My first, and more or less last, memory of working in the kitchen with my mother was shortly after we moved from Israel to Connecticut. Snow floating blithely out the kitchen window, we attempted to replicate sweet cheese blintzes, with large-curd American cottage cheese standing in for Israeli white cheese. I distinctly remember perching over the stove on a kitchen chair, studying the traces of oil etched in delicate patterns over the just-turned blintz. The filling was lumpy and awful, punctuated by unfortunate gobs of raisin. And that was it for the next twenty-odd years, while I was mostly to be found with my head firmly planted inside a book.
Blintzes were my mom's standard pot luck dish back home, and I remember the filling being silky-smooth. Most Israeli recipes for sweet cheese blintzes use the aforementioned white cheese (g'vinah levanah) for the filling, but if you poke a little deeper, you'll notice that many direct you to strain it or otherwise thicken it, with egg yolk or instant vanilla pudding mix. This is because, back in the Pale, blintzes were made with a farmer's-style cheese, which is far thicker than white cheese. In the US, Ashkenazim (Jews from central and eastern Europe) approximated it with cottage cheese, while in Israel white cheese became the stand-in. Now you'll find more recipes, both in Hebrew and English, that call for farmer's cheese once again, and occasionally ricotta (also closer to the original).
Recreating my mom's blintzes
But one generation's adaptation becomes the next generation's nostalgia, and thus it ever was. When I went to recreate them my mom's blintzes, I wanted that silky white cheese thing happening. I tried just plain white cheese thickened with an egg yolk, the probably the most common version, but it runs all over the place when you cut into the blintz. Then I tried a combination of farmer's cheese and white cheese, which, let me tell you, is frustratingly like reconstructing cottage cheese. Stymied, I decided to go the cooked filling route. This ended in the realization that I might as well just make crème pâtissière, which would, incidentally, make a stellar blintz filling, but was not what I was looking for.
So here we are, back round to what we were avoiding: instant pudding mix. I'd basically sworn off the stuff, given that it's very, very easy and better tasting to make pudding from scratch, cooked on a stovetop. This kind of thing makes me cranky and brings out my intransigent inner snob, and I try to do things like bargain with powdered gelatin.
But then, Shavuot came again, and the time was short, as lo, we were on the heels of a three-day yomtov. (And now I have to be further insufferable and note that there is no such thing as a three-day yomtov.) There it was, staring me down: pudding mix. So it was, to rave reviews.
That is my incredibly concise way of coming to the point: This recreation of my childhood blintzes relies upon vanilla instant pudding mix, and it's just as silky-smooth as I remember, and my inner snob is welcome to go sulk in the line for Intelligentsia Coffee. What we lose in shtetl authenticity is what we gain in Israeli authenticity. (I could write a whole dissertation about that, but there isn't a shortage of fine dissertations on cultural memory, the phenomenology of nostalgia, and the construction of authenticity, many of which I've read, if you need recommendations, unless of course you're one of my friends who authored one.)
Where to find Israeli white cheese (g'vinah levana), and substitutions
Finding Israeli white cheese in the States is not that easy. In Jewish neighborhoods in metro areas, you might find it in the kosher refrigerator section in select locations of supermarket chains. (When we lived in New Jersey, one of our local Shoprites, the one with the "Kosher Experience" section, carried it.) You can almost always find white cheese at kosher markets, since they stock a good selection of chalav Yisrael products. My local Costco carries some Tnuva products, but unfortunately not white cheese.
White cheese comes in several different fat percentages (sort of like milk), 3%, 5%, and 9%. The most common in the US is the 5%, which is perfect for making blintz filling, although all of them will work (9% better than 3%).
However, since it's not widely available, I wanted a viable alternative for white cheese (but not cottage cheese). I made a batch of filling substituting sour cream for the white cheese, then compared the two versions, sour cream vs. white cheese, side by side. I couldn't tell the difference, and neither could anyone else. Obviously, sour cream has a higher fat percentage than white cheese, but taste-wise and texture-wise, it's bang on. So I can heartily endorse sour cream as a stand-in for Israeli white cheese in these blintzes.
Making the blintz leaves
To flip or not to flip (blintzes)?
I always assumed that blintzes were cooked on both sides, which is what my mom always did: flip the blintz when it's just beginning to set on top and cook it on the other sides. I make blintzes often, and this is usually how I cook them. I serve them stacked up on a plate and each person can fill them however they like, sweet or savory.
However, it's come to my attention that this is not how filled blintzes are traditionally made. Rather, they are cooked on only one side. There are two schools of thought when it comes to which side is filled, and as these things invariably go, each thinks their way is the one, true way. In both cases, the blintz is not flipped; it's cooked until the top is just set. Where the schools of thought diverge is in their treatment of the side that doesn't get direct contact with the hot pan. One opinion holds that the blintz filling is supposed to be placed on the cooked side, and then the uncooked side is browned in the pan after filling. The other opinion claims, somewhat counterintuitively, that the filling is placed on the uncooked side of the blintz. The blintz can then be returned to the pan to crisp up the outside some more. The operative theory here is that the just-set inside of the blintz melds creamily into the filling.
Naturally, I had to try out both methods, for science. Conclusion: for filled blintzes, my favorite method is cooking them on one side and filling the uncooked side. I find that the blintz is more pliable this way, plus it's the method endorsed by Gefilteria, people who clearly know their shtetl food. This is the method I describe in the recipe below.
As for making the batter, I mix it using a food processor (a blender would also work), or it can also be whisked by hand. A food processor/blender makes it easier to get a smooth, non-lumpy batter, although a few lumps never hurt anyone. There's even an old saying, The first blintz is always lumpy, which has the merit of being true whether it's blintzes or other kinds of life attempts we're talking about. So don't be discouraged if your first blintz comes out amoeba-like, for that, too, is altogether traditional.
I like pouring the batter into a large, 4-cup glass measuring cup with a spout, which makes it easy to dispense onto the hot frying pan. You can also scoop or ladle it onto the pan, about ⅓ cup at a time.
Cooking the blintzes
First, about the pan: I've never used a dedicated crêpe pan, so I don't know, maybe they're the best thing ever, but I use a completely ordinary non-stick medium-sized frying pan for blintzes. I'm interested to try a carbon steel skillet, but haven't shelled out for it yet. You can't use a cast iron here, because the pan has to be light enough to flick with your wrist (read on).
Now we come to the tilt-and-whirl motion used to create the thin blintz leaf. Hard to explain but intuitive to do, you pick up the hot frying pan and swirl the batter inside until it evenly coats the bottom of the pan. The edges will immediately start cooking and curling up, since they're so thin. Cook the blintz over a medium flame until bubbles begin to form on the surface and the center is just set. It's fine if it's still slightly tacky to the touch.
Filling and finishing the blintzes
The filling is made ahead and chilled, and you've got to let your blintzes come down to about room temperature before filling. I don't have problems with mine sticking together, so I stack them up on a plate to cool. If yours are sticking, separate them with pieces of parchment paper.
Once cooled, the blintzes should be easy to work with. Place about 2-3 tablespoons of filling just below the midline of the blintz. Fold up the bottom edge, then fold the sides in, like you're forming an envelope. Finally, firmly tuck the blintz in as you roll it closed.
Once filled, you can either serve the blintzes as-is, or fry them lightly in butter or oil to crisp and warm them, the traditional way. You could also line them up in a baking dish and keep them warm in the oven, especially nice when you drizzle sauce or jam on them. Another good option is to freeze them after filling, and reheat them in the oven or frying pan. Serve with honey, jam, or fresh fruit.
Israeli Sweet Cheese and Raisin Blintzes (dairy)
- Food processor or blender (helpful but not required)
- Medium-sized non-stick or carbon steel skillet with sloped sides
For the blintz wrappers:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 Tbs butter, melted, or ¼ cup oil - 50g butter or 60ml oil
For the filling:
- 2 cups Israeli white cheese, 5%* or sour cream - 500g
- ¼ cup granulated sugar - 50g
- ¼ cup instant vanilla pudding mix - 40g
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- ¾ cup raisins - 100g
Prepare the filling:
- In a small mixing bowl, combine the white cheese or sour cream with the sugar, instant pudding mix, and lemon zest. Stir to combine well, then mix in the raisins. Cover and place in the refrigerator to thicken.
Make the batter:
- Using a food processor or whisk, combine the flour and eggs. Add the milk and stir to combine, then add the water and stir again. Stir in the salt and melted butter or oil, and mix until combined. You want to the batter to be as smooth as possible, but you'll probably still have some lumps, which is fine.
Cook the blintz leaves:
- Melt a small amount of butter or oil in a medium-sized, non-stick skillet, over medium heat. When it's just melted/heated through, scoop about ⅓ cup of the batter into the frying pan. Lift and tilt the pan in a circular motion to evenly coat the bottom with a thin layer of batter.
- Cook until the edges are dry and the top is just set, with a few bubbles. (Do not flip.) Carefully remove from the pan using a flexible spatula and set aside to cool. Repeat with remaining batter until all the leaves have been formed.
Filling and finishing the blintzes:
- When the blintzes have cooled to room temperature, they are ready to be filled. Working on at a time, scoop about 2 Tbsp of filling onto the soft side of the blintz (the one that was not in contact with the frying pan). You 'll want to place the filling just below the midline of the round blintz leaf. Fold the bottom of the blintz up over the filling, then fold in the sides, like making an envelope. Tucking firmly as you roll, roll up the blintzes and set aside, seam-side down.
- Heat a small amount of butter or oil in the same frying pan. Return the filled blintzes to the hot pan and fry on both sides until crisp, about 1-2 minutes per side. Allow to cool slightly before serving with honey, jam, or fresh fruit.