There are things that one misses from childhood.
Remembered flavors; favorite dishes. For most of us, those flavors are reproducible. They are our mother’s and grandmother’s recipes lovingly passed from generation to generation.
But for me, capturing the fleeting flavors of my childhood is not as easy. I was 7 and a half when I left the Ukraine with my family. Leaving behind the gregarious circle of the women who shaped my impressions of food and cooking.
These were the kind of women, like most of their generation that cooked well but did so by feel and taste. And because back then communication was limited, my mother came with only the recipes that she cooked often.
And so my absolute childhood favorite was lost.
When we first came to Southern California there was no Russian immigrant community here. We were only one of a handful of families that lived in Orange County.
Seduced by the exotic foods of our new home and unable to procure once familiar produce, my mother adapted old family recipes to newly available ingredients forgetting the old ones in the process. It was a matter of survival.
For a time that was enough. New foods and new experiences have a way of making you forget about the old. But nostalgia is never far behind. As the Russian immigrant community grew so did the availability of the foods of my youth. Though more than an hour’s drive away, Russian grocery stores started springing up in LA bringing with them prepackaged favorites. But like every packaged food, they fell far short of the real thing.
Vareniki were made with gluey, gelatinous doughs and incomprehensibly flavorless filling or worse, flavored oddly. And while there were often adequate substitutions for some of the more popular foods, my favorite cherry vareniki remained dismally unavailable. If I could find them at all, I was usually of one variety which invariably led to incredible disappointment.
American sour cherries are simply not cut out to be filings for vareniki. Ok in pies where their sheer number and supporting, flavored filling made up for their watery taste they were simply not up to the task of standing solo in a simple dumpling. Even if the dough was right, the filling, once boiled tasted like cherry scented cardboard.
Pretty but unappealing.
Even when my aunts visit brought me no closer to my beloved Cherry Vareniki. While she was able to get the correct consistency for the dough, the filling was simply disappointing. Los Angeles area Russian restaurants weren’t of much help either as most of them did not make their own.
Though the longing for childhood comfort was not constant, it was the kind of longing that lurked in the back, dusty corners of the mind. Ever hopeful of finding a way back into the spotlight. The kind of longing that launches ships and horseback quests in fairy tails….ok maybe that’s an exaggeration but it is at the very least the kind of longing that sends people clandestinely over some old witches fence to retrieved the desired item.
Fortunately my love of cherries knows few bounds. I am happily content to eat cherries in nearly any form. And this includes straight from the jar, fished out one by one with a teaspoon. Quite by accident, to appease my winter cherry needs, I stumbled upon Trader Joe’s Morello Cherries. I had tried their dried version of the fruit finding them pleasantly tart. The canned version of the product also turned out to be delightfully tart. And the sour cherry syrup that preserved the fruit proved equally good as a delicious dessert sauce when reduced with some Cran-Cherry juice.
Suddenly, I had the makings of Cherry Vareniki.
The craving had finally found its spotlight and after years of disappointment I found my salvo. The quest was completed.
Though time consuming, this recipe is highly versatile. The dough, devoid of leaveners and fats the dough keeps well in the refrigerator and … though I won’t readily admit to it… can be filled with a variety of fillings; including meat, potatoes, mushrooms, or any combination of the above.
This dough it a Lenten variant made simply with flour and water. There are richer doughs made with eggs and milk, but I prefer this one. It highlights the sweet-tart flavor of the fruit and serves as a good background for the ruby red sauce in which it sits.
Gluten is important to this dough so a high protein all purpose flour or a bread flour/all purpose flour mixture is best. The finished dough should be smooth and pliant and spring back when rolled out. The dough should have plenty of give to it so that it does not tear easily. It also dries quickly so it is best to have lots of helpers to form the little dumplings or at least a nice barely damp towel.
I won’t mince words or promise that it will be easy, this is a fiddly and messy recipe but that is a small price to pay for recapturing the ephemeral delights of youth.
3 cups all purpose flour (or half bread flour half all purpose)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
Knead together all ingredients either with a mixer fitted with a dough hook or by hand until smooth and elastic. The dough should pull back when stretched but be pliant and smooth otherwise. Do not over mix.
Allow dough to rest, covered for half an hour.
2 Jars Morello Cherries (Trader Joes or Zurgut brand only)
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup bread or cake crumbs
Drain the cherries very well, squeezing out as much moisture as possible by pressing the cherries against the sides of the strainer. Reserve the liquid.
Sprinkle the cherries with the sugar and allow to stand for 15-20 minutes. Press again to remove additional moisture.
If the cherries are still a little wet, sprinkle in the bread crumbs a little at a time to absorb some of the juices.
Ruby Red Cherry Sauce:
Reserved juice from drained cherries
4 cups cran-cherry, cherry, pomegranate, or cranberry juice
Sugar as needed
Mix juices and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil until reduced to a quarter of its original value. The liquid should be thickened and syrupy. Depending on they juice used the sauce may be very tart, add sugar to reduce tartness to taste.
Optional Potato Filling:
2 cups left over mashed potatoes
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 hardboiled egg, minced (optional)
Salt and black pepper to taste
Saute the mushrooms over medium heat until golden and caramelized.
Combine mushrooms with the left over mashed potatoes and egg (if using). Mix well. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Once the dough has rested, generously flour your work surface. Working with half the dough at a time, roll it out to a quarter of an inch thickness. The dough will have a tendency to spring back, this is expected. Keep rolling the dough out until it looses some of its resistance and maintains the thin rolled out shape for a little bit.
Using a 2 inch diameter round cookie cutter or thin edged class, cut out as many dough circles as you can fit onto the rolled out dough. The circles with shrink and wrinkle, this is OK.
Pick up a dough circle and gently stretch it with your fingers, warming the dough. Once the dough has relaxed, place the mostly dry filling into the middle of the circle. It should look like there is too much filling. Gently, working with the middle first, pull the dough over the filling, stretching the sides until they come together. It takes some practice to stretch the dough without tearing it. Once the middle is closed, work your way towards the side, pushing the filling down and crimping the edges as you go.
Make certain that the edges are well sealed and that any air is pushed out before the last crimp.
Placed finished vareniki on a cookie sheet lightly dusted with flour.
They may now be frozen in a single layer then bagged in individual portions. Frozen they keep for at least 2 months.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once the water has started to boil, drizzle in a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil onto the surface.
Boil 8-10 vareniki at a time. They should not be crowded in the pan or they will stick. They can be boiled fresh or straight from the freezer. They are ready when they float and the dough looses its raw color. To test, pinch of a little corner and taste.
Remove from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly.
To serve cherry vareniki, drizzle with a little bit of ruby red cherry sauce.
To serve potato vareniki, gently fry them in butter until they are golden on both sides. Serve with sour cream.