Bonnie S. Benwick
You could go your whole life without tucking into a serving of cheese blintzes, which is typically two or three of them because nobody could eat just one. But that would be a shame. Done right, they are a delicacy that brightens a brunch table and upgrades a pancake supper.
You tend to find the kind of blintzes I'm referring to on delicatessen menus, where they are often overstuffed, and you can buy them frozen by the half dozen, which begat a blintz souffle recipe so viral even Ina Garten took a swing at it. They are also the favoured dish of Shavuot, a two-day Jewish holiday beginning Saturday night that embraces dairy and commemorates the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Maven Joan Nathan has suggested a pair of cheese-filled packets placed side by side resembles those stone tablets, a notion that makes me smile.
The opportunity for top-notch blintzing is to inhale them freshly made by knowing hands, and just ferried to your plate from being pan-fried in butter so that tops and bottoms are browned just enough to create a gently crisp distinction between the tender pancake exterior and the lightly sweetened filling within.
The pancake part is critical, because it must be thinner than your typical crepe, to allow for an envelope-type fold. With this recipe from chef Ed Scarpone, your hands can become the knowing kind. The batter must be smooth. Unlike many blintz recipes that call for the batter to rest, we push it through a fine-mesh strainer to get the thin, lump-free consistency required. The pan should be 8-inch and non-stick, heated just so (see the STEPS, below). Measure the amount of the first pancake's worth in a designated cup, then muscle memory and a mental note will allow you to eyeball subsequent portions.
Once the batter hits the pan, you should have enough time to lift and swirl to achieve evenly distributed bottom coverage. The thing will set before 30 seconds pass, and as soon as the center is dry and the edges look even drier, and thin enough to see light through, it is done.
Filling, folding, frying come next; this assembly-line aspect puts blintzes in the modern era's "project cooking" category, I reckon, but creating 18 of them is not a heavy kitchen lift.
Scarpone had never built a blintz before he signed on to compete in Tzedek DC's annual celebrity chef challenge last year. "So, you could imagine my relief when I found out it was a crepe!" he says. His were more traditional than the other chefs', and were judged the best.
Serve them warm, with jam or fruit and sour cream, and you will see why they won. (The assembled - uncooked - blintzes can be frozen for up to 1 month; defrost overnight in the refrigerator.)
For the pancakes
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup ghee or clarified butter, plus more for the pan (may substitute grapeseed oil; leftover ghee can be strained and reused)
For the filling
1-pound farmer cheese
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
For the pancakes: Whisk together the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk the eggs and water in a large (4-cup) liquid measuring cup, until thoroughly blended. Pour into the mixing bowl, whisking long enough to form a fairly smooth batter. Pour the batter through a fine-mesh strainer back into your large liquid measuring cup, discarding the solids.
Use cooking oil spray to grease an 8-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat; the pan will be ready when a drop of water sizzles on the surface. If the water pops or jumps out of the pan, the skillet it too hot, so let it cool slightly before starting.
For each blintz, add a 3-tablespoon pour of the batter to the skillet, then quickly swirl the pan so the batter coats the bottom evenly, creating a thin, crepelike pancake. (The batter needs to be added all at once, otherwise it will cook before you've had a chance to swirl it. An easy way to do this is to fill a 1/4-cup measure three-quarters full. It may take you a few tries to get the hang of it; just be patient.)
Cook for 60 to 75 seconds, until the bottom is lightly golden. You can tell the pancake is ready by touching the center, which should be completely dry, with a thin, even drier-looking edge. Do not flip the pancake to cook the other side, and do not let the edges crack or get too brown. Use a spatula to transfer the pancake to a plate, where you will be stacking subsequent ones with pieces of parchment paper or wax paper in between to keep them from sticking together.
Use all the batter, and you should end up with a total of 18 pancakes. Let them cool while you make the filling: Clean the mixing bowl, then combine the farmer cheese, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla extract and lemon zest in it, using a fork to blend them well.
To fill each blintz, place the cooled pancakes on your clean work surface, with their lightly golden sides facedown. Place about 2 tablespoons of the filling in the lower third of one pancake, about an inch from the edge that is closest to you. Fold up the edge tight to the filling, then roll forward once. Fold in one side toward the center then the other, and keep folding to create a rectangular packet, turning it so the seam side is down. Repeat to form 18 blintzes.
(At this point, they can be wrapped in plastic wrap, then sealed inside a zip-top bag and frozen for up to 1 month.)
When you are ready to cook the blintzes, heat the cup of ghee or clarified butter just until shimmering in a large non-stick skillet (12 inches) over medium heat. Add the blintzes in batches of 4 or 5 at a time, seam sides down; this will give you space to turn them easily in the pan. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until the bottom of each blintz is golden brown and crisped. Use a thin spatula or tongs to gently turn them over and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on the second sides, so they are evenly browned.
Note: To make a cup of clarified butter, place 3 sticks (24 tablespoons) of butter in a saucepan over low heat. Cook without stirring until it has liquefied, then begin skimming/discarding the foam off the top, until the butter is clear enough to see through to the milky solids at the bottom of the pot. Strain through cheesecloth into a clean container, stopping just short of those milky solids.
Adapted from a recipe by Ed Scarpone, a chef and culinary director for the Schlow Restaurant Group. Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick.
Nutrition -- Calories: 490; Total Fat: 22 g; Saturated Fat: 11 g; Sodium: 440 mg; Carbohydrates: 41 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 8 g; Protein: 22 g.