Though pretty Americanized by now, I find it convenient to feel more Russian on certain days throughout the year. Such days are few, and they mostly coincide with some traditional Russian holidays that I have a hard time parting with.
Especially that of the Old New Year.
Odd or awesome, but in Russia we celebrate the New Year twice: on January 1 with the rest of the world that abides by the Gregorian calendar and on January 14 just among ourselves. We call the latter the Old New Year because it stems from the times of pre-revolutionary Russia that used the Julian calendar.
I like this layout a lot. It allows me to stretch out the festivities and catch up on the celebratory cooking, baking, and entrainment I traditionally miss because of my retail job. It is also a rain check if I conk out before midnight on New Year’s Eve and an excuse to hold on to the Christmas tree for two more weeks.
So between the 1st and the 14th, Mom, Nicole, and I had plenty of time to prepare a holiday extravaganza of my culinary achievements and Nicole’s performing talents by making about 11 dozen assorted varenyky—a Ukrainian specialty that translates into ravioli or dumplings or kreplach on this side of the world—baking one giant gingerbread man on a stick for the Gingerbread Man puppet show, memorizing a bunch of traditional American and Russian winter poems and carols as well as staging our own version of The Nutcracker ballet.
Although Nikolasha turned the rehearsals pretty much into dress up play, changing her stage attire after each act, she was cramming her lines and pirouettes gladly and quickly.
Mom and I couldn’t get her to agree to the role of the gingerbread man for the longest. She insisted that the gingerbread man was a boy and she was a girl, so I had to sweeten the deal by baking a “real” 12-inch gingerbread man that Nicole was promised to make a meal out of once the show was up. Guess what, she changed her mind at the last minute, complaining that if she was supposed to eat him up, she’d better be the fox.
Long puppet show story short, we had more fun rehearsing as we nibbled on the gingerbread man and listened to Grandma’s stories about the bygone days when country children would carry a puppet show booth on sleighs and go from house to house with their performance on Christmas Eve.
In the end it was pretty much me who brought every character to life.
Our extravaganza of the culinary and performing arts with the addition of assorted store-bought sweets and impromptu magic tricks and breakdance by 7-year-old Stephan my sister was babysitting that night was more than just a hit. It was a cozy evening spent over homemade comfort food in a tight circle of family and friends and filled with jokes, giggles, and a spicy aroma of fresh pine needles. Intoxicating. All of it.
What a great tribute to a nostalgic holiday like the Old New Year.
In my preparation of the celebratory meal, I initially planned to make just potato and onion varenyky and just enough for the holiday dinner. But the more I rolled, cut, filled, and crimped, the more momentum I gained, and soon it was hard to stop. So when I ran out of potatoes and onions, I whipped up a filling of fresh farmer cheese and raisins and kept on rolling, cutting, filling, and crimping. When I ran out of cheese and raisins, I thought of my sweet cherry preserves, the perfect filling they would make, and the extravagant way I used them all up in just one cake. Did I really use them all up? Did I?
I raided my kitchen cabinets in search of one and only, single, sole, lonely jar that I might’ve abandoned or stashed away for desperate moments like this.
But the cabinets kept nothing more than a reproachful-looking clutter. I guess, I did . . .
It’s hard to say how many more fillings I would’ve come up with and how many more crimping techniques I would’ve mastered, had I not run out of eggs by the end of Day 2 of my varenyky-molding marathon and couldn’t make any more dough.
Yes, I went out and got more eggs, but, unluckily, the momentum was gone. And for good reasons. By that time varenyky were screaming at me as reproachfully from every shelf of both my fridges. Unlike cabinets, you can’t ignore clutter in your fridge.
So I lovingly went over my homemade pasta masterpieces, sorted them out by filling and shape and threw the cheese and raisin ones in the freezer. They would make a quick and wholesome breakfast on busy school mornings. Warm and chewy, if boiled al dente, they are delicious topped with sour cream, fruit jam, a curl of plain butter or a sprinkle of sugar.
I usually serve varenyky filled with savories like mashed potatoes, sauer kraut, and meat with sour cream and/or caramelized onions. Note that caramelizing onions in a slab of butter slowly over low heat can turn any savory dish into a sweet treat!
If you ever try your hand at this old-fashioned method of making pasta from scratch and decide to go for a couple different fillings, it’s a good idea to match a filling with a shape to avoid confusion. For example, I stuffed the crescent-shaped pieces with the sweet filling of fresh farmer cheese and raisins while the round pouches used the mashed potatoes.
What is a fun idea is starting a tradition of the “lucky” varenyk by stuffing one or two of them with a surprise filling of a garlic clove (!) or dough scraps. The one who happens to eat it will be lucky and happy in the coming year.
Happy Old New Year, everyone!
Recipe for Potato Varenyky with Caramelized Onions
Recipe credit: Russian folks
For the pasta:
1 cup (250ml) water
3 ½ cups (795g) unbleached ultragrain flour to sneak in more nutrients and fiber
1 teaspoon salt
For the potato filling:
1 lb (450g) potatoes, peeled
1 large onion (yellow, white, or red), peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons pure unrefined sunflower oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 /8 teaspoon pepper
For the cheese filling:
1 lb (450g) fresh farmer cheese
1 egg, slightly beaten
4 tablespoons raisins
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
For caramelized onions:
3 large onions (yellow, white, or red,) peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons pure unrefined sunflower oil
1. Make the fillings. To make the potato filling, boil potatoes until tender when pierced with a fork, drain, and allow to cool. Then transfer them to a medium-size bowl and mash coarsely. Set aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a thick-bottomed sauté pan over medium high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the onions and let cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 20-30 minutes. You may need to reduce the heat to medium or medium low to prevent the onions from burning. Let cool. Then blend the onions with the potatoes, salt, and pepper until smooth.
To make the cheese filling, soak raisins in very hot water for 10-15 minutes, drain, and let dry. Then mix them with the cheese, egg, sugar, and salt until well combined.
2. Make the dough. On a clean work surface, mound the flour and make a well in the center. In a small bowl, beat together the water, the egg, and the salt. Carefully pour the water mixture into the well. Using the fork, gently incorporate the flour into the water mixture, a small amount at a time. With your hands and a dough scraper, work the dough until it pulls together into a smooth, pliable ball. Cover and let the dough rest for 30 minutes.
3. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts. Lightly flour your work surface and roll out one of the dough portions to a 1/16-inch thickness, then use a 3-inch-diameter cookie/biscuit cutter or a drinking glass to cut rounds from the dough for crescent-shaped varenyky and a 2 ½-inch-diameter cutter for circles.
4. To make crescent-shaped varenyky, spoon about ½ tablespoon of the potato filling into the center of each round, fold it in half, and seal the edges with the tines of a fork. To make circle-shaped varenyky, arrange dough rounds in pairs, spoon about ½ tablespoon of the filling into the center of one of the rounds, then press the other round of dough on top of it and use the tines of a fork to seal the edges.
5. To cook the varenyky, bring a large pot of salted water to boiling over high heat. Meanwhile, make caramelized onions as described in Step 1. After 10 minutes, sprinkle some salt over the onions, and if you want, you can add some sugar to help with the caramelization process.
6. Working in batches of 10 to 15, drop the varenyky into the boiling water and give them a gentle stir so they don’t stick together or to the sides of the pot. They will float to the top after 2-3 minutes, but continue cooking, uncovered, for about 12-15 minutes more. You may need to reduce the heat slightly. Near the end of the cooking time, take one out and test its tenderness before draining an entire batch.
7. Drain in a colander or use a slotted spoon to scoop varenyky out.
8. To serve, place them on individual plates and top with a spoonful of caramelized onions and/or sour cream.
Makes 3-6 dozen varenyky, depending on dough thickness and crimping technique
1. The basic pasta dough can be used with both savory and sweet fillings. Or you can substitute water with 1 cup milk, omit salt, and add 2 teaspoons sugar for sweet fillings.
2. If you find that your dough rounds do not stick together well, dip a pastry brush or your fingers in water and paint a ¼ -inch perimeter around one of them.
3. To store varenyky, line them up in a single layer on a generously floured cutting board or a big platter, cover, and freeze until firm, about 2-3 hours. Then transfer them to freezer bags or freezer containers and freeze for up to 6 months.
4. Read more about caramelizing onions here.