Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Potato Vareniki (Pierogies)

Before I get to the dish in the picture, let me share the news that have been overflowing our family with joy since yesterday. Jason (my husband) has defended his Ph.D. thesis. It's hard to describe what this feels like. The goal towards which I saw him work for so many years is finally accomplished! Jason did a wonderful job with his defense talk yesterday, and after a few nerve racking minutes of closed-door committee meeting, it was official that we should break out the good champagne (In case anyone is curious, it was Dom Pérignon 1996 :)

I'll spare you the details of being a grad student wife. If you want to learn more about it, you'll get a kick out of Piled Higher and Deeper comics.

Now you know why I can't stop smiling :)

About the food...

After a whole week of healthy eating, I thought it was about time to satisfy my craving for potato vareniki (Russian and Ukrainian word for pierogies).The passion I feel for this dish is not unlike the passion Americans (myself included) feel for burgers. What can be simpler? The whole thing has just a handful of ingredients -- pasta type dough wrapped around creamy potato and sautéed onion filling. Yet, there are so many subtle nuances that can elevate such dishes to cult-like standing. With burgers, it's all about perfecting the balance between charring the outside while keeping the inside rare enough to explode with juices that leak to your elbows as you take a bite. With pierogies, it's all about making the dough that's elastic and supple enough to provide a bare hint of resistance as you take a bite. Both have to be seasoned to perfection -- under-salted ground beef or potatoes taste like "blah" and are the first give away of inexperienced cook.

You can serve pierogies 2 ways: just boiled or boiled and then sautéed in butter to crisp up (that's the one in the picture). Both ways you'll need plenty of sour cream, but if I just have them boiled, I also add a little butter.

I normally provide recipes for dishes that I appear on this blog. But this time, I decided to skip the recipe and talk about the process of recipe writing instead. A Jamie Oliver type recipe would be easy to put together, but it would probably do you no good. A Julia Child/Marcella Hazan type recipe would take me several hours of writing and days of testing, and that work would probably never pay off because I doubt anyone would care. Seriously -- raise your hand if you are willing to spend 3 hours making pierogies. Well, that's what it takes, and unless you have some pasta making experience, you'll probably need several tries to get it just right.

I find recipe writing to be a very interesting (although sometimes painful) process -- probably because I used to be a Usability engineer in my previous life. The most important questions a recipe writer needs to answer are:
  • who will be using this recipe?
  • what goal are they trying to accomplish?
My answers to these questions are:
  • a home cook
  • to make an amazing version of a particular dish
I don't specify the experience level of the home cook because in today's world of global cuisine, it's hard to make any use of cook's experience. I might have a ton of experience with Mediterranean techniques, but not with Oriental ones. Some ingredients might be part of my daily life and some I've never even heard of. When French food writers write for French cooks or Italian writers for Italian cooks, there are some basics they can take for granted, but when writing for the US (or global) audience, there is very little the writer can take for granted.

Since "a home cook" is a category too vast, I have the second bullet to narrow it down, but not by the level of experience, but by the goal of the cook. My primary audience are obsessive cooks who won't settle for "quite edible" or even "good." They are perfectionists, whose goal is not just to put some food on the table. They are eager to master the art of cooking and to make a truly fabulous dish. This means I have a very small audience -- cooks who are willing to carefully follow 5 pages of instructions. It's almost unheard of these days in the world of cookbook publishing, but that's the audience Julia Child and Marcella Hazan served so remarkably well.

Don't all recipe writers want their audience to end up with a great dish? On the surface, it seems that they all want you to have something wonderful for dinner. The real result depends on which trade offs they are making. The world of chef pop stars has an image to protect -- no one wants to be the boring-10-pages-of-instructions guy. They want to be your pal. They want to be cool. They want to make you think like they are luring you into the kitchen when they are really luring you to the couch for some pleasant food day dreaming with their books and TV shows. They make it sound so easy. Hey, the recipe is only 5 lines -- even I can do that. Who needs all that nonsense about how to knead the pasta dough? According to Jamie Oliver, you just "work the dough hard for about 3 minutes or until smooth, silky and elastic." And if you don't have a pasta machine, he doesn't hesitate to recommend that you roll it out with a pin. I tried it as my first attempt to make pasta several years ago. There is only one word to describe the result -- CRAP!

What was Jamie thinking when he wrote this recipe (assuming *he* actually wrote it because at the rate celebrity chefs publish their books and produce their shows, I doubt they write it all themselves). First of all -- how many people will actually attempt making their own pasta? Most will buy wonton wrappers. Second of all -- how many will be able to tell the difference between great pasta and mediocre one? Most of them just want to play with some dough and have fun. Jamie knows extremely well what most people want, and that's why he makes the big bucks. He is selling the image of food that's rustic and beautiful. And the good sales man that he is, he knows that if he makes it sound like it requires real cooking skills, it won't sell very well.

Sorry Jamie, I don't mean to pick on you. There are plenty of cookbook writers whose recipes are as bad as yours. It's just that you make a perfect counter example to Marcella Hazan. Her goal was not to make incompetent cooks feel better with "You can do it!" cheer leading. Her goal was to teach anyone, regardless of their experience, how to cook great Italian food. Not some sad parody of it, but the real thing. Her pasta and gnocchi recipes are flawless. It's as if she is there in the kitchen with me, helping me avoid all the pitfalls (like rolling pasta with a pin the first time you do it is bound to be a disaster). What to do if your dough is too wet or too dry, how to test when it's just right, how to knead, how long to knead, etc. If you think you can make a great pasta without knowing all this, you are kidding yourself.

I don't believe in evangelical cooking, the idea of "let's make it look easier so that more people can join the fun." If you don't think cooking is fun, and if kitchen is not your favorite room in the house, I ain't the person to convert you. But if you love it already and don't want to settle for less than perfect deliciousness, you've come to the right place.

P.S. If you try one of the recipes on this blog, I'd love your feedback. There is no way to write great recipes without usability testing :)


Pille said...

A wonderful-looking dish and interesting discussion about recipe-writing. I guess I should think more about the process myself:)
Re: vareniki/pierogies - I always thought that vareniki are more like pelmeni, i.e. small filled pastries that you boil first, and either serve them straight or fry in butter. Just like dumplings.
Pierogi, on the other hand, are usually simply baked, no?
PS Will give you feedback when I'll try a recipe of yours! And I will soon:)

Pille said...

And congrats on your husband's PhD - I defended mine just under 2 years ago, so I know how relieved and happy you must feel!!

Kalyn Denny said...

Congrats to Jason. I myself quit halfway through my masters degree, so I admire anyone who can stick it out. Very interesting thoughts about recipe writing. I think about this all the time!

Helen said...

Hi Pille,

You are absolutely right -- in Russian, "pirogi" are "pies" that are baked, but in US, everyone knows vareniki by its polish name "pierogies," so I was using it to get people in US to recognize the dish :)

Either way, they are some of my favorite dishes.


Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,

I wanted to add that all of my favorite bloggers, you included, have wonderful voices whose blogs read like inspiring novels. So even though some of your recipes are too time-consuming for my law school student self or beyond my level of expertise, I enjoy reading them for their escapism value. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Pam, Pille & Kalyn,

Thanks for the congrats. It is a huge relief. Helen says that the morning before the defense I was more nervous than she'd ever seen me!

Helen doesn't have a "survive" T-shirt, but she does have a "What is the Thesis?" T-shirt from the PhD comic strip. Always makes me laugh when she wears it :)


chili&vanilia said...

Great post, Helen! And of course congrats to your husband. But, I raise my hand because after this picture I totally would spend 3hours making these. They look absolutely amazing and delicious!!

Anonymous said...

Hi there... I've never posted here before, but I love your blog. I mostly came by for the fish recipes... if I'm eating meat, it's usually fish. But I've found that all of your recipes are amazing, your voice is funny and relatable, and your pictures are gorgeous.

I admire your patience in making fresh pasta. Your vareniki look beautiful, but I'll have to admire from afar.

mary grimm said...

I am someone who wants to make pierogi. I have several recipes--one from my Slovak grandma, one from a friend's mother, some others I've collected here and there--but I haven't gotten down to it yet. Maybe over Xmas break.
Congrats to your husband--I've been on the other end of those defenses (I teach at a university), and I always breathe a sigh of relief when we get to a successful conclusion.

Helen said...

Hi guys,

Thanks so much for all these wonderful comments. Sorry it took me so long to respond -- busy week.

Anonymous law student: when I was in college, I would never attempt something like this either. In fact, my specialties back then were "pasta with stuff" and "chicken breasts with canned cream of mushroom soup." Different times in our lives call for different dishes. What's important is enjoying the time you spend in the kitchen, even if it's 30 minutes a week.

Emily: welcome to Beyond Salmon and thanks for posting your first comment :)

Chili&Vanilia and Lucette: I am so excited that someone proved me wrong and DOES want to make this dish. I promise, it's worth every minute (at least if you think playing with dough is fun). Next time I make vareniki, I'll make sure to measure everything and write a detailed recipe for you guys. Meanwhile, here are a few tips that you can use with other recipes too:

1) for potato filling, use red skinned potatoes, and mash them with lots of butter and cream cheese (in Russia we used farmer's cheese, but cream cheese works even better). Don't cook onions so much that they are caramelized, but they should be amber golden. And you want a LOT of them: 1 onion for 3 potatoes.

2) for dough, follow the basic pasta procedure (Marcella Hazan has an excellent one in "The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking"), but use the following proportions:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 egg
3/4 cup water

If you have a food processor, the initial combination of ingredients can be much easier than the traditional well method, but beware that you still need to knead for 10 minutes after that.

3) I roll mine out with a rolling pin, but if you have a pasta machine, don't hesitate to use it. You want the dough to be just under 2mm thin.

4) Make sure to seal VERY WELL. You don't want any of them to leak during cooking. This water based dough is a bit stickier than the egg based pasta dough, so you won't need to brush it with water to seal, but make sure to go over each edge 2 times. I use a sort of rubbing motion with my thumb and index finger. It does a good job sealing and creates that slightly curly edge. And remember that traditional vareniki are not early at oversized as Mrs. T's. They should be about half that size.

5) Don't overcook. They only need 1-2 minutes once they float. When I cook them fresh, the total boiling time is 3 minutes. When I cook them after freezing (don't defrost before cooking), they take 4.5-5 minutes.

6) They freeze beautifully. To freeze them, put them in the freezer for 12-24 hours right on the cookie sheet, then move them to a zip lock bag. If you leave them on a cookie sheet too long, they start cracking.

Enjoy :)


Anonymous said...

A recent article in the New Yorker talks about this very thing. One key issue is how the Food Network has been dumbing down its programming, dumping chefs who really teach you to cook in favor of chefs who teach you how to shop. Fascinating and sad.

Oh, and let me add my congrats on your husband's PhD to the heap. Wow, Helen! TWO major life milestones for the price of one.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Helen, but while the url for the article mentioned in my above comment doesn't completely appear, it IS there. Just highlight the whole line and when you copy and paste, you'll get the rest of it.

And I also don't normally post gratuitous links in comments on other people's blogs, but I think you'll find this interesting in light of your post.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

Thanks so much for this link. I've read the article a little while ago and loved it. Blogger is really buggy when it comes to posting links, let me repost it in HTML as I think it's an awesome article and others might like to read it:

New Yorker Article on Food TV


Anonymous said...

I've loved so many of your recipes. The swiss chard one is a favorite in my house.

I am SO excited to see a real pierogie recipe. Ever since my granmother died I've never had primo pierogies since. I will have to try this out after the holidays. Thanks so much for posting the recipe!

Dianka said...

Congrats to your husband! What an accomplishement and you chose the perfect dish (and champagne) to celebrate =)

Helen said...

Hi Paula,

Good luck with pierogies. I am sure your Grandmother would be proud of you :)


Pille said...

Helen, thanks for clarifying this! This pierogi/vareniki is a very complicated matter indeed. I've just read the long Wikipedia entries on pirogi/vareniki/pelmeni/dumplings, and it's even more confusing now than it was before!!!
Happy holidays!

Anonymous said...

I'm not getting the hang of this blogging thing...where do I locate recipes for the fillings in the pierogies/vareniki/pelmeni? Thanks

Katerina said...

Just tried your recipe\suggestions. I used your dough recipe and made it in my mixer as well as adding cream cheese to the filling. I was really impressed with the results. Way better then my previous attempt which was from a cookbook. They were lighter then the store bought ones rather then heavier.


Helen said...

Hi Katerina,

You did it! That's so wonderful. And I thought no one will be willing to go through all the work for vareniki.

I am so glad your efforts were worth the results :)


Anonymous said...


I have read your article and found it very detailed :) congratulations by the way!

anyway, I'd just like to get this out of the way:

as i come from a Ukrainian-Jewish family, i can assure you that perogies are nothing like pelmeni/vareyniki. Perogies are ususally filled with meat, potato, and are often served as dessert with a fruit filling. Perogies are baked, not boiled. Meanwhile, Pelmeni are almost the same thing as Vareyniki, except filled with meat (usually with veal or chicken). Vareyniki are simple what you see in the aboe article, just without the name "perogie"

Thank you!

Helen said...

Yes, Russian pirogi (pirog singular) are baked buns with a filling that is savory or sweet. The dough for them is usually enriched and can be made out of brioche or puff pastry type dough. Pierogies I was referring to in this post are a Polish dish very similar to Ukrainian vareniki. Since most people in the US know this dish under the Polish and not Ukrainian name, I thought I'd mention it.

Kathleen said...

My mother was Ukrainian, and her signature dish was Holobsti. One year for her birthday her nine children made her a Ukrainian dinner. She passed several years ago, but I still try to get my brothers and sisters and the family together for an annual potluck dinner to celebrate our mother on her birthday. This year we will be making varenyky for the first time. I plan to prepare a sauerkraut filling, a salmon filling, and a potato-cheese filling and have my daughters & nieces assemble them I can hardly wait!