From the Motherland is a series in which I pay homage to my Ukrainian heritage and share my favorite childhood recipes. This traditional Ukrainian varenyky recipe is the perfect weekend project to tackle this winter.
For each of us, there is one dish out there that defines us. Something so close to our heart, that it actually feels like it’s in our blood. It’s symbolic of childhood, our family, our ancestors, our geography. It’s a constant of our past, present, and future. Something that when we eat it, has the effect of a time machine.
For me, it’s this varenyky recipe.
Varenyky (pronounced vah-rEH-nee-key) are Ukrainian stuffed dumplings – similar to their Polish cousin, pierogi. Potato varenyky are the most traditional type and they are one of the simplest recipes I know. They call for just a handful of ingredients that everyone, no matter how limited in means, has access to: an egg, flour, potatoes, and onions.
Since I was a child and up until today (and way beyond, I suspect), this has been my favorite food. Sure, my love for pizza and sourdough may know no bounds, but nothing gives me the same warm fuzzy feeling that varenyky do.
Shaping varenyky with my mom in our Odessa kitchen is one of my earliest memories. She would expertly mix the dough, portion it, roll it out, and then hand me the little circles to fill with the oniony potato mash. Her varenyky turned out perfectly uniform each time – each plump varenik filled with just the right amount of potato. Mine, on the other hand, were lopsided and sad-looking, and I could never quite manage to use the right amount of filling (I was, like, 5 years old at the time) but my mom let me practice anyway.
Let’s talk fillings: there are a handful of traditional varenyky fillings aside from potato (my favorite). On the savory side, we have meat, sauteed cabbage, and mushrooms. As for sweet fillings – when making breakfast or dessert varenyky – you can do sour cherries or sweetened farmers cheese (quark).
There are a couple of differences between Ukrainian varenyky and Polish pierogi. Varenyky dough is typically a bit thinner and less dense than that of pierogi. Pierogi also tend to be bigger than varenyky, which means they can accommodate more filling. Because of these differences, during a typical Polish feast, you can only eat three, maybe four, pierogi, but since varenyky tend to be smaller and lighter, you can eat 10, 15, or even 20 in one sitting.
Another major difference between the two is sour cream. Ukrainians love, love, love sour cream and put it on absolutely everything. We would never eat varenyky without sour cream and if for some reason we didn’t have any and there was a zombie apocolypse and we couldn’t make it to the store, we wouldn’t even bother making varenyky.
Some Polish people/restaurants do serve sour cream alongside their pierogi but it’s strictly optional. As far as I’m concerned, this is heresy. (If dairy is a concern for you, you can serve varenyky with unsweetened vegan yogurt instead).
This varenyky recipe is something I’ve wanted to share for many years but was afraid. I’d always been intimidated by making any kind of dough and was afraid I couldn’t do my favorite food justice. But ever since I dove into the deep end and started making sourdough, any other kind of dough – especially this yeast-less one – seems like a breeze.
Another reason I’m sharing this recipe now is that we’re entering the thick of winter – aka hibernation season. The winters here is Syracuse are so harsh that we tend to spend our weekends cooped up at home, which is the perfect opportunity to give big cooking projects a go.
Varenyky are by no means weeknight-friendly. Although they are technically simple to make, they do require a sizable time investment and some patience. So this winter – maybe on Christmas morning or New Year’s Day! – gather your mom, kids, boyfriend, or neighbors, and make varenyky together. With extra pairs of hands, the process will go exponentially faster.
If you’re investing the time to make this varenyky recipe from scratch (especially if you have a trusty sous chef or two at your disposal), you might as well double the recipe because varenyky freeze beautifully. After step 6 (below), place your tray of freshly shaped varenyky into the freezer. When they are completely frozen (after at least a couple of hours or overnight), transfer the varenyky to an airtight bag/container and keep for up to 6 months. Keep in mind that frozen varenyky take a bit longer to cook than fresh.Print
This Ukrainian varenyky recipe with traditional potato filling calls for just a handful of ingredients. It makes for the perfect weekend kitchen project. (This dough recipe is adapted from Mamushka by Olia Hercules [Weldon Owen, 2015])
For the Dough
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- ⅔ cup water (5 ounces)
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 ⅔ – 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
For the Filling
- 2 pounds russet potatoes (about 4 large potatoes), peeled and cut into ½” chunks
- Fine sea salt
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 2 medium onions, diced
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Unsweetened vegan yogurt or sour cream, to serve
- Make the Dough: In a large bowl, stir together the egg, water, and salt until fully combined. Gradually add about 2 ⅔ cups of the flour and stir to combine into a shaggy dough. Using your hands, gather the dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough with the heels of your palms until it is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticks to your hands, sprinkling on more flour as needed, about 5 minutes. Place the dough back in the bowl, loosely cover with a kitchen towel, and let it rest for 30 to 60 minutes.
- Cook the Potatoes: Meanwhile, place the potatoes in a medium pot with enough water to cover by about 2 inches and a teaspoon of salt. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer with the lid ajar until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork, about 15 minutes.
- Cook the Onions: Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they’re dark brown and crispy, about 15 minutes. Set the skillet aside.
- Finish the Filling: Reserve 1/3 cup of the potato cooking water, drain the potatoes, and return them to the pot. Mash until smooth and stir in the reserved cooking water and a third of the fried onions with their oil. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Let the potatoes cool to room temperature. (To cool the potatoes faster, transfer them to a shallow dish or baking sheet).
- Roll out the Dough: Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time (keep the remaining dough in the bowl covered with the towel), using your hands, roll the dough into a thin log about 10 inches long and 1 inch thick. On a floured surface, cut the log into approximately 12 1-inch pieces (these should resemble gnocchi). Using a rolling pin dusted with flour, roll each piece into an approximately 3-inch circle; if the dough is sticking to the surface or rolling pin, dust it with more flour.
- Fill the Dough: Working with 1 circle of dough at a time, place a heaping teaspoon of the potato filling into the center. Gather the dough into a half-moon shape around the filling and pinch the top closed, then pinch both edges closed. Place the shaped varenik on a well-floured board or tray and continue filling the rest of the dough.
- Boil the Varenyky: Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Boil the varenyky in batches – you don’t want to overcrowd the pot. Cook them for 2 to 3 minutes – they are done when they’ve floated to the surface, the water returns to a simmer, and they’ve been simmering for about 30 seconds. Do not overcook, as the filling will escape the dough.
- Serve: Immediately after boiling, toss the varenyky with a bit of olive oil (See Note) and the remaining fried onions. Serve hot, with vegan yogurt or sour cream. Leftover varenyky are great reheated in a pan until crispy.
If dairy is not a concern for you, toss the varenyky in the more traditional butter instead of olive oil in step 8.
- Serving Size: 10 varenyky
- Calories: 450
- Fiber: 7.1 g
- Protein: 11.5 g
Keywords: ukrainian, varenyky, dumplings, potatoes, dough