Cooking brings together families and friends, communities and religious and ethnic groups. The foods they share reflect tradition, the recipes so practiced they become unconscious. This is the first in an occasional series that looks at the specialties perfected by some of the cooks in our community.

The pirogi pinchers are waiting.

Seated, poised, ready to create, the pinchers may be the superstars of the operation in the community room behind St. Mark Orthodox Church in Bethesda. Before their work is done, 12,000 perfectly sculpted, finely pinched, cheese-filled pockets of dough must be made and packed in plastic bags for the church's annual three-day bazaar, which begins Friday.

The balls of filling were made the night before; they have been distributed on trays. Now runners arrive from the kitchen with more trays, these covered with dough circles. The pinchers, chosen for their deft hands, take the pale orange balls of filling, press them into the circles of dough, then expertly fold the dough in half, sealing the edges. Many of the pinchers are so adept, they leave a signature crimp.

Helen Kuchta, wife of the pastor, the Rev. John Kuchta, has her own mark, an edge around the filled semicircle made from a move that is a pinch and pull at the same time. "Sometimes, we can stand and watch the pirogi being cooked and know just which ones we made," she says. Other pinchers nod in agreement.

Pirogi (pronounced "pi ROW gee" and sometimes called piroghi, pierogi or piroshki) are small pies filled with meat, cheese, fish or vegetables in countless combinations, a sweet or savory staple of Slavic cooking. To meet the quota for the bazaar it will take 25 lumps of dough the size of carry-on suitcases, 1,200 hours, 120 pairs of hands and two months' time. Along the way, there are lots of flour-covered hands, faces and fannies; egos checked at the door (oh, maybe a few egos bruised); some good-natured complaining; lively conversation. But mostly the cooks are bound by fellowship, 25 years of tradition and a lot of hard work.

The first challenge of the pirogi-makers was to agree on a recipe for the filling. St. Mark is a pan-orthodox church, whose 200 members come from many backgrounds and many orthodox traditions--Greek, Slavic and Middle Eastern among them. So the congregation first held taste tests. The filling had to be acceptable to all the cooks in the congregation and a likely best-seller at the bazaar.

Fill them with potatoes, fill them with meat or fill them with cabbage? "People had their family favorites, their specialties, their traditions," recalls Jerry Marti, past president of the parish council, who helps to organize the pirogi-making. The consensus was reached: potato, onion and cheddar cheese filling.

Looking back, that was the easy part. The next step, said Marti: "You have to get the right people in the right roles." Artful organizers diplomatically matched talents to tasks, making sure that too many cooks did not spoil the broth.

For 25 years, the members of the congregation have hosted their annual bazaar and sold Slavic specialties made from scratch: borscht, chicken Kiev, stuffed cabbage (halupki), spanakopita (spinach pie), among others. Most of the cooking is done in the kitchen and workroom behind the River Road church. But they make more pirogi than any other specialty, and to do that requires the coordination and focus of half the congregation.

Technically, perhaps, a pirogi is "made" when the pincher takes the simple ball of filling, presses it inside the simple circle of dough and seals it shut. But in fact so many steps precede that moment of creation and so many steps follow it, that the small and compact pocket is actually the end result of a multistage group effort.

To produce the 12,000 simple circles and the 12,000 simple balls, a chain of labor was organized. Before Labor Day, the sour cream dough was made in bulk and frozen in 10-pound tubs. And in the first week of September the pirogi "workshops" began. Early on these days Marti, Tina Burpee and other organizers haul out and begin to defrost the dough and set up the assembly line so the workers can be ready to produce the moment services end.

The dough cutters are the brawn of the operation. On most workshop mornings Coy Williamson, current president of the parish council, and Gene Jacobsen reknead the cold thawed dough--their forearms aching after a few hours from the workout--then expertly knife off a uniform chunk. They hand off to Ted Horoschak, who mans the dough roller, a piece of heavy equipment that flattens the ball. First, with the roller on a wide setting, he turns the chunk into a thick oval. Then, narrowing the setting, he pushes it through again and cranks. Out comes a long and silky sheet.

Guided gently off the rollers, the fragile scarf of dough is lined up on a worktable in front of Greg Rubis, who holds two plastic wide-brimmed champagne glasses. The pirogi-makers have learned over the years that these inverted glasses make the perfect cut, a circle of just the right size. And during the years, many in the parish have developed their special roles in the pirogi process. Rubis, ambidextrous out of necessity for this job, hovers above the dough, winds up, lands and cuts with both hands at the same time, leaving only a few small scraps between the circles .

A crew moves in to pick up the circles and lay them out on plastic trays, then runners such as Karen Nichols take them from the kitchen to the long tables in the work area. Nichols never sits and never cooks and is content with her role. "I'm a Girl Scout leader; I'm used to it." Yet she like the others is key.

Pinchers are inevitably ahead of the pace and call politely but firmly: "More circles." Back come the runners with the flat circles from the kitchen, putting down fresh trays and picking up filled pirogi.

Sometimes the pinchers are unhappy with the circles that arrive; they are too thick and the pirogi look lumpy; they are too thin, and the stuffing pops through. "I tell them to go ahead and complain," says Jerry Marti, "but keep pinching."

When the completed pirogi go back to the kitchen, they become the responsibility of Darlene Marti, Jerry's wife, who stands resolutely over huge stockpots of boiling water. Stirring constantly to keep the dumplings from sticking to the bottom, she keeps 12 to 18 pirogi cooking in each of four pots for three minutes, constantly scooping out those that rise to the top and putting them instantly in the first of many ice baths to bring down the temperature and stop the cooking process.

Additional troops pick up the icing process, about nine baths in all, working them down the line. The members of the next squad, with hands gloved in plastic, pick up the cooled pirogi and roll the slipping and sliding dumplings in a bowl of vegetable oil; it will keep them from sticking together once they are bagged by the dozen.

Next stop: the same freezer from which emerged the enormous blocks of dough early in the morning, the blocks of dough now transformed into tender cheese-filled pockets.

Then when all are bagged and put away, cleanup begins.

But the makers of the 12,000 pirogi are still not done. Friday, when the bazaar begins, some of the dumplings will stay in the freezer to be sold by the dozen. Others will come out to be sauteed in butter with onions, then topped with sour cream. By Sunday, if tradition maintains, all 12,000 will be gone, devoured, savored or stored away for a hearty meal on a cold winter night. Then, and only then, will the work be done of the kneaders, cutters, flatteners, circlemakers, runners, pinchers, parboilers, icers, oilers, freezers, cookers. The pinchers, they left their mark. But for the success of the bazaar, no single dumpling had a single creator.

St. Mark Orthodox Church Ethnic Food Festival and Bazaar, 7124 River Rd., Bethesda; call 301-229-6300.

Bazaar hours: Friday, noon to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Russian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern foods are featured; pirogi are 50 cents each or $4.50 per dozen.

Pirogi for 100

Pirogi With Potato and Cheese Filling

(Makes about 100 piroghi)

Pirogi (also spelled piroghi and several other ways) can be served as an appetizer or a side dish. If you make them a little larger, you can serve several as an entree. Pirogis also can be baked or deep-fat fried, but perhaps the most common preparation is simply tossing them in a pan of onions sauteed in butter and frying them until crisp and golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Top with a dollop of sour cream.

This recipe from Tina Burpee appears in "A Faithful Feast," a community cookbook compiled by the members of St. Mark Orthodox Church in Bethesda.

For the filling:

5 pounds potatoes, peeled

1 1/2 pounds cheddar cheese, grated

2 medium onions, minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the dough:

6 1/2 to 7 cups flour, plus additional for working the dough

3 eggs

1 cup sour cream

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cups water

For the filling:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the potatoes and simmer until tender when pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the cheese and onions.

Drain the potatoes, add them to the bowl and, using a wooden spoon, quickly mash the potatoes into the mixture, combining them thoroughly with the cheese and onions. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and set aside for a few minutes to melt the cheese.

For the dough:

Place 6 1/2 cups of the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center of the flour. Place the eggs, sour cream and salt in the well and then gradually work the flour into rest of the ingredients, adding the water a little bit at a time until a dough forms. If the dough seems too sticky, you can add up to additional 1/2 cup of flour.

On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to 1/8 inch thick. Cut the dough into 3-inch circles, keeping the cuts close together to utilize as much of the dough as possible. Place the circles separately on a tray or work surface; don't overlap.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

To form the pirogis: Place 1 teaspoon of the filling near the middle of each circle. Fold each pirogi in half and pinch the edges together to seal. (You may wrap the pirogis tightly and refrigerate them for up to 3 days or freeze them for as long as 2 months.)

Drop several pirogi in the boiling water at a time and simmer until they rise to the top of the water. Transfer to a colander to drain.

To finish the pirogis you can saute them in butter with onions over medium-high heat, bake them in a 350-degree oven until they puff slightly, about 5 minutes, or deep-fry them in oil.

Per pirogi: 78 calories, 3 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 87 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber