Top tastes of Purim wrapped up together

The theme for our family Purim dinner this year will be blintzes, but the preparation will be a little different and will include ingredients that are symbolic for the holiday.

The inspiration for the menu began when my daughter, Susan, her husband, Leo, and our granddaughters were visiting from out of town, and we went to lunch at Zeidler’s Cafe at the Skirball Cultural Center. We ordered blintzes, and, although they were delicious, Leo said they didn’t compare with his grandmothers’. He remembered her crepes being so thin that you could almost see through them. Whether you call it a blini or crepe it is still a type of very thin cooked pancake usually made from wheat flour.

I hadn’t made cheese blintzes for several years, but that was the way I remembered them, too. When we got home that afternoon, I found my recipe, bought the ingredients and together we made blini that were the thinnest ever. Filled with farmers’ cheese, I fold them over like an envelope that results in rather semiflat blintzes. This helps prevent topping that is spooned over the blintzes from sliding off. The extra blini can be cut into strips and used in soup or for pasta.

It reminded me of the time chef Josie La Balch, owner of Josie’s Restaurant in Santa Monica, was a guest chef on my TV cooking show. She made a variety of filled blini, and served them in several ways. Included is one of her recipes, Crespelle with Ricotta and Spinach, which is filled with a ricotta cheese mixture, baked and served with a tomato sauce.

I have also included a recipe that substitutes thin slices of eggplant for the blini that are stuffed with a mixture of sauteed chopped vegetables, baked with tomato sauce and sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese. This is especially appropriate for Purim because it reminds us that Queen Esther, in order to eat only kosher food in the king’s palace, followed a vegetarian diet consisting primarily of grains, nuts and vegetables. The vegetable filling can also be substituted in place of the traditional cheese blintzes.

For dessert, serve sweet blintzes filled with diced apple that have been cooked in an apricot-sugar syrup. Fold into triangles, which represent the traditional shape of the Purim hamantaschen pastries, and fry in a skillet.

Classic Cheese Blintzes
Cheese Filling
Butter for frying
Sour cream and preserves

Fill the brown side of each blin with the Cheese Filling and fold, tucking ends in envelope fashion. (May cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.)

Melt about 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, nonstick skillet. Cook the blintzes on both sides, about three to four minutes on each side, or until lightly browned. Repeat with the remaining blintzes adding more butter as needed. With a metal spatula carefully transfer the blintzes to a serving platter.

Serve with bowls of sour cream and preserves.

Makes about 24 blintzes.

Cheese Filling
2 pounds hoop cheese, farmers or pot cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs

In a medium mixing bowl, add the cheese, sugar, salt and eggs and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

3 eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
1 tablespoon brandy

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs and sugar until well blended. Add the flour and salt and beat well. Slowly add the milk, blending until smooth. Stir in the melted butter and brandy. Pour through a strainer to remove the lumps that may form. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes, optional.
In an 8-inch round nonstick skillet or crepe pan, melt 1 teaspoon of butter over medium heat. When the butter begins to bubble, pour in about 1/8 cup of the batter to cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer. Rotate the pan quickly to spread the batter as thinly as possible, pouring excess batter back into the bowl. Cook on one side only for about one minute, or until the edges begin to brown. Turn onto paper towels and transfer to a platter. Repeat with the remaining batter and stack the Blini with wax paper in between. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to fill.
Makes about 24 blini.

Crespelle With Ricotta and Spinach
Ricotta-Spinach Filling
Tomato Sauce
Blini (see Classic Cheese Blintzes recipe)

Prepare the Ricotta-Spinach Filling and the Tomato Sauce, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Prepare Blini.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Brush a baking dish with olive oil. Spread 2 tablespoons of the Ricotta-Spinach Filling over the entire surface of each blin and roll up tightly. Place on prepared baking dish and bake until heated through, about 10 minutes.

To serve, heat the tomato sauce and spoon some in the center of each serving plate. Arrange one or two Crespelle (the Italian equivalent of crepes) on top of sauce, spooning additional sauce on the remaining Crespelle.
Makes six to eight servings.

Ricotta-Spinach Filling
1 pound ricotta
8 ounces spinach, steamed, squeezed dry and finely chopped
Nutmeg, freshly grated
Salt, to taste

Place the ricotta in a strainer set over a medium bowl for 30 minutes to drain. In a large bowl, mix the drained ricotta cheese, spinach, nutmeg and salt. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large onion, finely diced
1 large shallot, finely diced
1 can (26 ounce) whole plum tomatoes with liquid
1&’8260;2 cup dry red wine

Cheese for Shavuot wrapped in tradition and variety

More than 50 years ago my grandmother took me to a friend’s apartment. “Bertha turns out blintzes by the dozen,” Granny explained. “Even if there’s no company expected, she makes them and stocks her freezer.”

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.