May 17, 2007
Cheese for Shavuot wrapped in tradition and variety
I stood on a stool and watched melting butter turn frothy before meeting a smooth batter. The combination filled Bertha's kitchen with the scent of sweet dough. As I sat at her speckled Formica table, the taste of cheese tinged with vanilla oozing from an airy crepe left a lasting impression, as passionate as a first crush, long before I was old enough to date.
Since then I've been relegated to eating blintzes at delis, where they've been decent but far from sensational. However, with Shavuot approaching, a craving for Bertha's blintzes drove me to replicate the nirvana of that first experience.
The blintz, a flexible pancake wrapped like an envelope around fillings such as cheese or fruit, is a cousin of the French crepe. With humble roots, the blintz probably originated in Poland and spread from there. Blintz pancakes are called blini in Russian and blintse in Yiddish.
In Hungarian the word pancake is palascinta. Prevalent in Austria, too, palascinta are often filled with apricot preserves or walnuts finely ground with sugar.
My husband David's fondest childhood memories revolve around the palascinta his mother made for her three children every Sunday night -- one at a time.
"I'd be right there next to mom, pressuring her to go faster," David says. "I couldn't wait for my next palascinta."
Reading his mother's recipe, the one she brought with her when she emigrated here from Vienna, I saw that it dovetailed with the directions for blintzes.
One Sunday I whipped up batter and began ladling it in a frying pan. David hung around the kitchen waiting for a delicious payoff, the way he did as a child.
"I have to intervene," he said. "Your pancakes are too small and thick. Instead of being tissue-paper thin and covering the entire bottom of the pan, they're more like flapjacks, too fat to fold around a filling."
"What am I doing wrong?" I asked.
He gave the batter a brisk stir and ladled some in a buttered pan. I watched in awe as he lifted the handle, twirling quickly, guiding the thickening dough to evenly cover its bottom.
He returned the pan to the flame, waited a couple of minutes, and gave it a shake. "So the batter doesn't stick." When the lower side sizzled to a gorgeous golden brown, he flipped over the blintz shell. A couple of minutes later, he turned it onto a plate.
"Now you try making one," he said.
Once the batter hit the pan, I attempted to imitate how he coaxed it to cover the entire cooking surface.
"Your movements are too staccato," he said. "You're using too much elbow. Relax, roll the pan, and the dough will cooperate."
Several lumpy blintzes later, I mastered the technique.
David just kept piling the sauteed shells on a plate.
"They're not as delicate as you'd think," he said.
We spent hours frying, filling and folding pancakes before browning the finished blintzes, which we nibbled as we worked. It was a labor-intensive job, but well worth the time and calories.
It's no wonder that blintz-making is a dying art. Yet in the Old Country, where Jews had less money and more time, blintzes were a treasured part of Shavuot celebrations.
"Why do we eat blintzes on Shavuos?" asked Tevye, the beleaguered father in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." "I'll tell you why. I don't know why. It's tradition."
This reason is as good as any to explain why Jews love blintzes on Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates God giving the Torah and its laws to the Children of Israel.
While no one knows for sure what the ancient Israelites ate after receiving the Torah, historians speculate that they didn't keep kosher until encountering the dietary laws found in this sacred scroll. Because they couldn't immediately change their ways, their only option was to eat a dairy meal until they could make kosher their cooking utensils and meat.
Shavuot traditionally has been a dairy holiday, a time to celebrate God for giving the Jews "a land flowing with milk and honey," a line from the Torah that has tied Jews to their ancestral home for centuries.
In Eastern and Central Europe, blintzes were filled with curd cheeses such as pot cheese or farmer cheese. But in America, Jewish housewives began using cottage cheese.
"My mother bought large dry curd cottage cheese for blintzes," says Ann Amernick, author of "The Art Of The Dessert" (John Wiley and Sons, 2007). She is also a co-owner and the executive pastry chef at Palena restaurant in Washington, D.C.
"Back then, there were stores where people bought fresh dairy products packed in boxes similar to Chinese take-out containers," Amernick recalls. "Creamy by comparison, today's cottage cheese doesn't have the intensity of flavor of old-fashioned dry curd cheeses."
In 20th century America, the blintz met highs and lows. Cream cheese, with its smooth texture and subtle tang, was mixed with cottage cheese, becoming a velvety but pleasingly assertive blintz filling.
However, the quality dipped when food manufacturers started freezing and mass-marketing blintzes, relieving housewives of this arduous task. On the upside, the blintz souffle was born. A casserole with layers of soft dough surrounding cheese, these souffles are easily assembled and delicious.
As David and I made blintzes that Sunday, I thought of the "Fiddler on the Roof," who kept playing music in spite of hard times and hard work.
Perhaps Tevye was right. We make blintzes on Shavuot because it's tradition. Or perhaps some of us were lucky enough to have a bubbe or a Bertha who left us with a taste for warm blintzes fresh from the pan.