Where did blintzes come from and what made them into a Shavuos tradition? The first and obvious idea that comes to one’s mind is Russian blini, thin pancakes essential to Maslenitza, the Butter-Week, an ancient pagan worship retained and transformed with the conversion of Kievan Rus to Christianity in 10th century and still celebrated today. The oldest archaeological evidence of blini dates back to 2nd century C.E. Heralding the end of long harsh Russian winter and welcoming spring, this week-long revelry comprised many rituals, some differing from one region to another, and most of them lost in the fog of illiteracy. I remember learning in elementary school something about stone idols whose faces were supposed to be smeared in buttery blinis, much like in American pie-in-the-face sitcoms. I also recall the name Yarilo, supposedly one of the ancient pagan deities that represented the sun. So it all made sense, somehow. However, today in Lugansk, Ukraine, there is a park-museum of ancient stone idol sculptures, but none of them are either Yarilo, or the sun.
Well, here he is, a pretty handsome youth, personifying spring, love, and fertility, overseeing and protecting peasants plowing the land, so I guess, the sun is also shining there somewhere. However, even though the name BLINI is Slavic/Russian, and the actual stuffed blini are called blintchiki – almost blintzes! – it is doubtful that the Russians invented them since flat fried bread of some kind has been known, probably, even to the cavemen. Certainly, a variation of it exists in every country or culture. So it wasn’t a great shock when I read on http://www.myjewishlearning.com/ that blintzes are of Hungarian origin. Why not? But then it said that pancakes with various fillings, common in Hungary, are called palascinta, especially when they were baked together as a sort of a multi-tiered cake, and that has triggered another memory.
We have learned from our Bessarabian (then Moldavian, now Moldovan) neighbors a delicious layered cake called placinta. Being a curious cat, I have long ago discovered that the name came from Roman placenta which means cake, which in turn came from a Greek word specifying a thin cake. So that, apparently, was yet another thing that the Romans appropriated from the Greeks, together with musical scales and the art of debate. The same Marcus Cato who has given us a cheesecake recipe also described the method of making a placenta cake: layers of thin dough interspersed by layers of cheese mixed with… honey! But wait a minute, this is my cheese and raisins pie, not a blintz! Romans also flavored it with bay leaves, but then you know those ancient Romans – they stuck bay leaves into everything, symbolizing victory.
The Romans, and then Romanians made huge trays of it, cut it into squares and sold them as individual pastries. Placenta cakes are still very popular in Romania; they are made not only with cheese and raisins, but also with feta cheese, potatoes, apples, and even chocolate (Yum!). We used to make it with cheese and pumpkin, and that’s how I’ve made it for my father on Thanksgiving in the U.S. (for recipe, please click here). In no way was it associated with blintzes or Shavuos. If anything, blintzes are still the closest relatives to Russian blini, minus the yeast.
We mix the dry ingredients first: flour, brown sugar, a pinch of salt. Pretty basic stuff. Then whisk eggs with milk and vanilla (I use soy milk instead of regular milk, but do whatever you prefer).
The tricky part is to slowly introduce the wet mixture to the dry ingredients while stirring all the time to get rid of the lumps. Either you have to have two pairs of hands, or a better helper than my cat!
Frying pan of the size you want your blintzes to be is pre-heated to medium, misted with oil, and now comes the second tricky part. Thin liquidy batter must be spooned (or ladled) onto the frying pan in a lighting-quick circular motion. It must cover the entire surface, yet be thin enough to be easily folded later. If the first one (or two!) does not come out right, don’t worry! The Russian saying is, “The first blin is always a mess.” Practice the circular wrist movement in your yoga class. It takes literally a minute or two, and you’ll see the edges curling up. Time to remove it, quickly mist the frying pan again, and repeat the procedure.
Even though these bletlach (that’s Yiddish for blini before they are stuffed) look golden and gorgeous, like the sun, they are only fried on one side. Warning: make sure to chase kids, cats, and dogs out of the kitchen at this point, otherwise you’ll be left with nothing to stuff! But seriously, all that’s needed is a little nudge while you are doing that swirling shtick with the hot frying pan, and someone might get hurt, G-d forbid! Even my grandmother told us to keep a safe distance.
While the bletlach are cooling off, get the filling ready by mixing farmer cheese, sugar, egg, and vanilla. Spread each bletl fried side up and put a heaping tablespoon of filling on the half closer to you. Leave about 1 1/2 cm (1/2 inch) on top and both sides. Fold it starting from the top, as you would fold an envelope.
Place on a plate seam down and put aside. Continue stuffing and folding, and remember to put filling on the fried side. If you make a mistake, as I do all the time, it’s called a chef’s bonus. You stuff it – in your mouth!
Stuffed and neatly folded, your blintzes now have to be fried again, this time on both sides. It is very quick, too, no more than a minute or two on each side, medium heat. Even though I mist the pan with oil, I still prefer to blot excess oil by lining a plate with paper towels before actually arranging them in a dish that will be kept warm for Yom Tov.
This is how they were served on my holiday table. I don’t know from apple sauce, but we usually serve them with sour cream or jam.
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup white flour
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup milk or substitute
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- pinch of salt
- 1 lb farmer cheese
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons sugar or substitute of your choice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- To prepare batter, first mix dry ingredients.
- Whisk eggs with milk and vanilla and slowly introduce to dry ingredients, while stirring all the time to avoid lumps.
- Pre-heat small frying pan to medium, mist with oil
- Quickly spoon or ladle batter and swirl the frying pan around, making sure the entire surface is evenly covered.
- Fry for a minute or two until edges start curling up.
- Remove, mist pan with oil, and repeat procedure.
- To prepare filling, mix farmer cheese with egg, sugar, and vanilla.
- Spread each piece fried side up, put heaping tablespoon of filling on the half closest to you leaving about 1 1/2 cm (1/2 inch) on sides and top. Fold like an envelope.
- Fry stuffed blintzes on both sides for about a minute or until golden brown.
- Remove, blot excess oil.
- Serve hot with sour cream or jam.