My relationship with Karelian pies: Connecting with my Finnish heritage

Karelian pies are few and far between in the United States. When I do get to eat them, I’m reminded of my favorite parts of my Finnish heritage — time, love and dedication.


Susan Behrends Valenzuela

(Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Anja Westhues, Contributing Writer

Living in New York City, I have global cuisine readily at my fingertips at all times. But one thing lacking from the New York food scene is the Karelian pie, or karjalanpiirakka, a small, savory Finnish pie that I grew up eating. Once a year, my dad makes a huge batch of them for my family, and I get to relive that childhood joy. 

For a large portion of my childhood, I lived in Helsinki, Finland. Although I moved to the United States when I was 6 years old, I often think about the time I spent in Finland as a child — playing outside in reflective vests to account for early sunsets, and eating Karelian pies after school.

Karelian pies are a staple in Finland. They’re widely available in grocery stores and bakeries, and are often baked at home. They consist of a thin rye dough and a soft filling — usually a white rice milk porridge, potato or carrot and rice combination. The rye dough crust is thin and crispy, while the fillings are soft and melt in your mouth. They can be served either hot or cold, and are often topped with egg butter, which is exactly what it sounds like — hard boiled eggs mashed together with butter and salt. I’m more of a Karelian pie purist myself, but to each their own.

I often wondered where Karelian pies got their name when I was younger — I wasn’t aware of any city named Karelia, at least anywhere near where I lived. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned that the pies get their name from a former Finnish region, Karelia, which has been split between Finland and Russia since World War II. During the war, more than 400,000 Finns fled Karelia for mainland Finland, bringing their culinary culture with them.  

When my dad makes Karelian pies, he makes his own variation that uses sweet potato as filling, which has become my favorite variety. I’ve been hard pressed to find them anywhere in the United States — not even in New York City, one of the culinary capitals of the world. 

I have a feeling this is due to the same reason my dad only makes them once a year — their construction is very time consuming. It requires preparation of all the fillings, enough time for the fillings to cool, and substantial labor to roll out the rye dough until it is thin, but still thick enough to hold a filling. For this reason, I view Karelian pies as a symbol of love, family and dedication. Whenever I get the chance to eat them, I know I am somewhere safe — back in Finland visiting my grandmother or in the comfort of my childhood home, 20 minutes outside of Boston.

While part of me hopes that others will get to enjoy one of my favorite delicacies, I also selfishly enjoy the fact that Karelian pies and their associations are all mine, at least for now. But I don’t gatekeep — if you want to enjoy them in your own home, here’s my dad’s recipe:


Sweet potato Karelian pies

Prep time: Approximately one hour

Cook time: 15 minutes

Difficulty level: Not at all difficult, just tedious.




Rice filling

•  1 cup uncooked white rice, not precooked or instant

•  1 teaspoon salt

•  6 cups milk

•  2 tablespoons butter

Potato filling

•  2 cups cooked potatoes

•  2 tablespoons butter

•  ¼ cup hot milk

•  Salt to taste

Sweet potato filling

•  2 cups cooked sweet potatoes

•  2 tablespoons butter


•  1 cup water

•  1 teaspoon salt

•  2 tablespoons melted butter or oil

•  1 ½ cups white flour

•  1 ½ cups rye flour


Rice Filling

Combine the rice, salt and milk in a double boiler. Cook over boiling water, stirring occasionally for two hours or until the milk is absorbed and the rice is creamy. Stir in the butter, then cool.

Sweet Potato Filling

Roast two to three sweet potatoes until caramelized. Peel them, then mash with the butter. Let cool.

Potato Filling 

Roast two to three potatoes. Peel, then whip the potatoes with milk, butter and salt until smooth and fluffy. You want these to be fluffy with peaks as stiff as whipped cream. Let cool.


Crust Instructions

1.  Preheat the oven to 450 F. 

2.  To make the crust, combine the water, salt, and butter or oil in a large bowl.

3.  Stir in the white flour, beating until smooth.

4.  Follow with the rye flour, once again mixing until everything is integrated.

5.  Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead until smooth, about two to three minutes. 

6.  Shape the dough into a roll that’s about 2 inches in diameter, and divide into 12 equal portions and dust with flour.

7.  Pat each into a small round cake, then roll out into a circle about 6 to 8 inches in diameter, keeping it as round as possible.

8.  Take 3-4 tablespoons of your filling of choice, fold two sides of the dough onto the filling to form an oval shape leaving an inch-wide strip of the filling exposed. 

9.  Crimp the edges of the dough. 

10.  Prepare a mixture of milk and melted butter in a small bowl. Set aside.

11.  Place the pies in a hot oven for 15 minutes or until lightly browned, basting twice during the baking with a light milk-and-butter mixture. Baste them one more time after you remove them from the oven.

12.  Cover the pies, while they are still warm, with a clean towel to soften the crusts (or wrap the whole batch in foil.)

13.  Serve hot or cold.

Contact Anja Westhues at [email protected].