I realise about 90% of you will have absolutely no idea what a Karelia pie (Karjalanpiirakka) is, and even less idea why I should be setting out on a quest to try a bunch of their gluten free cousins to see which one comes out on top, but you should be interested!
Ok so first things first, Karelia is a disputed region formerly in eastern Finland that Russia got their mitts on after the Second World War, and people whose families originate in the area still have some pretty choice words on the matter. Some of Finland’s most classic cuisine come from there, aside from the pies, there is Karelia stew which is an awesome winter comfort food along with a glut of other regional delicacies. It’s also where the gorgeous Karelian Bear dogs like my country house pal Raisu originate.
At this point you’re still wondering what the hell a Karelian pie is, right? Or you have got sick of me rambling and hit Google. For those of you who have been patient, a Karelian pie is basically heaven. They’re a simple fatless rye, or rye/wheat mix pastry filled with creamy savoury rice pudding or less often mashed potatoes. Warmed up and topped with munavoitta, boiled egg mashed with butter into a spread that slightly melts when it hits hot pie, they are a thing of beauty. You can also top with cheese, butter or just about anything that takes your fancy.
I first got to try them when my old Dj partner in crime Liisa cooked up a batch when we lived together in Leeds. I got hooked and she taught me her family’s recipe. After this my Karelia pie love affair was going swimmingly and when I met Timo I was already quite the accomplished pie maker, much to his disappointment because he didn’t get to turn me on to them, but also joy because he found someone to make pies for him so he didn’t have to wait for trips back home, or the Finnish church to hold its Christmas market. Hell, I even taught his daughter how to make them!
Aaaand then my body called time on the whole thing – no gluten = no rye, which is the signature grain in the pastry for these yummy pies. This meant I had to go back to the drawing board… or mixing bowl at least, with a bunch of GF flours and an extensive knowledge of Finnish swear words.
I’ve been testing my gf recipes for a while on my herd of willing Finnish expats and have got my recipe pretty much down, although sometimes my presentation could use a little work, but I was interested to see what the commercially available gf products in the Free From section of the supermarket taste like as well!
Our friend whose idyllic lakeside place we stayed at knows my pie love and picked up a couple of bags of Pirkka Riisipirakat for my breakfasts. Overall I was pretty impressed with these pies, although I felt they were a tiny bit lacking in flavour because the nutty flavour that would normally come from the rye flour hadn’t really been compensated for… that said, topped with munavoitta or a slice of cheese, they were a perfectly good pie! The pastry was light and thin, and they are made with lactose free (laktoositon) milk and butter, so a little easier on my body which was recovering from a bad glutening a couple of weeks before I travelled and was getting a bit fed up with me for force feeding it half of Finland!
At first appearance these looked very promising, the pastry was a little darker. My first bite gave away why though… buckwheat! I understand exactly why they have reached for the buckwheat flour (tattarijauho) because it does substitute in some of the flavour that losing the rye kills, but for me buckwheat has such a particular flavour signature that it tends to overpower things easily, especially in things that it doesn’t really belong. Buckwheat loaded gf pizza and flatbreads, I am looking squarely at you!
The first day I had them it really overwhelmed the taste of the filling and toppings. The second morning I armed myself with chilli and garlic butter, (the consequence of not reading the label, other than hunting for off limits ingredients, when I grabbed what looked like a selection of dips from the shop on Suomenlinna, and got a pretty unpleasant surprise when I tried to dip a crisp in!) but serendipitously this made the whole thing marry together significantly better as it balanced out the strong buckwheat taste. So if you opt for these, unless you are a big buckwheat fan, maybe consider eating them with something which has a bit more punch.
Their facilities are 100% gluten free at the fact company is headed by a fellow coeliac makes you feel in safe hands. Their standard pies which I tried are low lactose (vähälaktoosinen), but they also have a milk-free (maidoton) version which is suitable for vegans (vegaaninen), and do Perunapiirakat which are the potato filled version.
I will admit that I was slightly filled with dread when I saw that these pies are also packing buckwheat, and when I picked the pie out of the microwave the smell was quite strong. In the interest of science, or eating all the pies at least, I persevered, and I am pleased I did, overall I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by these! The buckwheat wasn’t too overpowering even with just egg and butter or a light cheese. They have managed to balance the flavours really well in these.
Also, big bonus points for being a full sized regular looking pie, none of this miniature offerings for the grain dodgers here! The pastry was quite light and these are also lactose free (although still made with milk).
In honesty they were all good, and I would happily buy any of them again! If I have to choose the Moilas and Pirkka come out slightly on top, but that is mainly down to my dislike of out-of-place buckwheat, and the Vuohelan Herkku pies were also a really good option, especially if you enjoy it! I really miss the convenience of having readymade Karelia pies on hand, if you are making these yourself for some reason they always turn out to be in batches of about 30, which all disappear much more quickly than you would expect, but end up leaving my kitchen looking like some Gremlins have been having a wild party.
The only downside to all of these is that they are from the freezer section, like many of the gluten free baked goods I saw in Finland, so if you are visiting and staying in a hotel then you don’t have the facilities to prepare them.
I would be interested to hear about any brands that I have missed out so I can try them on my next visit, and would also love to hear if anyone has any recommendations for independent shops or bakeries doing their own versions!