Grandma peered at me across my great-aunt Matilda’s kitchen table. Her blue eyes glinted. Among all of us in the family, she owned the mantle of mischievous troublemaker. Now, though, she looked serious. Wearing an apron and cradling a wooden rolling pin in her hands, she explained the plan: we were going to make sixteen pagach, a Slavic bread dough filled with potatoes and cheese.
The night before, two of her nephews had peeled fifty pounds of potatoes. Aunt Matilda had cubed twenty pounds, which now sat in the refrigerator, ready to boil for soup. The men had passed the remaining thirty pounds through the food mill, mixed them with Colby cheddar cheese, and chilled them.
I was twelve, and it was December 24. That morning, my grandma had invited me to join her and her sisters at the family’s homestead, a modest house cut into a hill in a residential neighborhood of a mid-sized Western Pennsylvania town. By family tradition, Grandma and her siblings always hosted Christmas Eve supper. Few of my parents’ generation—and even fewer of my own—had been invited into that sacred space, the kitchen, before eating. She had ushered me into an exclusive club.
Grandma’s grandparents immigrated from Slovakia in the 1870s, and their descendants held close to their Slovak traditions, especially surrounding Christmas. In Slovakia, the Christmas meal, or Vilija, takes place after sunset on Christmas Eve. Christian Slovaks consider it the holiest night of the year, waiting in eager anticipation of the Christmas solemnity. We mark the occasion with a meatless feast. Many Slovak families prepare twelve traditional foods to commemorate Jesus’s twelve apostles: vegetarian soup, fish, bobalky (dough balls mixed with poppy seeds), peas, sauerkraut, mushrooms, pierogies, pagach, honey, stewed fruit, poppy seeds, and walnuts.
Through the years, my family pared that down to two main dishes: potato soup in a browned butter broth and pagach, the latter ideally eaten directly from the oven with butter smeared on top. It’s easy to imagine what drove my great-grandparents to narrow down the feast; raising thirteen children in an economically depressed town during the early twentieth century required some efficiency. The idea must have been, in the best European peasant fashion, to fill up on carbs—at least in our imaginings.
At the time Grandma invited me to help her and her sisters make the pagach, I was becoming interested in how our family’s food traditions connected to our cultural heritage. She had already taught me the art of making pierogies, and I relished all our family’s Slovak desserts, nut rolls and apricot rugelach in particular. In Aunt Matilda’s kitchen, Grandma gently lifted a ball of yeasted bread dough, sat it on the flour-dusted wood table, and shaped it to fit a rectangular cookie sheet. Great-Aunt Tessie, Grandma’s younger sister, dropped globs of potato-and-cheese filling onto the bottom layer of dough while Grandma rolled out the top layer. Aunt Tessie sealed the edges, crimping them together with her thumb and index finger. Grandma then gave me what I assumed was the critical job, one that her other sister, Aunt Caddy, graciously allowed me. I brushed the dough with egg wash just before it went into the oven so it would emerge with a golden-brown sheen. The finished product filled an entire nine-by-thirteen-inch cookie sheet and was two inches thick.
We repeated the process sixteen times that afternoon. It took a lot to feed the sixty family members who joined us each year.
Over the next decade and a half, I apprenticed in Grandma’s kitchen. She demonstrated her mastery, and then I learned by doing (and often failing). As I shaped the dough with my own rolling pin, she made gentle suggestions but never berated me when I ended up with an odd-shaped dough that wouldn’t fit on the cookie sheets. “We’ll make it work,” she would say.
In Grandma’s final years, when she was no longer able to make the meal herself, I stepped in. We didn’t need sixteen pagach anymore. Aunt Matilda had passed away, the family homestead was sold, and most branches of the family relocated Christmas Eve supper to their own homes. Grandma sold her own house and moved in with her daughter. But the dish still served as a touchstone between us and a reminder of our Slovak heritage. As I rolled the dough on my parents’ kitchen table, she watched from a chair through those same blue eyes and offered the same firm guidance. She wore the same old apron, although now there was little chance she would get flour on her Christmas sweatshirt.
In recent years, I haven’t traveled home for Christmas Eve. I’ve had to split holidays with my wife’s family, and then COVID forced us to isolate. Through all this, pagach still connects the family. My mom makes it at her home, while I make one for me, my wife, and our two young daughters. Mom and I spend Christmas Eve on the phone, comparing notes on how our dough is rising, checking to make sure the timing is right so that the pagach will be ready to pull from the oven just as the dinner bell rings.
To say that Christmas Eve has changed fundamentally for me since I was a pre-teen would be an understatement. The logistics of juggling interstate travel, coordinating multiple families’ holiday schedules, and acknowledging the needs of our young daughters exhausts me and reminds me of the very adult concerns I’m responsible for now.
But when I take that first bite of crusty, chewy bread and cheesy filling, I’m transported back to Great-Aunt Matilda’s small, overheated kitchen. I see Grandma hunched over the wooden table with her rolling pin. Her sisters cackle to each other over a joke, while in the living room, her brothers chat about the Steelers as they eagerly await Aunt Tessie’s call that the first pagach has emerged from the oven for them to taste test. From that moment, I’m connected again to my heritage, my family, and myself.
Note: The original family recipe is written for 16 pagach. I’ve cut down the recipe and rounded the measurements to make one.
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled
~4 ounces Colby cheddar cheese, shredded
1 package of instant dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
3/8 cup warm water
2 1/3 cup flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons shortening
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon water
To make the filling, boil potatoes in salted water until tender. Pass potatoes and shredded cheese through a food mill. The filling can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for a day.
In a large bowl, dissolve 1/2 tablespoon sugar and yeast in warm water. Let sit until yeast doubles. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Knead dough until elastic, either by hand or using a stand mixer. Cover and rise until it doubles in size. When risen, divide into two balls and let rise again until doubled.
On a floured surface, roll out one dough ball to fit onto a greased cookie sheet. Carefully lift dough and place on cookie sheet. Warm the potato filling in the microwave if chilled. Drop mounds of potato filling onto dough and spread out, being careful not to tear the bottom dough and leaving about a quarter-inch on all sides.
Roll out the second dough ball to cover the filling. Lightly moisten the unfilled edges of the bottom dough with water. Drape second dough onto the top and seal the top and bottom layers. Pinch the dough together to ensure the seal (and to make it look nice).
Beat an egg with a tablespoon of water. Brush egg wash over top of dough. Pierce dough several times with a fork to release any trapped air. Bake at 375 for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top dough is golden brown.
Serve with soft butter.
Aaron Rovan is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, a PhD candidate in English at West Virginia University, and a staff member at Ohio Humanities. He is the official baker and taste tester now.