistency of play dough – it should form a smooth ball easily but should not stick to your hands. The consistency of the dough is key to the success of your final cepelinai. If it is too wet it will stick to your hands as you form your dumplings. If it is too dry it will crack as you form the dumplings and they may split or fall apart during cooking. If your mix is too dry add a little of the liquid from the grated potatoes, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it reaches the required consistency. If the mixture is too wet, add some potato starch or cornflour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it reaches the required consistency.
- In a separate bowl, add the pork mince (ground pork), salt, garlic powder and water. Mix thoroughly using your hands.
- Divide both the potato dough and meat mixture into 8 equal portions and lay out on a plate or worktop ready for assembly. Form the meat into tight balls the shape of a rugby ball (American football).
- You are now ready to form your cepelinai. Take a portion of dough and flatten it against the palm of your hand until it is roughly the shape of your hand and just under 1 cm (½ inch) thick, turning regularly as you shape the dough to ensure it does not stick to your hands.
- Place a piece of meat on the centre of the dough, fold the sides of the dough over the top of the meat and pinch the dough together firmly to seal the join. Firmly press the dumpling between your two palms, rotating the dumpling little by little, to form the classic zeppelin shape.
- Ensure there are no cracks on the surface of the dumpling. If you find any cracks, dip your fingertip into the juice from the grated potatoes and gently smooth over the cracks to seal them.
- Continue with the remaining ingredients until you have assembled all your cepelinai.
- Half-fill a 7 litre / 7 quart saucepan, Dutch oven or other large saucepan with cold water and set over a high heat. When the water is boiling, mix 2 tablespoons of potato starch or cornflour with a cup of cold water and add to the saucepan, stirring well as you add the starch liquid to ensure it does not form a gelatinous ball. Adding starch to the cooking water helps to prevent the dumplings from splitting during cooking. It also helps to give the dumplings a smooth, glossy exterior.
- Carefully add the dumplings to the saucepan. (They will initially sink to the bottom, but will later float to the surface.) Cover the saucepan with a lid, bring the water back to the boil, then reduce the heat to very low so that the water is just barely simmering – if the water is boiling too hard the dumplings might split. Simmer for 45 minutes.
- While the cepelinai are cooking make the spirgučiai. Add the bacon pieces to a frying pan or saucepan and set over a high heat. There is no need to add any oil or fat as the fat will render from the bacon. When the bacon pieces are golden and starting to crisp, add the onion and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and just starting to turn brown.
- To serve, carefully lift the cepelinai from the saucepan using a slotted spoon and place on a bowl or plate. Top with a spoon of spirgučiai and a dollop of sour cream.
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