Now, we all know that the food–Hanukkah connection has to do with the oil: The Maccabees had too little oil to keep the Temple lamp burning for even a day, but miraculously the available oil kept burning for the eight days of Hanukkah. So many of us eat latkes fried in oil (nowadays as little as possible!) and accompany them with luscious, creamy sour cream and applesauce to add the sweetness of celebration to the holiday.
Well, I’d like to propose an alternate pancake for the holiday that is actually fried twice, (once while making it and once after filling it) and one that can be made with a light cheese you can make yourself and be served with homemade sour cream — great to create with kids or for a Hanukkah party. And who doesn’t love — no, crave blintzes?
Start with milk, vinegar, cream and buttermilk, a little cheesecloth or a thin kitchen towel, some heat and voilá! You have a delicious cheese and a wonderful sour cream. Put more milk into a blender with eggs, flour, oil, a little sugar and vanilla and you have the batter for blintzes. A blintz is a crèpe, a pancake you only have to cook on one side before turning it out on top of the other pancakes you’ve already made. What could be easier?
The cheese I propose has been made in Jewish kitchens all over Europe, Eastern Europe and in Central and South America for centuries. It’s known as “fresh cheese,” “farmer’s cheese” or “queso blanco,” which we’ll use for filling the blintzes. Our homemade sour cream is best known as the sweet, tart crème fraiche. It’s famously mysterious in American kitchens as an expensive French delicacy, but actually as easily made as stirring buttermilk into cream and leaving overnight in a turned-off oven.
First, for the fresh cheese, read through the next four paragraphs and collect your ingredients and equipment. You’ll need:
1/2 gallon of whole milk
2 Tbs. vinegar (preferably apple cider, but any will do)
1 tsp. salt
3-qt. non-reactive pot
Stirring spoon or spatula
Large (15” to 18”) square tripled cheesecloth or a large, thin dishtowel
String (or even clean shoelaces) for tying the cloth
Medium-sized colander or strainer
Three medium bowls
A pole or rod to tie the cloth to (cheese inside) for draining
First, put the whole milk into the pot and bring to just under a boil. When the temperature is correct, bubbles will form around the edges of the milk, but the milk shouldn’t bubble. Then, stirring with a wooden spoon or heatproof rubber spatula, add 2 Tbs. of apple cider vinegar. You will see small, semi-solid “curds” forming and separating from the water (whey) in the milk. Leave the heat on very low while you put the cheesecloth or towel on a medium-sized colander set over a bowl in the sink, making sure the corners of the cloth hang well over the edges of the colander.
Carefully ladle all the curds and whey (now you know what Little Miss Muffet was eating!) into the cloth-lined colander. When all the whey has drained into the bowl, bring the four corners of the cloth together and tie them into a knot, forming a bag around the curds. Save the whey to make super-easy ricotta.
Now you’re going to hang the bag, suspending it over another bowl, for one to two hours until the cheese has drained out all the whey. (The bag will no longer be dripping when the cheese is done.)
One easy way to hang the bag is to suspend a broom or mop handle on the high backs of two chairs facing each other. Tie one end of a string around the knot in your cheese bag and tie the other end to the pole. Put a bowl on the seat of one of the chairs, under the bag, making sure the bag is hanging at least two inches above the bottom of the bowl. Or, if you have a rod in the bathroom for your shower curtain, tie a long string to the knot in the cheese bag, then tie the other end to the shower curtain rod. Put the catch bowl on the edge of the tub just under the bag.
Untie the bag, undo the knot and open the cloth. Put your cheese in a bowl and mix in about 1 tsp. of salt, or to taste. Put in a covered container and into the fridge until you’re ready to fill your blintzes, if you haven’t eaten it all by then! You’ll have about 2-1/2 cups of fresh cheese.
Crème fraiche is one of the little secrets known by chefs in most kitchens all over America, but for some reason household cooks think it’s difficult to make. It is, in fact, much easier than pie:
2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream, warmed to lukewarm
1/2 cup cultured buttermilk
Right before you go to bed, turn the oven to 350º. Put the warmed cream into a clean 1-quart glass container, either a bowl or a jar will do. With a clean whisk, stir (don’t beat) in the buttermilk, trying not to make too many bubbles but blending thoroughly. Don’t cover.
Place on a cake or pie pan inside the oven and close the door. Turn off the oven and go to bed. When you wake up in the morning, tip the bowl or jar slightly to the side. If the crème fraiche stays together in a mass and doesn’t move, it’s done.
If it’s still a bit liquidy, turn the oven on again for about 10 to 12 min at 350º, put the crème fraiche back in, turn off the oven and leave for another 6 hours or so. Check again and if it still hasn’t “made,” gently stir in more buttermilk and repeat the on-off oven step. I guarantee you will be able to make this luscious treat. When thick, refrigerate until completely cold.
One cautionary note: Don’t stir, shake or disturb until thickened and completely chilled — as all cultured milk products (like yogurt), crème fraiche doesn’t like to be disturbed while culturing.
Now, let’s make some Hanukkah blintzes!
2-1/2 cups milk
1 tsp. salt
3 Tbs. light vegetable oil or melted butter
2 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
Put the milk, eggs, salt, oil sugar and vanilla in a blender jar and blend on medium-high until completely mixed and frothy. Add the flour and blend on low until well blended. The batter should coat a spoon so that if you run your finger through the batter it leaves a clear channel on the back of the spoon. If too thin, add 2 or 3 Tbs. more flour; if too thick, 1/4 cup or so more milk.
Pour into a bowl and let sit while you collect an 8'' non-stick pan, about 1/2 stick of butter, a small ladle, a couple of paper towels, a non-stick spatula and a dinner plate.
Heat the pan over medium heat, add 1 tsp. or so of butter and let heat until the butter melts. Wipe the pan out gently with a paper towel, leaving just a film of butter.
Pour a small ladle of batter into the middle of the pan. Right away, lift the pan off the heat and roll the batter around the pan till it coats the entire bottom of the pan. Pour any excess batter back into the bowl, or if the first ladle added too little batter, add a bit more to fill any holes in the thin pancake now cooking on the bottom of the pan.
When the pancake looks dry on top, loosen it around the edge with the spatula, then turn the pan upside down onto the dinner plate and let the pancake drop out, cooked side up. (If it folds, just straighten it out with your fingers till it is laying flat.) For the next couple of pancakes you may not need any butter at all — just wipe the bottom of the pan with the buttery paper towel and pour in and roll the batter. If more butter is needed after a few pancakes, melt a teaspoon or so in the pan and wipe it out again with the towel. Drop the cooked pancakes on top of one another, cooked side up, till all the batter is used up.
Makes about 24
Fresh Cheese Filling for Blintzes
2 cups homemade fresh cheese (or store-bought ricotta)
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup sugar or honey
1 tsp. vanilla
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2/3 cup cherry, plum or other preserves (optional)
Whisk together all ingredients except the preserves till smooth and light.
Filling and Cooking the Blintzes
Place one pancake, cooked side up, on a cutting board. Put one large tablespoon of filling and one teaspoon of preserves, if desired, in the center, then fold the bottom and top sides of the pancake neatly over the filling. Fold the left flap of the folded pancake over the middle, then the right flap over the left to make a neat envelope. Turn the little packet over and reserve for cooking. Repeat with all the pancakes and filling.
To cook, melt about 2 Tbs. butter in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Put in as many blintzes, folded side down, as will fit in the pan. Cook on one side till golden then carefully turn over and cook on the top side till lightly crisp and golden brown, adding a bit more butter as necessary. Turn over (top side up) onto a paper towel to drain, then place on a heated platter and hold in a warm oven until all blintzes are cooked. You can also bake the blintzes if frying is not on the family diet: Lightly butter or oil a cookie sheet and place all the filled blintzes on it. Brush very lightly with melted butter or oil so the blintzes will brown and bake at 350º for 15 to 20 min. or until golden.
Serve with your homemade crème fraiche, more preserves and warmed applesauce. Latkes may be traditional (and great), but blintzes with homemade cheese and sour cream are even better!
If you have saved the whey from making cheese, here’s how to make the very simple “heavenly ricotta”:
Put the whey into a clean stainless steel or enamel pot and slowly bring to just about boiling. The ricotta will rise to the top as the temperature rises. Skim the ricotta off the top and put into a clean container. Continue to simmer and skim until no more ricotta rises. Add a touch of salt to the ricotta and chill. It is truly the best ricotta I have ever eaten, and so easy! Have both a very happy Hanukkah and some very fun cheesemaking!