Interview #3: Jessica & Trina Quinn's Pelmeni
"It’s a combination of this soft and thin dough that still needs to be sturdy enough when it boils up, and this perfectly salted meaty, onion-filled filling."
Early on in the pandemic, married couple Trina and Jessica Quinn found themselves with lots of time on their hands. Trina had been furloughed from her restaurant job; Jessica was taking a step back from work as a pastry chef to evaluate what would come next. And so they cooked together, something they didn’t really have time to do before. They kept gravitating toward making food from Jessica’s Ukrainian and Latvian heritage, including pelmeni, petite Siberian dumplings that Jessica grew up eating at home. “A lot of people were anxious and really unsure about things, and this was one of these things you could just spend the afternoon very casually making,” Jessica says. “It’s also a really nice way to spend the day together when you are stuck inside a small New York City apartment.”
Fast-forward to October of 2020, and Dacha 46 (pronounced Da-chuh), a pop-up food business centered around Trina’s pelmeni and Jessica’s elaborate Eastern European pastries, made its debut in Brooklyn. “This idea was borne out of the fact that we were making this food that was bringing us comfort and joy, and maybe if it was something that we sold to the public, they would get that same satisfaction in a time where we really needed it,” Jessica says.
Ahead, learn more about the process of perfecting pelmeni, the duo’s forthcoming Pride Month pelmeni pop-ups, and the joyous Ukrainian tunes that Trina blasts while folding thousands of dumplings at a time. And if you’re raring to make pelmeni of your own after reading, there’s a link with your name on it at the end of this newsletter.
Jessica, Eastern European cuisine is a part of your personal background. Do you have any formative memories around eating dumplings?
Jessica: My background is Latvian-Ukrainian, and I grew up in Long Island just outside of the city. We were very close to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, which is a very concentrated Eastern European community. I have personally never met an Eastern European that didn’t grow up making what we make, which is pelmeni. It’s a Siberian dumpling that’s commonly eaten and made all across Eastern Europe. It’s just one of those comfort meals: Whereas American kids grew up eating mac and cheese, Eastern European kids grew up eating pelmeni.
Dacha 46 evolved out spending more time cooking together at home. Were pelmeni something you’d made on your own before this period?
Jessica: We’d made them before. But also it’s one of those things that unless you have the time to do it, you’re not going to go through the trouble of making your own. But that was one of those first staple dishes that really became representative of Dacha 46, and it was something that Trina took really seriously. She knew what a pivotal dish it was to the culture. It became a very natural progression for us to start making them and selling them, and they were received incredibly well, beyond what we were ever expecting.
Trina, what did “taking it really seriously” look like for you?
Trina: For me, at the beginning of everything I was definitely having panic attacks. We’ve been making pelmeni for years, but I was even more concentrated on the technique and trying to do it the “correct” way, and being hyper-focused on that helped me handle the stress of dealing with the pandemic a lot easier. Originally, we were going to make the dumplings by hand—it was the only way we ever knew how to do them. Then we had to switch that over to figuring out how to use a pelmeni mold1, because the volume was incredibly demanding. I was very focused on doing it correctly, especially for the Eastern Europeans that were coming to our pop-up—I didn’t want to disappoint them. Every time Jess would eat one, I could tell if it was close to her memory of eating them when she was younger. Even today, she has to try every single set of dumplings I make. Even if she’s like, “I don’t want to eat anymore,” I’m like, “You have to, otherwise I’m going to feel like it’s not complete.”
Jessica: I very rarely don’t want to eat the dumplings, but sometimes it’s six in the morning and she’s like, “Here is this pork and onion dumpling,” and I don’t always want it when I am getting my coffee ready (laughs). She took on this maniacal dedication to the craft. And it’s an amazing thing to see how many people come to us and say, “This tastes like the one I remember.” We always say that there is nothing more challenging when working in kitchens as when you are competing with a memory. Because you can make the best food of your life, but it is almost never able to reach that boundary where the memory starts.
So what is that platonic ideal that you are working toward?
Jessica: It’s a combination of this soft and thin dough that still needs to be sturdy enough when it boils up, and this perfectly salted meaty, onion-filled filling. We do it very traditionally dressed with sour cream, dill, and cracked black pepper. That is our house pelmeni, and we do all kinds of variations. I am a traditionalist, and Trina definitely likes to think outside of the box. And we have definitely had Eastern Europeans be like, “I had no idea that you could do this with pelmeni.”
Trina, knowing you went through such a specific process toward honing your technique, what was the most difficult thing to get the hang of?
Trina: Definitely trying to find the perfect thickness of the dough, because it’s so fragile. If they are too thin, they pop open. It’s very temperamental.
What are the ingredients in the dough that lead to that characteristic?
Jessica: It’s much softer and has more of a suppleness to it than that glutinous, sturdy pasta dough that people are used to working with. A lot of Eastern European recipes will include kefir, and so there is usually some element of dairy; sometimes people will add melted butter. There are eggs in it. It’s a fairly moist and wet dough, but it’s also fairly resilient. It lends itself really well to making thousands and thousands of dumplings.
Can you tell me a bit about the variations that you have done so far?
Jessica: Our house pelmeni is always going to be that dish that defines us, because it’s the one that people are most familiar with and I think it’s a really good representation of the culture. But for us it’s also really important to be inclusive of those who are vegetarian or who are gluten-free—we haven’t gotten there yet, but we have been playing around with gluten-free dumplings. For vegetarians we have a fun play on khachapuri, which is a Georgian cheese bread. Our filling uses a combination of feta, ricotta, mozzarella, goat cheese, and herbs. Khachapuri in Georgian means “cheese bread,” so we do a toasted bread crumb with it. Recently we have started playing around with the dough itself a lot. We just recently did one that Trina brilliantly called “green disco,” which is a spinach and dill dough, and then it has the khachapuri filling with charred snap peas, tarragon, and more bread crumbs.
Where do you turn to for inspiration when you are coming up with new flavor combinations? Does something come to you and you know you want to channel it into a dumpling, or is there a research process?
Trina: We’ve stuck to this model where we really want to focus on dumplings, specifically pelmeni for now, and Jess is obviously doing all of the incredible pastry for Dacha. We really want to change the way that people view Eastern European cuisine. So part of that is bringing in a seasonality to dishes. It’s important to be able to utilize the seasons and show that we are not just meat and potatoes, even though we love meat and potatoes.
Jessica: A big thing for us also is working in the community with small purveyors. We source all of our meat from Butcher Girls, run by Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest—they have a small bespoke butcher shop. We’ve also chosen pelmeni to be this medium where we get to showcase all different things. For June, we are releasing our Pride Month pelmeni, a series of rainbow pelmeni that have been colored using all sorts of different vegetable purees. It’s a beautiful, vibrant play on a very old dish.
Can you tell me more about the Pride pelmeni? What is that series going to look like?
Jessica: This one is really all about the dough. The filling is going to be our khachapuri filling across the board, but the dough itself has been colored and flavored with tomato, carrot, spinach-dill, beets, and blue spirulina with butterfly pea powder. That was Trina’s brainchild, where she had imagined what this rainbow pelmeni dish would look like [Note: See the pic at the top of this post for the beautiful finished product]. There’s a vibrancy of using actual, natural beautiful ingredients, and also getting to celebrate who we are as a couple and as a business by celebrating Pride2. We’ll have prepared ones which come standard with 20 dumplings to an order; those will be all different colors. For Brooklyn Pride weekend only, we’ll be selling frozen dumplings, and those are going to be tie-dyed.
They’re beautiful. So you mentioned making pelmeni “for now.” Of course there are lots of Eastern European dumplings—is that on your mind for the future?
Jessica: Yes. We spend an absurd amount of time thinking about dumplings. We talk about all of the different kinds that we are interested in doing. Before we debut a dish we try to really dive into the region of where it originated and what the standard ingredients are and how we can best represent that region and that dish with the Dacha stamp on it. So we are a little slow to introduce new items in that respect, but we definitely have been testing a few staple Eastern European dumplings.
Do you have specific parameters or boundaries you set for yourselves?
Jessica: We do. So like I said, my background is Latvian-Ukrainian, but it’s kind of dumbing it down just to specify it that way because it’s such a complicated history in that region for the nations that were part of the former Soviet Union. They all have these very intrinsic individualistic identities, but for the majority of the time there was this umbrella of being Russian, obviously, before they were able to really celebrate their identities, so a lot of the culture got squashed down for a while and wasn’t highlighted or celebrated. We approach these dishes as sensitively as we can because there is so much history, and a lot of it is a dark history. We try to be sensitive and conscious about what dishes we feel we have the right to represent.
When the pop-ups are up and running, how many dumplings are you making at a time?
Jessica: For a typical weekend, for just two days worth of dumplings, we are making roughly 5,000 dumplings.
Trina: The whole process from start to finish is: First I do the filling, and we have to keep it super-cold, so it’s done in small batches over ice baths. I roll it into small teaspoons of filling, and usually we get 20 lbs. of meat at a time, so as you can imagine, rolling takes a while. It’s more efficient if you roll these perfect little balls that you can just stick into the mold after the dough has been placed on it. So it’s just…
Trina: You know, a three-day process, solid. The third day I have to take the dough—ideally I’ve made the dough the day before—and then weigh out each ball of dough for each side of the mold, and then I have to roll it out by hand. We have five molds right now we are using just because of spatial restrictions. I will roll out 10 pieces of dough at a time for the top and the bottom of each mold. And repeat that until they are done. And it sounds like a lot but I have definitely gotten into that flow where it’s a lot easier than it sounds. But it’s definitely time consuming.
Jessica: Because it’s such a soft dough, you have to make sure that you get those distinct lines and seal properly because it’s a very juicy filling. I’ve seen Trina do it and her hands and forearms definitely are burning by the end of it. Trina makes thousands of them at this point, and it’s fun watching her on autopilot.
If I understand this correctly you are on a bit of a hiatus before you ramp things back up in June. On your website, you discuss taking the time to work on creating a new model for the food industry. How are you finding that balance where you can get into that multi-day process without it taking over every single day?
Trina: Neither one of us wants a restaurant. What this year has given us is a new way to show people how we can produce different kinds of food in a different way. We’re not just working to live, we’re able to produce food that we love with really wonderful ingredients that can also help support our friends financially with their different businesses.
Jessica: I think also a big thing for us is that we are not scared to run out. We are a two-person operation and do the best we can. Trina is already making 5,000 dumplings; I'm making pastries. It’s a hard thing to kind of strike a balance, but also we are not available 24/7. We are taking a holiday next week to go spend Memorial Day with family, and that already in itself is this crazy concept to take time off to spend with family especially on a holiday weekend. It’s this reimagining of this world that’s a little more equitable toward the people that are serving as opposed to the people that are served. We are trying to close that gap of inequality.
My last question for you—do you have any favorite music to listen to when you are in the dumpling zone?
Trina: One of my favorite things about Eastern European culture is the music. It’s just so celebratory, and it’s really strong love ballads. One of my favorite singers is a person from the Ukraine called Verka Serduchka. It’s something you might have to experience for yourself.
Jessica: It’s a real feast for your ears and your eyes.
Trina: Verka is my favorite. But also Svetlana Loboda.
Jessica: Trina has kind of really been reborn as this Eastern European grandmother. I don’t even know how this happened, but it really has been a beautiful transformation.
Make like team Dacha 46 in the kitchen with their Spotify playlist.
Feeling ready to make your own pelmeni? Book a Siberian dumpling Zoom class with London-based writer (and author of the modern Russian cookbook Salt & Time) Alissa Timoshkina. The class costs £28 (roughly $40), and takes place on July 3 from 2:30-4:30 GMT (that’s 10:30-12 EST). If you can’t make it but are still interested, buy a ticket anyway! You’ll get a recording post-class that you can work through in your own time.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
A special thank you to my Aunt Masha for her sage and thoughtful advice and consultation on this edition!