Wrapped in Tradition

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When Marie Hasper – my grandma – was a little girl, she used to sneak out of bed at night, on those special occasions when her mother made beet rolls, and sneak one… or two, or sometimes three… to nibble on in bed. Sometimes she was egged on by her older sister, Rex, and her friend Anne, when Anne would spend the night.

“Go on – go get me one,” they’d plead with my grandma, the youngest in her family of seven kids. Too comfortable to get out of bed themselves to enjoy their late night snack, Rex would use her seniority and Anne her guest status to prod my grandma into doing the dirty work. Not that she had any complaints about it.

Beet rolls – or pigs in a blanket, as they called them – are small chunks of raised bread dough wrapped in beet leaves and baked with lavish amounts of sour cream.

It was the Great Depression, when money was tight and luxuries scarce – especially in small town Saskatchewan, where my grandma grew up. Nothing was thrown away, and all sorts of innovative uses were found for things that today might hit the trash or compost.

“People who never lived through the Depression don’t know what tough times were,” she said, as we made up a batch together. “We had to find ways to use everything. You were lucky if you had something to eat.”

I’d never heard of beet rolls until I was pretty close to adulthood. A relic of her childhood, they weren’t part of my grandma’s grown-up kitchen repertoire. Several year ago, however, when her brother George was visiting from out of town, my grandma thought it would be fun to try and make this old Depression treat – for sentimental reasons. Since neither her mother nor her grandmother (who also made them) never taught her how, she created her own recipe, based on memory.

The beet leaves she picked from her garden, and the bread dough she made – just like she remembered her mother doing. Not having her own cow, like her family did way back when, she bought the sour cream, however.

They were a flop, she had decided, as she passed them off to her brother on his way out of town, to drop off at Rex’s house for her dog. Not at all like she remembered. By the time George had driven the 15 or so blocks to Rex’s house, he had devoured the small pot full.

Beet rolls are now an institution in our family. My grandma no longer favours them and calls every batch a flop, but every summer she pumps out batch after batch for her own now-grown children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, who gobble them down with great relish, looking around for more.

“I don’t know why they like them so much,” she says, in mock confusion. “Why would people eat that old Depression food?”

A quick search on Google showed me that beet rolls are actually a Ukrainian food (although my grandma thinks her grandma brought her recipe from Austria) and are also made with rice as a filling.

Here’s how my grandma makes her beet rolls:

Raised white bread dough (make your own or buy it ready made)
Beet leaves (you’ll need about 50 for one pan)
Sour cream
Onion powder
Margarine or butter
Salt and pepper

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Grease your pan with margarine or butter. Cut off a small hunk of dough and wrap with a beet leaf. Place in the pan. Place the rolls tightly together.

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After you’ve laid the first layer, spread a few “small specks” (says my grandma) of margarine or butter here and there, and then slather with sour cream. Sprinkle a generous amount of onion powder over that, then salt and pepper to taste, followed by dill.

Lay the next layer on top.

Let sit for about about 40 minutes, or until the bread dough almost doubles in size.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour (or until bread is baked and getting golden on top).

Serve with a side of sour cream for dipping.

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