Did somebody say cheese buttons?

Plump little pillows of dough stuffed generously with dry cottage cheese, doused lavishly with pure butter and maybe little bits of browned onion — that’s what you call a cheese button in Dickinson, North Dakota. And that’s what those of Ukrainian descent call a varenyky or pyrohy. Me? I guess I’ve eaten in too many Polish restaurants in Chicago, because I call these delicious little dumplings pierogi.

A few weeks before my trip to Dickinson, where I was scheduled to do a cooking demonstration at the Women’s Expo, I visited by phone with Harvey Brock, the publisher of The Dickinson Press. I was looking for some suggestions about things to see and places to visit while I was there. I knew of the strong Ukrainian influence in that area, and was hoping to find someone who would make pierogies for me. Harvey was quick to tell me that in Dickinson, these tummy-filling little dumplings were referred to as cheese buttons.

Sure enough. As I drove down West Villard in Dickinson, I couldn’t miss the huge sign in front of the Ukrainian Cultural Institute.

Once inside, I was greeted by three kind women who work at the Institute. They had prepared a Ukrainian feast for me, giving me the opportunity to  sample the food they sell to the public in a frozen state. Beautiful rosy-pink borshch, cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, and beet leaf bread, chunks of yeast dough wrapped up in fresh beet leaves, all a delight to my tastebuds. But it was the chubby filled dumplings that won my heart. See them pictured above. Aren’t they darling?

I visited with Agnes Palanuk, 100% Ukrainian, who traveled to Toronto in 1992 to check out the machine that the Institute is moving aside as the new machine takes over. We sat at a table in the midst of a room full of Ukrainian art, ceramics and other Ukrainian artifacts. As we dined on the Ukrainian delectables, she told me about tourists who stop at the Institute to learn more about the Ukrainian culture. When they learn that cheese buttons, or varenyky/pyrohy, can be purchased frozen, they run across the street to the liquor store to buy a styrofoam cooler and some ice. Apparently, the plump dumplings are loved by all ages. According to Agnes, even high school graduates request varenyky/pyrohy for graduation parties.

Mikie Kessel, who happens to be 100% German, is in charge of the kitchen at the Institute. She heads up a team of expert pyrohy makers. She and the three others work four days each week creating little dumplings mixed with Dakota Maid flour and filled with Red River Valley-grown potatoes, Cass-Clay cottage cheese, and sauerkraut or prunes. Within those four days, they use a machine to make 8,000 varenyky/pyrohy, freeze them all and package them, too. Some of the Pride of Dakota product goes out to grocery stores in the region and the rest stay at the Institute ready to be purchased by anyone in the area who is hungry for some authentic Ukrainian food.

Mikie led me into the kitchen to show me the brand new pyrohy-making machine that had just recently arrived from New York. The machine they have been using since 1993 was purchased from Toronto. Mikie thinks the new machine will work much faster, allowing the team to make more than 8,000 varenyky/pyrohy each week.

As I left the Ukrainian Cultural Institute, my tummy was full. My arms were full, too. I had a couple of quarts of frozen borshch to put in the cooler that I always carry in my trunk. I also had one more cookbook to add to my collection, "Northern Plains Ethnic Cookbook." I chose it from the shelf of books for sale at the Institute.

I waved farewell to the three women who made my visit so enjoyable. Mikie, 100% German, Agnes, 100% Ukrainian and Ellie Klym, 100% Irish. I guess I can safely say that you don’t have to be Ukrainian to love their food and appreciate their rich culture. And, even those of us who aren’t Ukrainian can learn to make the delicious food Ukrainians have passed down through generations.

I first tasted pyrohy years ago when Zena, a Ukrainian friend of our family, taught my mom and me how to make them. She filled the tender dumplings with potatoes and, once they had boiled, she browned them lightly in butter. This time of year, I like to give pyrohy a hit of Hungarian by serving them with crispy bits of bacon and finely chopped cabbage and onion that I saute with a dash of sugar in the bacon fat. A generous sprinkling of black pepper is the final touch.

Call them what you want, but for sure you’ll call the little buttons deeee-licious.

Zena’s Varenyky/Pyrohy

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Filling (see below)

Sift flour and salt together into large bowl. Cut in eggs with a fork until dough resembles little peas. Add water and blend. Knead the dough 5 to 10 minutes until smooth. Cover the dough with the bowl and let rest for 25 minutes. Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 2 1/2-inch circles. Work fast, so dough does not dry out. Place a scant tablespoon of filling on each circle. Bring sides together to from half moon. Drop into boiling salted water and cook 15 minutes. Serve floating in butter.

Possible fillings:

  • Cabbage sauteed with chopped onion
  • Mashed potatoes sauteed with chopped onion
  • Stewed, pitted prunes
  • Dry cottage cheese




6 thoughts on “Did somebody say cheese buttons?

  1. I was born in Dickinson, and LOVE cheese buttons. Now I’m hungry for those or borscht soup. I know where the Ukranian center is on Villard. I loved reading this article, as I now live in Richfield, MN.

  2. Glad you enjoyed your visit to Dickisnon, Sue! It was a pleasure serving as your cooks assistant! Come visit us again soon!

  3. I’m a butter-lover, through and through, Lynn.

    Diane, I hope you get back to Dickinson every once in a while. I discovered so many interesting people and places. I can’t wait to go back.

    Beth, you were such a great help. I felt so lucky to have you as my assistant. Thanks!

  4. I am a Ukrainian and i was really happy to read this article! I am so glad you are enjoying our cuisine!!!

Comments are closed.