Sunday, April 19, 2015

Buckwheat Palačinke--and Cheese Blintzes, too!

One morning last spring, I had an urge for buckwheat crèpes. Was this part of the Slovenian cooking tradition? I had no idea.

I couldn't find any mention of thin buckwheat pancakes or palačinke in my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks, although I found many white flour versions, along with a recipe for cheese blintzes. When I turned to Kulinarika, the online Slovenian language site, I did find some ajdove palačinke recipes. Most used a combination of white and buckwheat flours.

So I went back to my Slovenian American sources to find a good, basic recipe to adapt. Compared to my previous palačinke recipe (a variation on šmoren) these older versions all seemed heavy on flour and light on the eggs. I settled on a recipe from the Progressive Slovene Women of America, which they included in a recipe for blintzes ("sirovi ponvičniki.")

I made just a few changes, in addition to replacing half the white flour with buckwheat. I also skipped the salt and added a little cinnamon and vanilla.

This recipe worked like a charm! Nothing stuck, not even that always-tricky first pancake. Each one looked perfect. They seemed slightly more substantial than usual, perhaps because of the dark buckwheat flour. Or maybe it had something to do with the egg-flour-milk balance. After years of trying to duplicate my mother's beloved "jelly rolls" (the name she always used) I had finally found a reliable recipe--and with a buckwheat tang.

That first morning, my husband and I enjoyed them just as I had as a child, with a selection of toppings: Fresh apples. Greek yogurt. Organic preserves. Honey-tahini spread from Kosovo. If only we'd had some farmer cheese on hand, I might have made cheese blintzes.

My husband must have read my mind, because later that day he picked up some locally made Russian-style farmers' cheese. We still had half the recipe of crèpes left, so I was all set for the next day's breakfast.

I used the filling recipe suggested by the Progressive Slovene Women, with a few modifications. Since farmer cheese is more moist than the dry curd cottage cheese used in their recipe, I skipped the two tablespoons sweet or sour cream. I also omitted the salt and added a touch of sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. I followed the "envelope fold" method I'd learned from my mother, although in Slovenia a simple rolled-up tube shape might be more common.

The result? Delicious!

And I had a bonus: I still had a half recipe of cheese filling left over. A few days later, I used it as the foundation for a much-improved version of curd cheese pancakes, or syrniki. 

Buckwheat Palačinke or Crêpes

1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
2 eggs
1-1/4 cup milk
dash of cinnamon
1/2 t. vanilla

Cheese Filling (to make blintzes)

1 lb. farmer cheese
1 egg
2 T. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. cinnamon

For the palačinke or crêpes: Mix all ingredients until smooth and refrigerate for an hour. Heat a small or medium skillet with butter or oil. When drops of water dance on the surface, add just enough batter to cover the bottom of the skillet when rotated.  When firm, flip over and cook until done. Store in a warm oven until all the pancakes are made.

Serve with fillings and toppings of your choice. Butter and brown sugar were my childhood favorites. Other good options: Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, jam or preserves, honey.

To make blintzes: Prepare the cheese filling by mixing all ingredients together until smooth. Refrigerate while you make the pancakes. When all the pancakes are cooked, place a generous spoonful of cheese filling in the lower middle of each one and fold up like an envelope. Brown in butter or oil. Or, if you prefer to avoid frying, they can be oven-baked. (Just remember that filling needed to be cooked because of the egg!) Serve with toppings as above.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

At last: Slovenian Syrniki or Curd Cheese Pancakes (with a Passover option)

I first wrote about syrniki, or curd cheese pancakes, in the fall of 2013. I had just discovered them at a local farmers' market, where a Russian Jewish vendor was selling his homemade version. My first attempt at recreating the dish, while tasty, seemed too much like an American-style pancake. Ever since then, I have been trying to perfect my recipe.

In English, syniki are usually referred to as cheese pancakes, but a more accurate description might be cheese patties, croquettes, cutlets ("kotlety") or latkes, the familiar Jewish term. Since so many Eastern European groups have a similar dish, it seemed odd that Slovenians hadn't joined the party. I could have sworn I'd come across a recipe in one of my vintage cookbooks, but it was nowhere to be found.

I set out to figure out a recipe on my own. I was determined to duplicate the thick, mildly sweet patty sold by that Russian vendor.

Fortunately, I had access to the key ingredient: tart, homestyle farmer cheese or curd cheese. Belfiore, a small local company here in Berkeley, makes a very authentic version of Russian-style farmer cheese. Eastern European and Russian groceries offer even more choices. Here's a sampling:

For my second attempt, I started out with some leftover cheese filling from a tasty Slovenian blintz recipe. That filling, I realized, was very similar to most of the the authentic Russian recipes I'd seen: a single egg for a pound of cheese, along with a little sugar.  I just had to add some flour, along with a few other options I'd come across: a touch of cinnamon and vanilla, some lemon, and a little baking soda for leavening. This recipe came much closer to the farmers' market version.

I continued to experiment and learned that baking soda isn't absolutely necessary. The key is to use just enough egg and flour to serve as a binder for the cheese. The amounts can vary, depending on how much moisture the cheese contains. 

After all this experimenting, I finally found that elusive recipe for Slovenian syniki. It was hiding in the pastry section of my 1950s copy of Woman's Glory.  The ingredient list was essentially what I had figured out on my own, with cottage cheese instead of the more authentic farmer cheese:

1 lb cottage cheese
1 T. sugar
1/4 cup flour 
1 egg
1/4 t salt

The 1950s instructions suggest draining the cottage cheese, forming the mixture into "croquettes," rolling them in flour, and then frying in deep hot fat.

I took a look at the modern online site Kulinarika and found a similar recipe for "srniki" or "palačinke s skuto":

500 g cheese (translated as ricotta)
2 eggs 
2 T. sugar
3 T flour
1 T. baking powder (perhaps it should be teaspoon?)

This modern Slovenian recipe suggests making smaller patties (20-25 in all), coating in flour, pan-frying, and keeping warm in a 200 degree oven.

This week, I came up with my latest version of syrniki. It was a Passover variation, with matzo cake meal substituted for the flour. I thought I'd created something new, but an internet search revealed that Passover cheese latkes have been a Jewish tradition for a long time. This time around, I made one more discovery: The patties are much easier to shape if the batter is chilled.  In fact, this step is essential with the Passover version, since it takes a little longer for the moisture to be absorbed by the matzo meal.

Below is my master recipe, with a few variations noted.

Syrniki, or Curd Cheese Pancakes

1 pound (or 500 g) farmer cheese or curd cheese, preferably Russian-style
1 egg, well beaten
4-6 T flour
2 T sugar
1 t. vanilla (optional)
pinch of cinnamon (optional)
grated lemon rind (optional)
pinch or two of  baking soda dissolved in lemon juice (optional)

To make Passover cheese latkes: Substitute matzo cake meal for flour
Possible cheese substitutes: ricotta or cottage cheese, drained and sieved

Mix all ingredients together well, adding flour until you have a stiff batter. The texture should be closer to a drop biscuit than a conventional pancake batter. If possible, chill the batter for a half hour or more before shaping.

To shape: Drop heaping tablespoons or quarter cup scoops of batter onto a plate that is covered generously with flour or matzo meal. With floured hands, form into patties that are 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick. Coat well with flour. You should have 9-12 patties. If desired, chill.

Fry patties in oil until browned on both sides. Keep warm in oven until serving.

Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream, fresh fruit, or preserves.