Thursday, February 16, 2012

Learning to Make Baba's Holuptsi: A Story and a Recipe

By Corinna Wengryn Caudill
In Loving Memory of Eva and Michael Wengryn

When my grandmother passed me a head of cabbage back in 1997, I didn’t immediately realize that I was about to undertake a rite-of-passage that would make me the official holuptsi maker of the family.  I had simply asked her to teach me how to make this dish, and she agreed, hugging me and seeming overjoyed with my interest in Ukrainian cooking.  We started with our lesson one Sunday afternoon after church.  With a cored green cabbage head in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, I ceremoniously joined the two and submerged my first cabbage head in boiling water.  We spent the rest of the afternoon in her pastry kitchen chopping onions, mixing the meat filling, and rolling up the delicacies as I happily listened to her stories about the Old Country.  With Baba’s help, my first holuptsi-making experience resulted in an absolutely delicious dinner that evening.  I bragged to my grandfather about how I had helped, speaking loudly because he was hard of hearing.

Dido narrowed his eyes and pointed his fork at me.  “We gonna see how you gonna do it by you-self!”

I looked to Baba for consolation.  She blinked both of her eyes at me and reached across the table to take my hands in hers.  Finally…words of encouragement and appreciation for a granddaughter who cared about preserving family traditions!

“I so happy you wanna learn make holuptsi,” she said, looking deeply into my eyes, and I smiled back with pride.  She patted my hands and leaned back.  “From now on, you can cook holuptsi for you Grandpa, and I gonna have more time to find a boyfrien'." 

Wow.  Who could blame her though?  I looked over at him sitting next to her.  He was wearing a cardigan sweater over a starched button-down shirt, the standard outfit he wore after his morning yard work.  He looked back at me, shrugging his shoulders as he picked up his coffee cup.  He slurped his coffee so loudly that it made his hearing aid buzz.  My grandmother sighed and shook her head. 

“I tell you true…he was so handsome when he was young…best dancer in whole village!  But now he is old and stubborn…what I do with him now?”

Another loud slurp and Dido smiled as he pushed his coffee cup and plate toward me for washing up.  I rolled my eyes, at that point fully aware that my Baba had played me.

A week passed by and no one said another word about me cooking anything.  I enjoyed the reprieve while it lasted.  On the next Sunday after church, Dido informed me that the leftover holuptsi in the freezer had run out. 

"Time for you to cook so I don’t starve!”

Remarkably, Baba had all of the ingredients in the kitchen, ready for me to go.  So cook I did…chopping onions, boiling cabbage, watching my grandfather occasionally pass by, raising his eyebrows without saying a word.  I focused on my work, determined to show him that I could do it.  Unfortunately, I found cooking solo to be much more labor-intensive and stressful than it had been when Baba was helping me.  I looked around the house, trying to find her for a quick consultation.  Where was she?  I wondered.  Shopping?  Boyfriend hunting?  God only knew.  All I knew was that I was on my own to deal with a very tough customer, who was absorbed in watching the football game without a care in the world except for what he was going to eat for dinner.  After several hours of boiling, chopping and rolling, it was finally time to show off my culinary talents that night at dinner.

"Too much pepper!" Dido announced after Attempt #1, dismissing me and my holuptsi with a mere wave of his hand. 

On the following Sunday, after Attempt #2 had finished cooking, I held my breath, hoping he wouldn't notice that I forgot to mix the beef with pork.  I was naive and wrong.

"I no know," He shook his head, chewing thoughtfully. "Maybe you forget something."

That’s when the resentment set in.  I was stuck with Mr. Pickychuk from the Old Country, who had to have everything just so, while my Baba was living the good life – this time, she had supposedly been at the beauty shop all afternoon.  I had to get this right soon, and end my misery.

The next Sunday, I agonized over Attempt #3, and cringed as my grandfather took the first bite.  I fully expected him to balk, pointing to some problem and pushing his plate aside.  Instead, he chewed quietly and avoided my gaze.  Then, without a word, he reached over and scooped two additional cabbage rolls onto his plate.

Michael and Eva Wengryn
(Originally from Wola Piotrowa, Poland)
“HEY DIDO!” I said, even louder than usual, in case he had deliberately turned down his hearing aid.  “HOW DO YOU LIKE IT?”

He gave me a sideways glance.   I crossed my arms and raised one eyebrow, waiting for the white flag to raise.

"Yeah, o-kay." he finally conceded between bites, "You make a good holuptsi.  You satisfied?" 


Baba’s Lemko-American Holuptsi (Stuffed Cabbage) with Tomato Sauce

The Recipe

Like most Eastern European foods, cooking holuptsi (aka “holupki”) is more of an art than a science.  So you’ll have to do a lot of experimenting to make a variation that works for you.  My Baba’s holuptsi was served with tomato sauce sweetened with carmelized onions (yum!)  This recipe should give you a good idea of how to make this dish, and you will be able to adjust seasonings and ingredients to your liking.  Also, the amount in this recipe works on Baba’s general assumption that more is always better, because you might get company, and you need to give them something good to eat if you want to be a dobre gospodynya or gospodar (good host.)  There is an update featured that is a slight deviation from Baba’s original recipe: the shortcut of microwaving the cabbage instead of fiddling with the big vat of boiling water, saving time and hassle!  (After discovering this method, I never boil water anymore.)   Hope you enjoy it, and do let me know how it works out by emailing me with your experience at


Yours truly, making holuptsi
·      1 large green cabbage (flat leaf, not Savoy)
·      1 lb. lean ground beef
·      1 lb. ground pork
·      1 cup brown rice (cooked)
·      1 large jar preserved tomatoes OR 2 cans crushed tomatoes, unseasoned
·      1 large can of Dei Fratelli tomato sauce (I prefer this brand, but you can use another…just make sure it doesn’t have any Italian seasoning.  Only plain tomato sauce will do.  If you want to make it homemade, even better!)
·      1 can Campbell’s Tomato Soup
·      4 tbsp ketchup (Heinz brand was Baba’s favorite!)
·      6 cloves garlic (or to taste), crushed
·      2 large Vidalia onions, chopped into small pieces
·      Salt (to taste)
·      Good quality cracked black pepper (to taste)
·      White pepper (used very sparingly – it’s powerful stuff)
·      Brown Sugar or Brown Sugar Splenda (to taste, but you will probably want to make sure that you have at least ¼ cup on hand)
·      1 large crockpot or electric roaster (recommend not using oven in order to evenly heat and to avoid burning cabbage leaves)


A.  Prepare the Cabbage:  Cut any stem from the core (core should be flat against cabbage) and core the cabbage.  Don't be lazy with the coring - the water must get inside the cabbage head and boil through the core. 

·      Cooking Option #1: The Old Fashioned Way: Boil cabbage until the outer leaves begin to look wilted. (About 20 min or more, depending on size of cabbage)  Drain and set aside to cool. 

·      Cooking Option #2: The Modern Way:  If you’re not trying to recreate “the village experience” by boiling a big vat of water over an open fire, then microwaving your cabbage is the way to go.  After coring the cabbage, place it in a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap.  Put it in the microwave for 5-7 minutes on high (you don't need to add water or anything.  The cabbage has a lot of water within it that will cause it to steam in the microwave.)

After the cabbage is fully cooked, set it aside to cool for a while and move on to the other steps. There's no point in burning your fingers trying to handle hot cabbage leaves!

B.  Prepare the Rice: Follow package instructions to prepare the rice.  I usually use an electric rice cooker.  Alternatively, you can purchase cooked rice in a microwave packet, a shortcut that will save time, but that rice is more expensive (you should know that Baba wouldn’t approve…that money you just wasted could have bought a couple of chickens in the village.)

C.  Chop Onions and Crush Garlic Cloves:  Peel and chop both vidalia onions to about ¾” pieces.  Take half of them and put them in a frying pan with butter (or olive oil) and sauté them until they carmelize.  Set the other half aside.

D.  Prepare the Meat Mixture: Mix the ground beef, ground pork, cooked rice, raw onions, and 5 crushed cloves of garlic.  Add about 1 tbsp salt and 1 tbsp black pepper (this is really to taste, but for this amount of meat, it should be a good amount.)  Add 1-2 light sprinkles of white pepper (or 1 little “pinch” – don’t overdo it, this stuff is powerful.)   Mix together well (best done with very clean hands instead of by spoon or mixer…get in there and squish it with your hands if you’re like Baba, and not squeamish!)  My rule of thumb is that the meat mixture should be aromatic…if you don’t smell anything, then it’s too bland and Grandpa will hate it and tell you so.

E.  Get that Tomato Sauce Cooking!  In a saucepot, combine the carmelized onions, 3 cloves of garlic (minced), canned or jarred tomatoes (jarred preserves are the best if you have them), tomato sauce, tomato soup, and a good squirt of ketchup (equivalent to about 3 – 4 tbsp).  Add sugar or splenda to taste (I usually add at least ¼ cup.  Sugar or splenda balances the bitterness of the tomatoes, but if you are using good quality preserved tomatoes, you may not need extra sweetening.  So make it to taste based on what you like.)  Add 1 tbsp garlic salt, 1 tbsp pepper and no more than 1/2 tsp white pepper to the sauce.  Adjust sugar/salt/pepper to taste.  Heat the sauce in the saucepan (to mix the ingredients more evenly and make it pour more easily)

F.  Peel and Trim the Cabbage Leaves:  After the cabbage has cooled, gently separate the cabbage into individual leaves (you may need to use a paring knife to help you do this, but take care not to cut or damage the leaves).  Once leaves are separated, pare down the spine of the cabbage to get it as flat with the leaf as possible.  This will help you to fold the cabbage leaf into a roll.


With a spoon, place a generous portion of the meat onto the straight edge of the cabbage leaf, and then roll it up until it looks like a tube, tucking the sides in with your index finger.  The amount of meat that you use for each roll will obviously vary with the size of the leaf.  You should be able to roll up the cabbage and tuck in the sides without any meat sticking out.  If you have too much leaf on the ends (making it difficult to tuck), you can use the paring knife to cut off excess.  (But reserve it to flavor the sauce!)  Once you have finished rolling them up, place them in the fridge for a while so they’ll “set”.  This helps them stay together when you cook them, although it’s not absolutely necessary if you’re running low on time.  If you do have time, they can even be left to cool in the fridge overnight (and you can arrange them for slow-cooking in the morning...imagine yourself coming home from work to enjoy them!)


A.  Prepare your Crockpot or Roaster: Set your crockpot on low, or your roaster on a low setting, like 275-300 degrees.  I usually rub a light coating of olive oil on the stoneware (or roaster pan) to prep the pan and help to avoid sticking and burning.

B.  Arrange and Cook the Holuptsi: Add a scoop of sauce to the bottom of the crockpot or roaster pan and spread it along the bottom.  Then, arrange the holuptsi carefully, with the folds of the cabbage rolls facing down.  (You can layer them on top of each other.)  Pour the rest of the sauce over the cabbage rolls.  If you have any reserved cabbage, you can chop some of it up and sprinkle it over the top of the sauced rolls.   Cook on the lowest setting for approximately 8-10 hours.  The holuptsi are done when their leaves are fork tender.

Sit, relax and enjoy the nostalgia while your holuptsi slow cook to perfection!  Your house is going to smell so good!  And then ...Smachnoho!  (enjoy!)

P.S. My grandmother never did find a boyfriend, in case you were wondering.  When I interrogated her about it, she said: "I need boyfrien' like I need hole in the head!" *

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