After almost two weeks of wall-to-wall Olympics viewing in our home, I’ve come to a couple realizations about Russia.
First – and I’m a bit shocked the coin never dropped on this for me before this point — they have some of the greatest classical music of all time. Second, they have some of the best ballet ever danced or choreographed. Third, Russians seriously know what to do with a potato.
Pampushki, soup, salad and vodka come to mind, but at the top of the heap of wondrous things to do with potatoes stands vareniki — savory Russian mashed potato stuffed dumplings. It’s hard to go wrong with mashed potatoes stuffed into dumplings, isn’t it?
I grew up familiar with pierogies, but until recently had only eaten the ones I’d made from boxes procured from my handy-dandy grocer’s freezer. Let me tell you, I have loved those dearly, and I can promise they will still be on my table from time to time, but after having a go at making these Russian ones, I rather suspect that any mass produced ones will pale in comparison from here on in.
Because I chose to prepare my homemade dumplings the same way as I usually prepare frozen pierogies, I was able to make a pretty solid comparison in the differences between the final products. Homemade dumpling dough has a lightness of texture that is simply unmatched by its commercial counterparts. They’re not at all chewy or gummy, but airy. If you opt to pan fry them in butter after boiling, as I prefer to do, you’ll find the homemade vareniki gets far crispier on the bottom, but remains light and pillowy over the un-fried portions.
I did stamp my own mark on the filling, mixing some meltingly tender caramelized onions into the traditional mashed potato filling. You can find a fantastic, reliable, simple method to prepare a bulk amount of Slow Cooker Caramelized Onions on www.foodiewithfamily.com. Having these in the freezer simplifies and speeds up the vareniki making process.
A word about the mashed potato recipe: yes, I call for quite a bit of butter and no milk or cream. You are now in possession of my greatest secret in mashed potato making. Add vastly more butter than you normally would and nix the rest of the dairy. You will be in for the best mashed potatoes of your life.
Caramelized Onion Mashed Potatoes
6-8 white potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters or eighths
Water for boiling
1 ½ sticks butter (3/4 c.)
½ c. caramelized onions
Salt to taste
Bring a pot of water to a boil and generously salt it. Add the potatoes and boil until very tender. Drain as much of the water from the pan as you can, keeping the potatoes in it. There should be no pooled water in the pan. Add the sticks of butter and caramelized onions, mash until the potatoes are smooth and the butter has melted and incorporated completely. Taste the potatoes and adjust with salt if necessary. Eat as is or use as stuffing in vareniki.
Caramelized Onion Vareniki
5 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. water
1 stick butter, softened to room temperature
1 t. salt
1 batch caramelized onion mashed potatoes
Optional: 4 T. butter for frying, sour cream, and chopped chives for serving.
Combine the flour, water, eggs, butter and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook or a large mixing bowl. Mix vigorously until a shaggy dough forms. If there are big pockets of dry ingredients at the bottom of the bowl, you may need to add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you have a cohesive dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead until the dough is silky and smooth. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow the gluten to relax.
Divide the dough in half and keep the half you’re not working with covered with a towel or plastic wrap. On a lightly floured counter top, roll one half of the dough out to an even 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch thickness. Use a 3- or 3 ½-inch round cutter to cut circles of dough. Reserve the dough scraps to re-roll and cut more circles from when you’re finished. Scoop about 2 teaspoons of the mashed potatoes into the center of each round. Lift and pinch two opposite sites to seal them around the potato filling. Use your fingers to crimp the rest of the half-moon closed. If desired, bring the corners from the straight edge of the half-moon together at the bottom of the dumpling, making it look like a large tortellini. Lay the finished dumplings on a clean platter in a single layer. Repeat with the remaining dough and mashed potatoes until you’ve exhausted one or both of them.
Bring a large pot of water to a vigorous boil and salt it generously. Carefully lower several of the vareniki into the pot, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Gently stir to keep them from settling and sticking to the bottom of the pot. Boil the vareniki until they float, then use a slotted spoon to remove, drain, and transfer them to a plate. You can either serve them as is or take them to the next level by melting 4 tablespoons of butter in a stainless steel or cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Add the boiled vareniki to the melted butter in a single layer. It will probably sizzle and pop, but should slow down relatively quickly. Let the vareniki fry in the butter, undisturbed, until they release easily from the pan and are golden brown on the underside. Serve hot, topped with sour cream and chopped chives or green onions.