For the longest time, I thought Finns were indifferent about Finland’s traditional dishes. Finns are modest. We don’t like to brag. But as it turns out, Finns are proud, passionate, and sometimes downright aggressive about certain classic staples. Such is the case with karjalanpiirakka, also known as the Karelian pie.
The history of Karelian pie goes way back, with first written mentions from the 17th century. The pasty comes from the Karelian region, which is currently divided between Finland and Russia. A big part of Karelia was annexed by the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1939-1940. The war-time evacuees from Karelia brought their culinary skills and traditions with them and spread the deliciousness across Finland. Nowadays, Karelian pie is eaten throughout the country.
The pie is basically a thin rye crust filled with a savory porridge-like stuffing. Although different variations exist, rice and potato are the most common fillings. A thin, slightly crispy crust is for many the quintessential part of a proper Karelian pie. When you roll the dough, it should be so thin you could “see your spouse through it,” according to one old saying. A thick flabby crust is considered blasphemy.
Capturing the filling inside happens by folding the dough slightly on top, creating signature wrinkles on the pastry. This process is called rypyttäminen, and it’s an essential part of making the pie. What I love about Karelian pies is the variation of the final result. As long as it’s hand-made, you can bet on the consistently inconsistent nature of Karelian pie.
My mother-in-law, who bakes Karelian pies every Saturday morning, learned the ins and outs of Karelian pie from her mother-in-law (an evacuee from Karelian Isthmus). She adds a bit of wheat flour to the rye dough, which is supposed add to the crispiness of the crust. Whether that’s true or not, her interpretation is known to be highly addictive—two trayfuls will disappear before noon.
Toppings for Karelian pie are pretty straightforward. Most often just some good butter will do the trick. A classic combination is Karelian pie with chunky egg butter, a traditional condiment made from butter mixed with hard-boiled eggs and salt. Sanna Mansikkamäki, who wrote a cookbook focusing solely on eggs, says “there is nothing better than Karelian pie with some tasty egg butter.” According to Mansikkamäki, high-quality eggs with a hefty amount of butter and a pinch of salt is all you need. Serving the egg butter at room temperature to ensure optimal spreadability is crucial. “This is where it often goes wrong,” Mansikkamäki says. I too have been traumatized by countless buffets serving cold, tasteless egg butter that just wouldn’t spread on my small cocktail-version of a Karelian pie.
There are not many events in Finland where a Karelian pie isn’t present. Breakfast tables and brunch buffets will serve them instead of croissants. You could also have one with coffee as a snack. You can spot a Karelian pie at weddings, birthday parties, and funerals. Dipping the pasty into a steaming hot Karelian meat stew is a classic, too. You really can't go wrong, wrinkles and all.