Think no evil
If I'm lucky, when we are visiting my parents, I wake up to the sounds of my mother and my daughter in the kitchen, their voices accompanied by the clacking of pans. Because it’s the two of them cooking I can be sure they are making linyvi varenyky: the only dish my daughter is still willing to prepare at the cost of her time on WhatsApp and SnapChat. Similar in appearance to Italian gnocchi, Ukraine’s linyvi varenyky are lazy varenyky—an easier-to-make version of their more sophisticated cousins, the regular, filled varenyky—and they’re a breakfast staple in many Ukrainian households.
Theories on the origins of the filled varenyky vary. Reminiscent of Chinese dumplings and Italian ravioli, they are sometimes rumored to have come to the European continent with Marco Polo. Other times, they are said to have roots in Turkey. What’s clear is that no matter where they initially came from, Ukraine has certainly made them their own. The half-moon-shaped varenyky have inspired monuments (even as far away from Ukraine as in Alberta, Canada), been mentioned in Ukrainian literature, and form an essential part of Ukrainian folklore. As they’re believed to bring both happiness and health to a young family, varenyky are given to a bride on the second day of the wedding celebration (traditional Ukrainian weddings last two days) as a talisman for a healthy pregnancy. “Khai kata bude povna, yak tsi varenyky” (“may your home be as full as these varenyky”) says a Ukrainian proverb wishing the newlyweds a house filled with children.
“Every important holiday or event in [Ukraine] is celebrated with food and varenyky and specific ritual breads must be present,” Lubow Wolynetz, the curator of the Ukrainian Museum and Library of Stamford, Connecticut, told me by email. “Ukrainians are an agrarian society. They grew all kinds of grain, especially wheat, and made dishes and baked breads out of these grains. It's their staple food. We even have a saying: ‘If you have bread and water you will never be hungry.’ All major events are celebrated consuming varenyky.”
In addition to their importance to Ukrainian culture, they are, of course, delicious. On a trip to Odessa a few years ago I had only three goals: spend time with family, see the Odessa Opera Theater I remembered from my childhood visits, and fill up on varenykys. I spent a week eating my way through Odessa’s varenychnayas, places that specialize in varenyky. From hole-in-the-wall cafes to expensive restaurants, the choice was overwhelming. Fillings ran the gamut from potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, and duck for savory to sugared farmer's cheese, poppy seeds and honey, and cherries for sweet.
Although most of the sweet varenykys can easily be eaten for breakfast (something I highly recommend), traditionally it’s the linyvi varenyky that are served in the morning at homes and in restaurants. Rumor has it that they get the first part of their name—lazy—from a Soviet-era chef who named them this way because they take so much less effort that their regular counterparts. But although that’s certainly true, their production is not for the kind of lazy that opts for buttered toast in the morning. To make them—and to make them well—you have to put in a little more effort.
The recipe for the lenyvy varenyky is simple: Mix farmer’s cheese, flour, eggs, and sugar to the consistency of a pizza dough; roll pieces out into shapes that resemble thick nautical rope; slice the rope into one inch chunks; and submerge those chunks into boiling water. Once they rise, take them out with a slotted spoon and they are ready to eat, topped either with sour cream, butter, or in the case of Korchma Taras Bulba’s Executive Chef, Lidia Krot, fresh fruit. “During the harvest season, the best way to prepare lenyvy varenyky is to add fresh fruits,” Krot explained by email, noting that her family used apricots. Apricots, caramelized in advance with a little bit of honey, sugar, and water, make for an excellent sauce.
But there is one more ingredient to the varenyky, and by extension to the lenyvy varenyky. “Based on Ukrainian beliefs and traditions, when doing any ritual dish you must have good, positive thoughts and the dish will come out well.” Wolynetz said. “If you have any evil or mean thoughts while preparing a ritual dish it will not come out well.”
Back in my mother’s kitchen only good and positive thoughts exist. I usually walk in exactly at the time when my daughter begins to roll out her first rope. I join her and roll one myself. When every last bit of dough is rolled out, we both cut those into small pieces and place them into the boiling water. In the absence of apricots we serve them on a plate with a blob of sour cream and they are the most delicious—lazy or not—breakfast you could ever have.