The Russian Dumplings to Fall In Love Over
Shared by Bonnie Frumkin Morales
Recipe Roots: Minsk, Belarus > Chicago > Portland, Oregon
“My own family’s story—and the restaurant itself—owes its very existence to a singular moment seventy-five years ago,” chef Bonnie Frumkin Morales explains in the introduction to her cookbook Kachka, which bears the same name as her downtown Portland restaurant.
That defining moment came in late 1941, when the Jews of a small town called Bobr in Belarus were rounded up and forced to dig a large ditch. Knowing what would follow, her grandmother Rakhil Altshuler said goodbye to her family, carried her baby, and disappeared under the ghetto’s barbed wire. She walked for two months through villages and forests, where her child perished. When she needed to, she peddled a story, telling people that she was a Ukrainian woman on her way to see her husband’s family. The story carried her.
Doubting her Ukrainian roots, a Nazi town warden who stopped Rakhil, asked her how to say the word “duck” in Ukrainian. She didn’t speak the language, and instead answered with the Belarusian and Yiddish word for the animal: kachka. “And with this one little word, this little duck, the key slid on the lock and the gates fell open,” she writes.
Bonnie never met that grandmother, her father’s mother, but the story shaped her family and her warm and inviting restaurant that’s become a destination for those longing for a taste of Russia. Her takes on dishes like herring under a fur coat, or herring stacked in a neat tower with beets, potatoes, hard boiled egg, and sweet onion, and short rib borsch, which comes with the description: “psst. this is nothing like the stuff in the jar at the store,” are prepared with a level of care and skill that’s not always found in Russian restaurants in the U.S.
While the name of the restaurant comes from her father’s side of the family, it is a recipe from her mother that is best associated with it. Each day, Kachka sells approximately 2,000 dumplings, a mix of meat-stuffed pelmeni and cheese or cherry filled vareniki.
Bonnie was raised on the dumplings: “We always had some in the freezer in my parent’s house,” in Chicago, she explains. “But I never in my life saw anybody make them. They’re so common in Russian grocery stores — no one thinks to make them.”
As a young chef, she and her husband Israel would come home late, hungry after dinner service. Bonnie would make a bowl of the frozen dumplings, doctoring them with what was in the house. The two “fell in love over bowls of pelmeni,” she writes in the book.
Bonnie started to experiment with making the dumplings, playing with a recipe for dough from her mother’s recipe card box and her mother’s pelmenitsa, a Russian dumpling mold that makes 37 dumplings at a time. “Even though my mom never made pelmeni at home, she still immigrated with a pelmenitsa,” Bonnie explains. She carried it with her when she left the Soviet Union, through Poland, then Vienna and Rome, and ultimately to Chicago. Coming to America with a pelmenitsa “wasn’t uncommon for the time. It was an essential part of the kitchen,” Bonnie adds.
Today, she has several at the restaurant and her team rolls out dough for six pelmenitsas at a time, producing 222 vareniki with farmers’ cheese or cherries, or meat-stuffed pelmeni, in one go. Her mother’s pelmenitsa makes it into the rotation some of the time, but it’s dulled a little bit with age. “I know it’s not efficient,” she says, but “it still makes dumplings and it’s never gonna stop.”
While Bonnie relies on her collection of pelmenitsas to make meat-stuffed pelmeni and these vareniki, the dumplings are just as delicious when made by hand, and an excellent activity to do with a group of friends or family. As Bonnie explains in the book, the dumplings were an original frozen food. So, if you have leftovers that aren’t cooked yet, you can pop them into the freezer on a baking tray and once they’re frozen, put them into a freezer bag. Then, enjoy them at a later date, after a late night restaurant shift, or just a day at the office.
Bonnie Frumkin Morales' Vareniki
Makes: About 100 dumplings
Time: 2 hours, plus 6 hours (or overnight) refrigeration of filling
For the filling:
1 pound farmer cheese
1 large egg
½ cup kefir
¾ cup grated parmesan cheese
Scant ½ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
¼ cup minced chives
For the dough:
3½ cups (450 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 large egg
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water
For the sauce:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
5 teaspoons white wine vinegar, divided
Sour cream or crème fraîche
Fresh dill or scallions
1. Make the filling: place the farmer’s cheese, egg, kefir, parmesan, flour, and salt in a food processor. Process for several minutes, scraping down the bowl a few times, until the mixture is very, very smooth. The cheese has some graininess, but if you keep processing, it will break down to a warm, smooth, liquidy mixture. The saltiness of the filling will depend on the saltiness of your farmer cheese. Taste for salt at this point and add up to an additional ½ teaspoon to taste.
2. Once you’ve reached this nice, smooth result, transfer the mixture to a covered container, and stir in the chives. The mixture will be thick but runny (don’t worry!). Refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours, or overnight for best results. By the next day, the filling will have thickened to the texture of a sticky whipped cream cheese or mascarpone. Keep refrigerated until ready to assemble.
3. Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the flour and salt. Add the egg, then slowly drizzle in the water. Mix until a dough forms, then knead for 10 minutes, until the dough comes together into a smooth, elastic ball. If you don’t have a mixer, you can do this by hand, but knead for 20 minutes. (And be prepared to sweat!) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or place in a covered container, and let rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
4. For Assembly: Grab a small dish of water and a rimmed baking sheet dusted with flour. Take one-quarter of the dough (leaving the rest lightly covered with a dish towel so it doesn’t dry out), and roll it out on a lightly floured countertop until it’s the thickness of fresh pasta sheets, about 1/16” inch —just shy of being transparent.
5. Take a 2-inch round cutter (or a drinking glass), and cut out rounds of dough. Using two small spoons fill each round of dough with a generous blob of filling—about 2 teaspoons (you can also use a pastry bag here). Using your finger, brush the edges of the dough with water, then fold the round into a half-circle, pressing the edges to seal. Take the edges and pull them to each other, pinching to seal in a tortellini shape. As you shape a few dumplings, you’ll get a sense of how much filling you can stuff into each dumpling and still seal it. Transfer the shaped dumplings to your prepared baking sheet, and gather the scraps together back into a ball. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling, rerolling the scraps at the end after they’ve rested. At this point, the dumplings can be cooked, or frozen for future use (freeze on the baking sheet, then transfer to a sealed plastic bag).