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 that defines us. Something so close to our heart, 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 better known Stateside by their Polish moniker, 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, you can only commit to that many Polish pierogi at a time. 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 appears to be 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).
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 few minutes 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
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 ⅔ – 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
For the Filling
- 2 pounds russet potatoes (about 6 medium potatoes), peeled and cut into ½” chunks
- Fine sea salt
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 medium onions, diced
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Unsalted butter, for serving
- Sour cream or unsweetened vegan yogurt, for serving
- Make the Dough: In a large bowl, stir together the egg, water, and salt until fully combined. Gradually mix in about 2 ⅔ cups of the flour and stir to combine into a shaggy dough. Turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough with the heels of your palms for about 5 minutes, until it is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticks to your hands, sprinkling on more flour as needed. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover loosely with a kitchen towel, and let it rest for 30 to 60 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cook the Potatoes: 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: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they’re dark brown and a bit 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. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring the potatoes to room temperature.
- Roll out the Dough: Cut the dough into 4 pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time (keep the remaining dough in the bowl covered with the towel), roll the dough between your palms 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. Make sure the varenyky are not touching – you do not want them to stick together.
- Boil the Varenyky: Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Boil the varenyky in batches – 6 to 10 at a time, depending on the size of your 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 may escape the dough.
- Using a small mesh strainer or slotted spoon, fish the varenyky out and place in a large bowl. Add a small pat of butter (or drizzle of oil) and gently toss to prevent the varenyky from sticking together. Continue cooking the remaining varenyky. At the end, add all the remaining fried onions to the bowl and toss to coat.
- Serve immediately, with sour cream or vegan yogurt. Leftover varenyky are great fried in a pan until crispy.
- Serving Size: 10 varenyky
- Calories: 450
- Fiber: 7.1 g
- Protein: 11.5 g
Keywords: ukrainian, varenyky, dumplings, potatoes, dough