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.The following recipes are by Linda Morel:
Basic Blintz Recipe
1 cup milk
3/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus 6 tablespoons or more for frying blintzes
8-inch frying pan, preferably nonstick
Place ingredients in a large mixing bowl and beat until lumps disappear.
Melt additional butter in a frying pan on medium flame. With a 1/4 cup measuring cup, ladle batter into frying pan quickly. Immediately lift pan's handle and swirl batter around to evenly cover entire bottom surface of the pan. Return to flame.
After a minute or two, give pan a shake so blintz shell doesn't stick. Continue frying until edges curl and begin to brown.
When blintz shell is golden brown, with a thin spatula flip the shell and repeat on other side. When second side is golden brown, transfer to a plate. Pile shells on top of one another.
Give batter a brisk stir before ladling it for subsequent shells. Repeat until batter is gone.
Move one shell to another plate. Selecting a filling recipe below, place 2 scant tablespoons of filling in an elongated oval in the center of shell. Keep filling away from edges.
Fold top and bottom edges down about 1 inch. Fold the right edge over the filling. Fold the left edge over the right flap. Fill remaining blintz shells. (Blintzes can be frozen folded side down and later defrosted at this point before proceeding.)
Melt butter in a large frying pan. Placing blintzes folded side down, saute until brown.
Makes eight blintzes
Sweet Cheese Filling
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup ricotta cheese at room temperature
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Confectioners' sugar for dusting, optional
Beat first four ingredients in a mixing bowl until smooth. Fills 8 blintzes.
Sprinkle Confectioners' sugar over blintzes after they are sauteed.
Goat Cheese and Honey Filling
1/2 cup goat cheese, room temperature
1 cup low-fat whipped cottage cheese
1/4 cup honey, plus extra for drizzling
2 teaspoons dried thyme, plus extra for drizzling
Beat ingredients in a mixing bowl until smooth. Fills eight blintzes.
Drizzle extra honey and thyme over fried blintzes just before serving.
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, cold from the refrigerator
1 teaspoon Confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons heavy cream
6 ounces semi-sweet baker's chocolate for drizzling
Grind chocolate chips and sugar in a food processor until chips reduce to half the size, about 30 seconds.
Add cream and mix well.
Fill blintzes with this mixture and fry immediately.
Meanwhile, melt baker's chocolate in a double boiler and drizzle on top of blintzes when ready to serve.
Fills eight blintzes.
8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
16-ounce container cottage cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup sour cream
In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese on high speed until fluffy, at least 2 minutes.
Add remaining filling ingredients and beat at medium speed for 5 minutes. Reserve.
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) sweet butter, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 8-ounce container cottage cheese
1/4 cup sour cream
5 eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup heavy cream
Butter a 9-by-11-inch ovenproof baking dish. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar.
In a small bowl, combine dry ingredients: baking powder, flour, salt and cinnamon.
In a medium bowl, beat wet ingredients: cottage cheese, sour cream, eggs, vanilla and cream.
Into the butter-sugar mixture, add dry and wet ingredients alternately, 1/3 at a time. Beat until well combined.
Divide dough batter into two equal amounts. Evenly spread half of dough into prepared pan.
Dollop filling on top of dough in pan. Gently spread out filling, disturbing dough as little as possible. Don't worry if filling doesn't evenly cover dough or if the two commingle a bit.
Cover filling layer with remaining dough, spreading it out to cover entire surface. Don't worry if it isn't completely even.
9. Bake in preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown. Dough will be soft. Turn off oven and leave door ajar for 5 minutes. Remove from oven. Serve warm with Strawberry Sauce (below). Recipe freezes well and can be brought to room temperature and reheated briefly.
1/4 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon orange liqueur
1 pound fresh strawberries, cleaned well, hulled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
Warm orange juice in a small pot. Slowly sprinkle in cornstarch and whisk vigorously.
In a medium-size pot, simmer water to hot, but not boiling. Add juice-cornstarch mixture and whisk vigorously until lumps disappear, about 1 minute.
Turn off heat. Add cinnamon, sugar and liqueur. Whisk until well blended.
Add strawberries. Cover pot and simmer on low flame for about 15 minutes. Stir every five minutes, so sauce doesn't boil over. Sauce should be slightly thicker than maple syrup. Serve hot or at room temperature.