Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, celebrates the Jewish nation receiving the Torah. It takes its name from falling seven weeks after Passover, this year at sunset on Tuesday.
Unique among the holidays, Shavuot is known for its dairy meals. One explanation for this custom is that when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they were given instructions on how to slaughter and prepare meat. Before receiving the Torah, the Jews did not know these laws, and all their meat, plus the cooking pots, were considered not kosher. The only alternative was to eat dairy, which requires no advance preparation.
Another explanation is that the Torah is compared to nourishing milk. The Hebrew word for milk is chalav. When the numerical value of each letter are added together, the total is 40. The number 40 represents the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.
Popular Shavuot dishes include cheese cake, quiches and blintzes. In my family, cheese blintzes are a holiday favorite. This traditional dairy dish is a crepe which can be filled with cheese, potatoes or fruit, and enjoyed with sour cream on the side. The first year I was married, my sister-in-law told me I had to learn how to make blintzes, and showed me how to fry the crepes and wrap them. At first, I felt intimidated trying to get the omelet-thin consistency just right. But through trial and error, I discovered these crepes are quite easy to make.
While I buy frozen blintzes for a quick meal, for Shavuot, I only make blintzes from scratch. Over the years, I’ve tried various methods of making the crepes, such as using different size pans and buying a professional crepe maker. I even tried using wonton wrappers as a time saver. Unfortunately, my wonton-wrapper version was nowhere near the real thing.
By experimenting over the years, I learned a few important tricks for making great crepes. During my early years of cooking, I destroyed at least a few pans by overheating them on the stove. I later discovered that a pan in bad condition doesn’t bode well for crepes, or even latkes, which fall apart. The first tip for great blintzes is to have a good, nonstick frying pan, which doesn’t need to be expensive.
The second important rule is that the pan must be very hot, with a scant amount of oil, before pouring the batter. Too much oil will make the crepes absorb too much, and not enough oil will make the crepes stick to the pan. It requires constant vigilance to make sure you have just the right amount of oil, because it is so hot. It is also important to make sure to flip the crepe at the right time. One way to check is to peek underneath with a spatula, to see if it is golden. Just as when making pancakes, the batter bubbles in the pan. When it starts bubbling frequently, it is ready to flip over.
Another way to tell when to flip the crepe is by shaking the pan from side to side. If the crepe becomes loose, it is ready to flip over. If the crepe does not come loose, you may need to add a tiny bit of oil. The second side cooks much faster, so you need to check it frequently. When removing my crepes from the pan, I transfer each one to a flat soup bowl to let it cool, separating each one with a paper towel, to absorb any residual oil.
When I first started making blintzes, I used a large frying pan, and flipped the crepes over onto a large dinner plate to keep it intact. With a large pan, it is difficult to maneuver crepes with a spatula. A few years ago at a banquet, I watched as the chefs made dessert crepes using a small pan. Since then, I have been using a 7-inch nonstick frying pan, which makes perfect crepes just about every time, and they are easy to flip with a spatula. I still use my crepe maker occasionally, but it is an acquired skill to get a ladle of batter to cover the entire surface. The advantage of the crepe maker is that it does not use oil, which is good, because once the blintzes are filled and wrapped, I fry them in oil. (The crepe maker doubles as a pancake griddle, so a griddle should work the same way.)
My next step in making blintzes is learning to make a fruit filling, but for now, my family is happy with cheese blintzes. Occasionally I will make blintzes using potato filling. Sometimes it’s difficult to predict the exact ratio between the cheese mixture and the number of crepes to be filled. Generally, for each batch of batter, I yield about 10-12 crepes using a 7-inch pan, and fill with a cheese mixture from one brick of farmer’s cheese. For a family of five, that’s two blintzes per person, and if I have extra there’s often a fight over who gets the extra blintz.
Now, I make two batches at once, because it’s better to have extra than not enough. Sometimes, I use an extra cheese to make sure there is enough filling, and use any remaining cheese for lasagna.
Most stores carry farmer’s cheese, which is found near the cream cheese. If farmer’s cheese is unavailable, a good substitute is ricotta cheese, which is stiffer than cottage cheese. I have tried the recipe using cottage cheese, which doesn’t hold up well in the crepe during frying.
This recipe for the crepes and cheese filling is from my mother-in-law, who told it to me many years ago.
Bletlach (as my mother-in-law called them in Yiddish, translated as “crepes”)
1 cup of flour
1-1/2 cups cold water (I usually add more for a thinner consistency)
½ tsp. salt
Mix ingredients in a large bowl until flour is completely dissolved. Gradually add water until you reach a smooth and thin consistency. You will need to mix the batter frequently, which tends to separate. Fry blintzes on both sides until you reach a golden coloring. Set aside to cool, placing paper towels between each crepe, if desired, to absorb any extra oil.
7.5 oz. brick of farmer’s cheese
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
About 3 medium potatoes
1 onion, chopped (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel, cut, and boil potatoes for a ½ hour. While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the chopped onion in a small amount of oil. Drain and mash the potatoes, season to taste and mix in the sautéed onion, if desired, to impart extra flavor. (This potato filling is enough for one batch of crepes, approximately 10-12 crepes when cooked in a 7-inch frying pan.)
For each small crepe, use about 1 teaspoon of filling and put in the center of each crepe. Fold the crepes from the side and then from top to bottom. Place filled crepes open end down in a large skillet or pan with hot oil, enough for frying. Fry until golden on both sides.
Judy Mehlman is a writer in Silver Spring.