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“Be Generous, Give Us Varenyky!”
Volodymyr SUPRUNENKO, an inveterate traveler and a great enthusiast of dishes of Ukrainian cuisine (in WU #1’2010 he spun the tale of Ukrainian borshch), presents his story of the Ukrainian varenyky — dumplings, Ukrainian style.
You don’t have to do any research or visit a soothsayer, to find out that varenyky is one of the traditional staple foods of Ukraine. Wherever you go in Ukraine, in the countryside in particular, you will surely find varenyky to be high on the everyday foods agenda. In fact, many people would find life drab and lacking in good quality if they don’t have their varenyky as often as they can.
Varenyky feature in folk tales, in sayings and riddles, like, for example, this one: An old woman asks her small grandson, “What is at? A small, plump, well-rounded creature, yummier inside than outside, took a plunge into the boiling water — and came out even better than it was?” And the grandson who is only learning to talk would immediately cry out, “It’s a varenyk!” When older children play games, they often use all sorts of counting-out rhymes. One of them runs like this, “Yenyky-benyky were eating varenyky…”
There are sayings which feature varenyky, sometimes obliquely, as well. Take for example, this one, expressing disapproval: “He is like a varenyk which is made of bad dough.”
It is not only Ukrainians who make dumplings stuffed with all sorts of eatables. Russian pelmeni, Uzbek manty, Georgian khinkali, Italian ravioli, Lithuanian koldunay, Argentinean empanadas all have fills of some sort. Some historians of culture are of the opinion that the Ukrainians must have borrowed the idea of their varenyky from some other peoples, may be Tartars or Turks. There is a Turkish dish, for example, which is called dyush-vara, and which does resemble Ukrainian varenyky — but it does not at all means that the dish of varenyky must have been necessarily borrowed. From time immemorial, Ukrainians used to grow grain and make all sorts of dishes from flour, and surely they, all by themselves, could have hit upon the idea of small pastry made by placing a bit of something deliciously eatable on a flat half of a piece of dough, folding the other half over on top, and sealing the edges — and then boiling it to make the dough and what’s inside edible.
Besides, even though many of these “stuffed dumplings” may resemble each other, Ukrainian varenyky are in a class of their own. The way the dough is made, the shape, the stuffing vary to make a difference.
Another name for varenyky in Ukraine is pyrohy, particularly if they are stuffed with soft, cottage cheese. The word “pyrohy” is used more in Halychyna than elsewhere.
And it is not only wheat flour that is used for making varenyky. If you happen not to have as little as a pennyweight of wheat flour, and unexpected guests arrive at your doorstep, dying to have varenyky, there is no need to despair — you can make varenyky with flour made from corn, barley, rye, buckwheat or any other grain that can produce flour. It would be advisable to make such dough with warm milk, and knead it well. In Zakarpattya, if you want to know, “terchany pyrohy” are made from graded potatoes rather than from flour.
And yet — in the opinion of the cognoscenti of varenyky, only wheat flour of the finest grind can provide the right kind of dough for varenyky. Your dough should be made with the use of cold water – best if it comes from a good well. Then in making varenyky you will have no problem with pinching the edges of the varenyky tight together in the process of making them. A pinch of baking soda and a bit of cooking oil may help to make your dough tender after boiling. Some varenyky makers believe that neither eggs nor salt are any good for making dough for varenyky — freshly curdled milk is particularly good for making dough with. Others have a different opinion in this matter.
The dough must be kneaded long and well to make it springy and yet soft, and not of too thick consistency — the consistency must make it possible to roll the dough thin — that’s how your varenyky will be likely to come out right. You can conduct a test to check whether your dough is of the right consistency — make a little dent by pressing your finger into it — when you remove the finger the dent should fill out fast.
Then leave your dough to “rest” for a little while — cover it with a piece of damp cloth — a half hour is enough time for the dough to come into its own.
Roll the dough smooth into a thin shape. Cutting pieces out of the dough can proceed in the following manner: first cut it into rather wide strips, then cut each strip into squares (you can cut round pieces out of the dough spread with the help of, say, a thin glass, turned upside down, or with any other handy instrument). A tea spoonful of the stuffing is placed into the center of each varenyk to be, the edges are carefully and thoroughly sealed over the fill by being pinched together. The way you pinch it depends on your dexterity, experience and esthetic considerations. Whatever way you do it, the seam must remain as thin as possible — and yet strong enough not to fall apart during boiling (the seam must be boiled soft and ready as well as the rest of the varenyk).
What goes into varenyky
The fill is the soul of the varenyk, and its skin must be resilient and strong enough to keep the stuffing inside until the moment the varenyk finds its way into your mouth. It’s the variety of fills that make Ukrainian varenyky different from all the rest of its kin elsewhere.
What is chosen for the stuffing depends on the season of the year, local traditions and personal tastes. Ethnographers and culture enthusiasts have discovered an amazing variety of stuffings used for varenyky in various parts of Ukraine. Among the more exotic ones mashed beans, dried pears (soaked in water and then mashed), poppy seeds, boiled buckwheat can be mentioned. And of course, a wide variety of berries, fresh and dried, provide excellent stuffings for varenyky. Varenyky is a natural, wholesome food — you till the land, you grow grain, you make flour from this grain, you go to the forest and collect berries — and you don’t depend on anybody else for your food!
Mashed potatoes into which fried onions are mixed is a popular stuffing for varenyky across Ukraine. Mushrooms, cabbage and cheese are nice additions to the mashed potatoes stuffings too.
Varenyky stuffed with cheese is something special again. It’s a great treat both for the young and the old. Here is a little story for you from not so distant past, generalized but very true all the same: A woman invites her old father to come down from his perch on the pich (a stove that combines the functions of a kitchen range and a heating device) and partake of dinner, “Come, father, have some milk. I have good pyrohy z syrom (varenyky with cheese) on the table too but I’m afraid you’re missing too many teeth to be able to chew them, even though they are so soft and would go down so smoothly!” And the old man begins to climb down from the pich, grunting and wheezing, “Don’t you tell me what I can or can’t chew. How can I miss out on varenyky with cheese? I’ll go slow — but eating slow only increases the relish! Yes, I’m not as good as I used to be in gobbling down varenyky and now I can hardly do more than fifty at one time.”
I’m not sure I’d be able to put away fifty varenyky with cheese at one sitting but I can tell you that varenyky stuffed with cheese which had eggs and sugar added into it, and then, when served, are lavishly buttered and thick sour cream heaped on top, is very high on my varenyky priority list. Really, once you start eating them, you stop only when you feel that you are going to burst at your seams.
Talking of stuffings for varenyky — do you know that it is probably easier to say what foods are not used for stuffings than to list those that can? All sorts of ground meat, liver and other meat products, with little pieces of hard pork fat added for good measure, on “the fat side”— and nettles, dill, and many other kinds of green things on “the lean side,” — the range is staggeringly wide.
Once Lent and Easter are over, and spring glides into summer, varenyky with sour cherries come to the top of the list. Anywhere where you find Ukrainians, be it beyond the Arctic circle in the darkness of winter, or at the equator in the heat of the blazing sun, you are sure to meet those who will tell you that they are dreaming to have varenyky with sour cherries as soon as the fate is good enough to give them that chance. In their night dreams they see their cherry gardens, ripe sour cherries hanging from the branches, and a huge dish in the center of the table filled with varenyky stuffed with cherries, and a thick layer of sour cream on top sprinkled with sugar — even writing this makes my mouth water! I imagine sinking my teeth into the soft side of a good-sized varenyk — and the sweet blood of stoneless cherries spurting out…
There is one hitch though — making varenyky with sour cherries is a rather time- and labor-consuming affair. First, you have to dry your cherries on a spread of cloth; then you have to remove the stones (a tricky thing, if you’ve never done it before); then you put your cherries into a bowl and sprinkle them liberally with sugar; then you wait for some time letting the cherries release the juice; then you strain the varenyky (save the juice for using it later), and stuff your varenyky with cherries. Mind you — the dough must be particularly carefully made, it must not be rolled too thin, and all the possible measures must be taken to make each varenyk strong enough to withstand boiling without losing the cherries or their juice that accumulates inside. Some varenyky makers smear eggs’ white over each varenyk before boiling — it fortifies the varenyk and prepares it for a plunge into the boiling water.
Practically all the edible varieties of berries and fruit are good for stuffing varenyky with. It is advisable to add yolks, butter and yeast into the dough for making varenyky which you intend to stuff with berries or fruit. Dried fruit and even jams can go into varenyky too.
Varenyky vary in size but not as much as they do in their stuffings. Here’s another folk story for you: three men at the table in a korchma (tavern) at the famous Sorochyntsi Fair discuss the merits of their wives and of the varenyky they make. One of the men shows his huge fist to indicate the size of varenyky his wife makes. They drink to it. The second man says, “Well, it sure is a good size, but listen to this. Once, I came home rather late and, you know, being not quite sober, I decided to climb to the hayloft in our barn, not to disturb my wife’s sleep. Next morning, she woke me up by hollering from below, ‘My dear hubby, I brought you varenyky for breakfast. Here, have one!’ And she skewered it onto the pitchfork to reach it out to me in the loft. And there was no room on the pitchfork’s teeth left for another varenyk!’ It looked and smelled so good! But before I even opened my mouth to start eating it, she hurled another varenyk at me and hit me right smack on the head! And that varenyk knocked me out!” They drink to that too. And the third man says, ‘These are good stories that you tell though hard to believe. All I can say that this past Easter we were in dire straits, and because of that circumstance my wife made only one varenyk — and though there are twelve people in our family, we could not finish it, and the leftovers from that varenyk made a good meal the next day too…’ A silence falls. ‘Let’s drink to that!’ And they do, nibbling at the small varenyky in front of them.”
Some of the varenyky are really tiny and are called vushky, that is “ears,” others can be truly of a giant size, but neither the small-sized nor the king-size varenyky are very popular — the standard, about two-inch wide, varenyky are the ones that are most widely made and eaten.
It is advisable to boil varenyky in salted water — and in ample quantities of it, to prevent their sticking together. Varenyky need a lot of room. But there is a way to cook varenyky without throwing them into the boiling water — you can steam them to readiness.
In the times of old, instead of strainers, big ladle-like “devices” made of wicker were used to fish the varenyky out from the boiling water. Once the varenyky, particularly when they are stuffed with berries, are removed from the water, they can be doused with cold water — it will prevent them from sticking one to the other. If you want to keep your varenyky warm, the bowl or strainer filled with them can be kept over a steam generating source. Cold varenyky can be warmed up on a frying pan, with a bit of water and butter added. Some varenyky lovers even like their varenyky being fried to the point of crispiness.
Varenyky like being handled with care — it’s best to use a wooden spoon in handling them. And the Ukrainian traditional glazed earthen brightly painted makitra-bowl is best to be used for placing them into when you serve them — such a bowl filled with varenyky is the highlight of any table. And on top of the merry heap of varenyky goes a lot of butter! There is a Ukrainian saying about a person who is well-to-do enough to lead a carefree life, which translates like this: “He’s rolling like a varenyk in butter.”
The variety of things that you enhance the flavor of your varenyky with is almost as wide as the stuffings — chopped parsley, dill, small pieces of fried hard port fat, chopped and fried onions, garlic to name just the most popular dressings. All sorts of condiments and garnishes help to reveal their flavor in full — they say that without a dressing varenyky are like a church without a cross above it — but sour cream is the queen of them all.
Varenyky on holidays
Varenyky is a traditional Ukrainian staple food and thus can be found at any meal, but on holidays and on religious feasts varenyky become a special treat. Their stuffings will vary depending on the season and on whether they are made during a lean time, like Lent, or the time of celebrations, like the New Year’s and Christmas. Children’s Christmas kolyadky (carols) include these words, “Shchedryk, vedryk… dayte varenyk,” that is, children ask, as they go from house on a trick-or-treat mission, to be generous and be given a varenyk! On Christmas Eve dinner, one of the twelve dishes that tradition required to be put on the table, was varenyky. On some other feasts, the number of varenyky in the bowl was to be forty.
Maslyana (Mardi gras) season sees varenyky with cheese on every table in the countryside. Spring and summer call for varenyky with berries and fruit. For big holidays and special occasions varenyky in rural Ukraine are made not individually in every home, but in a collective effort of several people involved — some bring flour, others the stuffings, and then the varenyky thus made are eaten “collectively” as well.
Certain occasions, like the birth of a child, required varenyky as a dish of a magic or symbolic meaning. “May this child be plump and round and smooth like a varenyk,” was one of the formulas recited when the dish of varenyky was handed to a woman with the newly born child. And a wedding party in the countryside is hardly imaginable without all sorts of varenyky. Varenyky were also used to decorate the vesilny karavay — the wedding cake. In the Land of Hutsulshchyna, some of the varenyky that were to be given to the parents of the bride by the groom’s mother, were stuffed with clay, sand and other inedibles — a strange tradition but causing a lot of merriment.
Also in Hutsulshchyna, at the wakes for the dead, varenyky with cheese featured as a dish that should help the deceased to find his or her way in the other world.
But it would be wrong to wrap this story up on a sad note of death. Life goes on, seasons change, holidays and feasts are celebrated, and then joy and fun are the order of the day. And varenyky add their cheerful touch to any festivity.
Varenyky with potatoes
• Wheat flour — 5 cups
• Cold water, milk or whey — 1 cup
• Eggs — 2
• Potato — 1 kg
• Onions — 3
• Vegetable oil — 4 tablespoons
• Black pepper, salt
Sieve the flour, make a hollow in the center and pour in the whisked eggs and cold water, milk or whey, stirring carefully. The liquid must be cold, otherwise the dough will be too stiff. If the dough is runny, add another tablespoon of flour. If the dough is too stiff, pat it with hands dipped in water, cover with a towel and leave to rest. In 10–15 minutes knead the dough.
To make the filling, cook the potato in boiling water until tender, mash and season with salt and pepper. Chop the onion and fry in the oil. Fold the onion into the potato and stir well until the filling is smooth.
Divide the dough into portions and roll out round pastry shapes the size of a cookie. Place the filling in the centre, fold the dough over the filling and make a crease in it. Cook varenyky in batches in boiling salted water. Do not overcook them; otherwise the dough will be too thick. After the water has been brought to the boil, leave varenyky to simmer for six or seven minutes. When varenyky have emerged on the surface, remove one and see if it is done.
Place varenyky in a deep bowl and sprinkle with the onion, chopped and fried in vegetable oil. Alternatively, serve them drizzled with melted butter, sour cream or ryazhanka.
Varenyky with cottage cheese
• Wheat flour — 5 cups
• Water — 1 cup
• Cottage cheese — 1 kg
• Butter, sugar, honey or sour cream
Mix in a bowl the cottage cheese and eggs, season slightly with salt, add raisins and stir well until the filling is smooth.
Prepare dough, form varenyky and cook them as in the previous recipe.
Place varenyky in a deep bowl. Add butter and sugar. Alternatively, serve them with honey, sweetened sour cream or cream.
Varenyky with sour cherries
• Flour — 5 cups
• Eggs — 2
• Water — 1 cup
• Sour cherries with stones removed — 5 cups
• Sugar — 1/2 cup
Prepare the dough, roll it thin, cut out round shapes with the edge of the overturned glass; place a couple of cherries on each peace, bring together the edges and pinch them tight. Bring water to a boil, add salt and boil until the varenyky come to the surface. Remove the varenyky carefully so as not to damage them (best to do it with a small strainer). While they are hot, sprinkle with sugar, add some cherry juice. Serve with sour cream or thick yogurt.
Photos and recipes are from
the book Ukrainian Traditional Cuisine
published by Baltia-Druk Publishers www.baltia.com.ua