Food Memories: Varenyky (AKA Pirogi)

Atop the dry sink in our dining room is one of my favorite photographs. It is my maternal grandmother  and grandfather’s wedding photo from 1928 or 1929. All of the grandchildren called them “Babu” and “Didu,” which were shortened versions of the Ukrainian words for grandmother and grandfather “babusya” and “didus”

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Babu and Didu in the late 1920s.  They called my grandfather “Big John”–look at the size of his hands for god’s sake. After a stint in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Detroit in the early 1920s he spent the bulk of his career working at the Sun Oil refinery in Marcus Hook, PA. On the weekends he tended bar at the Ukrainian Club in Chester, PA.

My grandparent’s were Ukrainian.  Babu was born in Galicia (an area that straddled the border region between modern day Poland and Ukraine) as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Didu was born in the U.S. to parents who were also ethnic Ukrainians from Galicia; as a boy his family returned to what is now Ukraine but shortly thereafter returned to the U.S.  Babu and Didu spoke Ukrainian, attended the Ukrainian Catholic church in Chester, PA, and they ate Ukrainian food.  I was very close to them both and there are few people I respect or admire more. They exemplified the American immigrant experience, and their hard work, self sacrifice, and thrift laid the foundation for their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ success.   They were also deeply involved in their church and community.  Babu died in 1992, and Didu died just a few years later.  I absolutely adored them and all these years later I still think about them frequently.

Apart from the virtues and values they passed along, I also learned from Babu how to make varenyky (know to many people as the pirogi). Foods from our childhood are often filled with great memories.  Proust puts it better than I ever could:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” —Swann’s Way

That is the inextricable link between food and memory.  So when our daughter Elsie had a world cultures themed meeting for her Girl Scout troop I took a trip down memory lane and made some varenyky.  Memories for me, and a chance for her to share her Ukrainian heritage with her fellow scouts.

It is a simple dish; at their most basic, varenyky is just potato filling wrapped in  pasta dough, sort of like an Eastern European ravioli.  There are several variations on the filling including sauerkraut, mushrooms, and fruit filling.  I opted to make an North American adaptation of the original Ukrainian varenyky using a filling of potato and cheddar (though I believe Babu used American cheese in hers).  I had forgotten how much work they were, but I was helped along by three prized possessions: I have the bowl, rolling pin, and biscuit cutter Babu used and that I would have used as a kid. I’m not sure how old they are, but I’m guessing they date to the 1930s.

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It appears that at some point the handle on Babu’s biscuit cutter came off or broke off.  Ever thrifty, Didu repaired it with a bit of metal and a couple of screws rather than spend what at the time was probably 25¢ for a new one.  Didu certainly lived by the mantra “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  He was a spirited man. He fixed or built almost everything himself; I remember him building his own electric lawnmower from a discarded mower deck and a washing machine motor.  He never wasted and rarely threw things away.  He was green before people knew what that was.

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Not many people other than Didu would spend the effort in repairing an inexpensive biscuit cutter.

The Filling

You always make the filling first.  In fact, I make it the day before so it has ample time to cool in the refrigerator before use.  There are many variations on the filling, but here is a basic one to get you started.

1 small onion

1 tablespoon butter

2 1/2 cups cold mashed potatoes (I use Yukon gold)

1 cup shredded cheddar, farmer, or American cheese

Salt and black pepper

Saute the onion in the butter for 5 to 10 minutes until soft and translucent.  Add the onion to the mashed potato and allow to cool.  Stir in the cheese and season with salt and pepper.  Cover and chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or, ideally, overnight.  If you have some leftover sauerkraut from your winter provisioning, chill some of that and use it in place of the potato filling on a couple, just to try it out.

The Dough

The dough is also a relatively simple affair.

2 cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

2 extra large egg yolks, beaten

1 tablespoon melted butter

You can use a mixer or food processor to make the dough, or you can mix by hand which is what I do.  Combine the salt and flour in a bowl or in your mixer or food processor.

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To the mixture add the egg yolks and 7 to 8 tablespoons of cool water a few tablespoons at a time.  To do it by hand I make a well in the middle of the flour where I start by adding the yolks and 3 or 4 tablespoons of water.  I then gather the flour to the center and begin mixing, adding more water as needed until the dough comes together and I have the consistency I want.  If you are using a mixer or food processor, start by adding the egg while the machine is running then slowly add water until the dough binds around the paddle, hook, or blade.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.  Place the dough in a bowl and cover with a towel.  Allow to rest for 20 minutes.

Making the varenyky

Before you start rolling out the dough, put a large pot of salted water on the stove and turn it on high heat so that it will come to a boil as you are assembling your varenyky.

I have a secret weapon that Babu did not: pasta rollers for my kitchen aid mixer.  The dough tends to be fairy springy and I find it much easier to use pasta rollers.  Babu never used anything but a rolling pin.  I like to divide the dough into thirds or quarters and work in small batches.  I roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch before putting it through the pasta roller.  I run it through on the widest setting to start working the dough before setting the rollers to give me a dough with a final thickness of about  1/16th of an inch.  After it is rolled out, lay the dough on a floured surface and use a cutter to cut circles.  I use Babu’s biscuit cutter which is about 2 or 2 1/2 inches in diameter; many contemporary recipes use a 3 or 4 inch cutter.  Your call, just adjust the amount of filling accordingly.

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Dough circles in the front, stuffed varenyky in the back

After you have cut out a bunch of dough circles you can assemble the varenyky.  Depending on the size of the circles you have cut, you will take 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of the filling and roll it into a ball.  Place the ball in the middle of the circle and while holding the verenyky with your thumbs and middle fingers (like you are rolling a cigarette…or something else) press the filling lightly into the dough while folding up and stretching the dough over the filling.

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Be careful not to allow the filling to touch the edges of the dough or it will not seal properly.  Seal the edge by pinching it closed or, as I do it, pressing the edges together with the tines of a fork.

Working in batches, drop the varenyky into the boiling water and cook for 4 to 5 minutes.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly before placing them in a bowl or dish and drizzling with a bit of melted butter or oil to keep from sticking.  To serve, saute the varenyky in butter and onions.  Plate them along with plenty of onions and a dollop of sour cream. No, it is not the healthiest meal, but varenyky are a nice treat now and again. Then again, perhaps it isn’t the caloric and fat content of the food as much as the quantity and attitude toward foods that matter most. Babu and Didu lived on a steady diet of varenyky, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage but they were not gluttonous people; neither of them were obese and both lived into their late 80s. An anecdote I know, but something worth thinking about.

I made a couple of dozen for the girl scout meeting and they were gone in no time.  It takes some time and effort but the varenyky aren’t too hard to make and they are always a huge hit.  It was also a chance to think about my Babu and Didu while I puttered away in the kitchen.  All these decades later I could still hear her leaning over my shoulder saying “oh, you make them soooo pretty.”  She was an endless fount of pride and love and encouragement.  Thanks, Babu!

 

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