One woman’s search for the perfect cheese-filled pancake
“Women need role models on how to be effective advocates, and how to make a perfect blintz,” the activist Cora Weiss once said. The blintz—that old world delicacy with its winning combination of a slightly savory pancake and sweet, creamy filling—in recent years became a recurring theme in the cross-country phone calls I’d shared with my older sister. We’d catch up on work and family gossip and then the conversation would turn to blintzes.
Even with 3,000 miles between us, I could hear her wistfulness as she eulogized the blintzes our Grandma Anna used to fry up. “In oil,” my sister stressed, fearing she’d never again taste such wonders. Anna’s bletlachs (the pancake part of the blintz) were so diaphanous you could read the New York Times through them. Or so I was told.
I empathized with my sister’s desire, but I didn’t feel the same intense longing for this piece of our family’s legacy. In theory I liked blintzes—the fried, eggy dough stuffed with rich, velvety cheese or berries that have become a staple of the Shavuot dairy-laden meal. But in reality, Grandma Anna died when I was a baby, and unlike her matzo-meal pancakes, her blintzes did not make it into my mother’s repertoire.
The blintz is part of a larger global network of thin, griddle-cooked pancakes wrapped around robust fillings, many of which—from the Vietnamese bánh xèo to the French crêpe—I love. But the allure of the pancake of my own people has eluded me.
For my sister’s sake and for my own, I wanted to remedy that situation and sought out a blintz I could adore. Turned out, I was not the only one on such a hunt. “Where can I find a blintz like bubbe used to make?” was a common refrain on food blogs and websites. Guided by online recommendations, I embarked on a blintz-tasting tour over the past five months, using my sister’s description of our grandmother’s simple farmer-cheese-filled, paper-thin version as my Platonic ideal. Because I was looking for a perfect Shavuot blintz, I abstained from potato- and onion-filled varieties that are also popular among the blintz cognoscenti.
Even within the dairy pantheon, blintz variations are endless. “Blintzes are like matzo balls, the snowflakes of the Jewish food world,” David Sax, who sampled numerous versions while researching his book Save the Deli, wrote in an email. “I’ve seen thin little industrial ones in a factory being rolled by Mexican line workers, and I’ve seen plump crepes smothered in blueberry. It’s one of those things that can go a million different directions, depending on who makes it.”
In time, a few broad categories of blintz emerged. One common variety—large as a jumbo hotdog and amply stuffed—is represented at Junior’s in Los Angeles. Burrito-shaped, these blintzes have a well-seared, browned exterior, which plays nicely off the thick, sweet but not cloying, farmer-cheese filling. Similar in shape, but even bigger are the blintzes at the classic kosher lunch counter in New York’s East Village, B&H Dairy. They are incredibly crisp, almost crunchy, with a particularly savory exterior counterbalanced by an especially sweet cheese interior. I also found equally large, but far less crispy blintzes, like those served up at Zaidy’s in Denver. With a paler, chewy pancake, this school of blintz is more like a steamed bun than a fried eggroll. At each restaurant, an order of blintzes makes a meal, especially if you consider they’re topped with berry preserves or sour cream, since nothing goes better with a cheesy filling than a heaping spoonful of more dairy.
Finally, there are the incredibly light, feathery blintzes, which most closely resemble crepes and approached the fabled translucence of Grandma Anna’s bletlach. The finest I sampled of this ilk were at Veselka, the stalwart Ukrainian diner in New York City, where the blintzes are folded into a simple triangle lest they crumble in more intricate preparation.
(Because blintzes freeze and refrigerate well, many establishments offer a pre-made version, which you can take home and fry to your desired level of crispness. Frozen blintzes tend to be smaller and sturdier, like the ones in the deli case at Moishe’s Pippic in San Francisco, and tend not to fall apart.)
As I worked my way through scores of blintzes, I grew ever fonder of the form. But I still had not found one through which I could see the news of the day, nor had I tasted one that made me truly understand the depths of my sister’s hunger. I needed to make my own.
Living up to my grandmother’s standard was an intimidating prospect, but I was determined. My sister emailed me Anna’s recipe, and I went to work. Initial attempts were discouraging. The pancake batter, a deceptively simple combination of eggs, flour, milk, and a smidgen of canola oil, was difficult to make coalesce. The flour kept clumping up and the batter was runny. Although I followed the instructions to coat a cast-iron pan very lightly with oil, the egg in the mix still scrambled when it hit the hot, slick surface. The result, while surprisingly tasty (particularly when later dipped in hummus), were misshapen and leaden, the opposite of the thin, feathery bletlach that I sought.
When it came to the filling, I was better off. I couldn’t find farmer cheese in my first outing, but a small-curd cottage cheese fit the bill nicely. I added a little more sugar than Anna’s recipe called for, and I found myself sampling as I stirred. Being the glutton I am, I ignored the instructions to limit the filling to just one tablespoon, and as I flipped the overstuffed blintzes, cheese oozed out, curdling in the smoking skillet.
I searched online for counsel from other homemade blintz makers, and I tried a second round, this time with farmer’s cheese. To avoid clumping, this time I mixed the flour into the liquid in small batches, stirring madly as I went, and eventually resorted to an immersion blender to seal the deal before letting the batter rest for 20 minutes to thicken. I reduced the amount of batter in each pancake to about five tablespoons, which I then poured from a cup into the skillet, rotating the pan as I poured to coat the bottom evenly, creating a smooth, nearly sheer pancake. The first done with this method was a disaster. The second marginally better. But by my fifth attempt I had a masterpiece. In California at the time, I held the pancake up against the newspaper and clearly made out the words “Los Angeles Times.”
I scooped a mere tablespoon of the farmer’s cheese and folded the blintzes “envelope style” over it, frying the concoction in butter for a little extra richness. When I told my sister about my bletlach, she kvelled. “Next time frame it,” she said. “It’s like your first dance competition prize.”
Grandma Anna’s Cheese Blintzes (adapted)
For the bletlach:
3 large eggs
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vegetable oil (plus additional for frying)
¾ teaspoons Kosher salt
¾ cup sifted all-purpose flour
For the filling:
2 cups farmer cheese or small curd cottage
4 ounces cream cheese
1 large egg
1 tablespoon melted butter
2-3 teaspoons sugar (adjust to taste)
¾ teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
butter for frying
To make the bletlach:
Lightly beat eggs. Stir in milk, oil, and salt. Slowly add flour in quarter cup increments, whisking rapidly to combine (or using electric mixer). Let mixture rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes to thicken.
Heat a very small amount of oil in a small skillet over medium high heat. Portion about 5 tablespoons of batter into a cup (adjust depending on the size of your pan and desired thickness/size of pancakes). Pour batter into skillet; rotating skillet as you pour to evenly coat the bottom of the pan. Cook until edges of blintz between to curl up (about a minute). Flip cooked blintz onto tea towel, fried side up and let cool to room temperature. Repeat, whisking batter between each blintz.
To make the filling:
While bletlach are cooling, combine filling ingredients in small bowl. Then scoop one tablespoon of filling onto the fried side of the bletlach. Fold “envelope style,” folding the bottom of pancake over the filling, followed by the two sides, and then the top. Repeat with remaining bletlach.
Heat butter in skillet over moderate heat. Place blintzes in pan, folded side down.
Fry until golden and slightly crisped, flipping once. About 2 minutes per side.
Serve with sour cream or fruit preserves.
Katie Robbins is a freelance writer who splits her time between California and New York.