The Perfect Pierogi: A Daughter's Quest to Recreate Her Mom's Varenyky

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The Perfect Pierogi: A Daughter's Quest to Recreate Her Mom's Varenyky

Photo courtesy of The Saucy Pierogi

When my mom died after a yearlong battle with ovarian cancer almost 11 years ago, her recipe for pierogies went with her. Though I had watched her create these Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese or sauerkraut almost my entire life, I still didn’t know how to make them myself.

When I’d ask her the secret to making the dough light and perfectly pliable, she’d just shrug her shoulders and say, “You just get the pink bowl and fill it almost to the top with flour … you know.” She never measured her ingredients, just tossed them in from memory and according to what felt right.

To get pierogies (also called varenyky in Ukrainian) right, you need the right dough. It has to be easily rollable; not too sticky, but sticky enough to seal the dumpling; not too dry and not too stretchy. Without those properties, it’s a nightmare to work with, sparking a litany of swear words, as you try to shape it into smooth symmetrical ovals ready to be filled.

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Photo by Michele Sponagle

That didn’t stop me from trying. My mom and my Aunt Ev would get together just before Christmas and churn out dozens and dozens of pierogies, spread out on top of tea towels in neat rows, destined for the freezer. I don’t know how they managed to make so many between the two of them. They were a well-oiled, pierogi-making powerhouse. This sister duo made it look easy.

I was intimidated, but after my mom was gone, I felt like I wanted to keep the tradition going. Pierogies were always my favourite thing to eat during the holidays. They were one of the 12 tradition Ukrainian dishes eaten as part of a meatless dinner on Christmas Eve.

My mom boiled them, then put them in a roasting pan to swim in a pool of butter and sautéed onions. And, aside from opening presents on Christmas morning, I looked forward to breakfast when she would fry them in her ancient, perfectly-seasoned cast iron pan until they were crispy and golden.

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Photo by Cathy Lumsden

My first Christmas after she was gone felt empty and not quite right without pierogies. After a couple of years went by, I recruited my two favorite cousins, Cathy and Susan, to help me some. The plan was that I would get the filling and the dough prepared ahead of time and they’d be my rolling and pinching team upon arrival.

The filling was dead simple. Just two ingredients: red potatoes and Cheez Whiz (seriously). It was the dough that was freaking me out. Memories of my mom getting royally pissed when it wasn’t working lingered in my mind. And I still didn’t have a recipe. I used one I found in a cookbook called What’s for Dinner? by Ken Kostick.

That version was okay and seemed to do the trick, but it was different than my mom’s. It didn’t have the same lightness that hers had. This dough seemed denser. I got my aunt Kathleen’s recipe for the following year’s event that became known as Pierogi-Palooza (PP). Her recipe used instant mashed potatoes. It was okay, but again, it wasn’t exactly the taste or texture I was trying to recreate.

All my guests that came over to make them and eat them loved the pierogies, but secretly, I still wasn’t satisfied. Clearly, I needed some expert help.

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Baba’s Perogies. Photo by Michele Sponagle

During a visit to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (arranged by the city’s tourism peeps), where more than 10 percent of the population is Ukrainian, I finally felt I was on to something. I hung out for a morning at Baba’s Homestyle Perogies, featuring the world’s only drive-thru window for pierogies.

The company puts together more than 8,000 handmade pierogies a day, revving up to 10,000 at Christmas. I forgive the owner, Rob Engel, for not being Ukrainian because he told me, “I grew up wanting to be Ukrainian. I love the food and the culture.” Besides, I’m only half Ukrainian myself (on my mom’s side).

He does employ mostly women who have come from the Ukraine to Canada. And they know what they are doing. I’m amazed to watch their nimble fingers stuff and pinch each pierogi in record time.

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Photo by Michele Sponagle

This operation has some advantages over what I have at home. It has machines to ensure the sheets of dough come out perfectly even. I am in the dark ages with an antique wooden rolling pin. They cut the dough with a a metal wheel gadget that quickly makes gorgeous identical circles. Meanwhile, I use an anodized red aluminum drinking glass from the 1960s found at a thrift store with edges sharp enough to slice through the dough easily. My mom had a pale green one.

I pinch a few pierogies to show off my technique in front of these pros. The ladies nod in approval. They inspect my work looking for “pukers” and “peepers.” That’s pierogi industry talk for dumplings that have not been sealed completely, causing the filling to ooze out during the boiling process. Very bad. Fortunately, my creations were ironclad and tight. And what about the dough? Rob won’t provide me with the recipe, but he says it’s a combination of flour, canola oil, salt and water. Pretty basic.

Baba's owner Rob Engel.CREDIT.Michele Sponagle.jpg
Baba’s Perogies owner Rob Engel. Photo by Michele Sponagle

When I return home, I consult with Aunt Ev, asking her whether that recipe sounds familiar. She tells me it’s pretty close to what my mom and grandmother used. Later on, she sends me one she found in the Ukrainian Daughter’s Cookbook: 1 ½ cups water, 3 tbsp cooking oil, 4 ½ cups flour, 1 tsp salt and 1 egg.

I give it a try even though I’m suspicious of the egg. I don’t remember my mom cracking eggs into her butter. So just a couple days before this year’s event, I coaxed my boyfriend Brian to stop working on a big design project he was doing, even though he was on deadline, to do a pierogi test batch.

I put all the ingredients into a ceramic bowl and mix. When I try kneading the dough, I panic. It’s a mess and sticking to my hands. Crap. I think about my mom. I could almost hear her whisper, “Add more flour, Little Miss Muffett!” (That was her nickname for me.) I work it a bit more and it begins coming together. Finally, it looks slightly shiny (a good sign) and doesn’t cling to my fingers. I’m ready to roll.

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Photo by Cathy Lumsden

With the success of the test behind me, I could confidently make a quadruple batch on Pierogi-Palooza morning in preparation of the 10 guests who were about to arrive, ready to roll, pinch, assemble and eat pierogies.

This year’s edition was a great success with almost 14 dozen made, despite two newbies in the crowd — my cousins’ boyfriends — who needed some training. They jumped right in, wearing the required uniforms of the event: the loudest, kitschiest vintage aprons I can find. That’s one of the rules of PP, now going into its eighth year.

The other rule is that we make truly traditional pierogies. I’m going against the current trend of getting creative with fillings. Baba’s Perogies makes ones from Saskatoon berries. There’s also the popular Ru’s Pierogi in Buffalo, New York, which boasts a robust Polish community. They have a wild array of things stuffed into their versions: chicken wings, goat cheese, pulled pork and apples. In Toronto, at The Saucy Pierogi opened by Warsaw-born brothers Paul and Konrad Obara, theirs are loaded with braised duck, braised beef shank and rock crab.

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Pulled Pork pierogies courtesy of Ru’s Pierogi.

True, you can fill a pierogi with almost anything. I am happy to try them, but I just can’t go there with mine. My making pierogies is really about connecting me to my mom, first and foremost, my family and friends in a way that is meaningful and personal. She made just sauerkraut and potato and cheese versions. That’s it. So I do, too.

When my apron is covered with flour and I’ve got a rolling pin in my hand, my mom doesn’t feel so far away anymore. She’s right there, bringing me closer to the family Christmases of the past I still long for.

Michele Sponagle is a prolific journalist based in a small town outside of Toronto. She has eaten and drunk in more than 70 countries, from guinea pig in Peru to a sour toe cocktail in the Yukon. Follow her on Twitter @Msponagle and on Instagram @michele_sponagle.