WOOSTER — Katie Balas had already been accepted at a culinary school in Oregon when life intervened.
The Maple Heights native had grown up in Seven Hills, where ethnic food is second nature in many kitchens. And she was just a stone's throw from the iconic Parma Pierogies.
But when her husband accepted a job offer from the Wooster Fire Department, Balas put her culinary dreams on hold, at least the retail version. Instead, her kitchen opened to family and friends. “We'd have these elaborate dinner parties,” she said. “I love feeding people and making people happy.”
But over time, her passion for culinary art shifted to art of a more visual nature. Balas became known locally and regionally for her acrylics and glazes. And marketing her art meant a lot of time of the road, going to shows, appearing in galleries.
And again, life intervened.
The Balases welcomed three children and as they grew, so, too, did the number of activities they became involved in. And, Balas said, many of those activities happened over weekends, which also is prime art show time. Full of creativity that could not be stifled, Balas traded her studio (at least for the time being) for her kitchen and went back to what she has always loved, cooking.
But now, she's doing it not only for family and friends, but for customers and a growing fan base she has developed at Local Roots Market & Cafe on South Walnut Street in downtown Wooster.
Balas is “The Pierogi People,” a brand sold at the markets in both Wooster and Ashland. At the cafe, the first day of the work week has become Pierogi Monday.
She works on a simple, personal belief: “If you're getting (pierogi from the frozen food section), you're not getting real pierogi.”
Balas knows of what she speaks. A product of Hungarian-German ancestry, she said, “I grew up with this food. This is what my grandparents made.”
She'd often made pierogies in the past and often shared with others. “I had so many ideas,” she said. “But only so much space.”
The commercial kitchen at Local Roots solved that problem. Balas now makes pierogies in a three-day process. Tuesday is dough day and the dough, Balas said, is the secret to a good pierogi.
She's experimented and refined and believes she has come up with just the right recipe. “It's good,” she said, “It's like, really good. If you don't have a good dough recipe, it doesn't matter what you put in there.”
But it's a secret, so expect no further detail.
Balas does offer this by way of disclosure: “With my recipe, I'm able to get a paper-thin dough, so you're getting mostly filling,” she said.
And oh, the fillings.
Balas started with three very basic pierogi: potato, potato and cheese, and cabbage and potato. And they sold well, both in the market and at the cafe. But there are no rules when it comes to pierogi filling, so Balas got creative.
She offered chicken enchilada and spinach artichoke pierogi, then a Mediterranean version and a seafood version and a Philly steak and cheese pierogi. And for customers with a bit of a sweet tooth, there are apple pie pierogi and lemon pierogi.
And just recently, Balas has started to offer breakfast pierogi — a mashed/hash brown potato and scrambled egg base mixed with bacon and cheddar cheese or maple sausage and swiss cheese or spinach and feta cheese.
There is no end to the possibilities, said Balas, who often uses produce sold at Local Roots or products offered by the other cafe chefs. But she keeps the process fairly simple, using just a stand mixer and a dough roller attachment. And sometimes, she said, one of her three teenage children will come into help.
How much time she spends in the kitchen depends on demand. Easter is particularly busy and, of course, Pierogi Monday, when she pairs a pierogi with a side — maybe a salad or some fresh fried zucchini — for both dine-in and take-out.
The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Visitors to Wooster from Poland, from Germany and from Hungary have stopped by the cafe for a taste. “They've told me my pierogi are the best they've ever had,” Balas said. “That makes me feel good. I know I'm doing something right.”
How far can pierogi take her?
“I don't know what this is going to do,” Balas said. There's been talk of a food truck. She's already catered a few events. She could end up being in the kitchen 18 hours a day, but she doubts that. Her children are all in high school; her husband will retire in five years.
But for now, she'll keep at it, rolling the dough, making the filling and hoping every batch of pierogi turns out as good as the last. “I do get a lot of ugly pierogi,” Balas said, but those are more than welcome at home, because appearances are deceiving. “You know,” she said, “they all taste the same.”
— Reporter Tami Mosser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-287-1655.