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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Cheese Blintzes

Blintzes were a natural next step in the evolution of breakfast skills because blintzes appear to be little more than very flat and thin pancakes wrapped around a filling and topped with a fruit sauce.

Actually, they are quite a little more.

Cheese blintzes have three components—the crepe, the cheese filling and the berry sauce—and each demand and deserve careful attention. Done well, blintzes are the centerpiece of a great Sunday pre-football game brunch.

I got into blintzes back in the 70s when the Steelers ruled the NFL and we lived in Pittsburgh. On game day, if we didn’t have tickets or the game was out of town, we either hosted or attended a day-long celebration of Steelers football that started with brunch; continued through a boozy, hor d’oeuvres and cheer-filled afternoon; and ended with early evening nightcaps that had us home by 10 p.m., tipsy, apologetic to the baby sitter, and—when the Steelers won—content and satisfied that all was right with the world.

My brother-in-law, Michael (now Father Michael), would sometimes baby-sit for us in those days. Although he was in the seminary at the time, some weekends found him in town and we would beg him and my mother-in-law Bunny to come over and watch our two (at the time) kids if we were heading to a Steelers party. It was actually a request that was fraught with danger. You see, babysitting our kids brings out the catastrophes that seem to lurk in the shadows around them when we gave them responsibility for our children.

Like the time that Father Mike went rushing out the door of his mother’s town house to get my oldest daughter Kimberly who was toddling toward the front walk. In his panic, he saw her hurtling towards the traffic, which—at her diapered pace—would have taken some time. As he put his hand out to fling open the storm door, he inadvertently thrust it through the glass. An ambulance ride and some dozen stitches later, he was fine and my daughter had some new paramedic friends.

Then there was the time my mother-in-law was watching our three kids. My wife, our daughter, Kimberly, and I were visiting potential colleges in the northeast so Mom came to the house to mind her grandchildren. A short while into her visit, she slipped on the stairs coming down from the second floor and broke her back. We returned in time to bring her home from the hospital; set her up in bed in our now-converted dining room; and help nurse her back to health. (Part of my contribution was to share a nightly chocolate éclair and a glass of scotch with the poor woman. Both of us ended her convalescence bigger than we were when we started it.)
Even with the risk we knew we were taking with the babysitter, a Steelers game day brunch was worth it.

For about a dozen blintzes

For the crepe batter
1¼ cups flour
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1½ cups milk (can use skim)
2 tablespoons butter, melted then cooled for the batter

For the fillings
16 ounces cottage cheese (or ricotta, which is a good, albeit drier substitute.)
8 ounces cream cheese
¼ cup Parmesan cheese finely ground (run pre-shredded cheese through a food processor
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons melted butter
3 teaspoons vanilla

For the sauce
3 cups fresh or frozen berries Blackberries, raspberries or strawberries work well.
¾ to 1 cup sugar depending on how tart the berries are
1 tablespoon water
½ tablespoon cornstarch

First, Second and Third: Put all of the batter ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Adjust the flour and/or milk to get the consistency of heavy cream.

OR: If you’re a purist who likes the feel of dough on his or her fingers, then proceed as follows.

First: Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Break the eggs into another bowl and mix until yolks and whites are blended. Make a hole in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in beaten eggs. Stir the flour mixture into the eggs little by little. You might need to add a little milk to incorporate all the flour.

Second: Add the milk a spoonful at a time and mix it in thoroughly before adding more liquid. When you’ve added about half of the milk, you can add the remainder in two portions.

Third: Add melted butter. Mix again

Fourth: Cover and set aside for at least an hour. Giving the batter time to rest allows the flour to better absorb the liquids. If it’s going to sit for more than a couple of hours, put the batter in the refrigerator. It can be held overnight.

Fifth: Grease an 8-inch skillet with light coating of butter. A non-stick or well-seasoned pan works best. Pour three to four tablespoons of batter into the skillet, turning the pan to coat it. Resign yourself to the fact that it will take at least two, if not three, crepes to get the right balance between the amount of batter and the heat of the pan. Throw the first few away. Fry lightly on one side—for about two minutes, then flip and fry for about 10 seconds on the other. Some recipes call for frying on one side only, but leaving the “flip” side uncooked seems wrong to me. You don’t even need a spatula, just carefully grab the crepe with your fingers at one edge and turn it over. Count to 10 and slide onto a stack, separating each crepe with a square of waxed paper. Repeat with remaining batter. You should get about a dozen.

Sixth: Beat or mix in a food processor the filling ingredients together until smooth. Put about 2 heaping tablespoons of filling in the middle of the browned side of the crepe. Fold the bottom third of the crepe up over the filling first, then fold over the sides, and finally fold down the top to form a small envelope. Place blintzes "seam side" down on wax paper. If you have time, fold wax paper around each blintz snugly and put all of them in the refrigerator for an hour or so to firm up. It makes them easier to handle later. Also, the blintzes may be frozen at this point, and then fried without defrosting.

Seventh: While they are resting, cook the berries in a saucepan over low heat, until bubbling. Mash, using a potato masher. Depending on your preferences, sieve out the seeds. Add sugar, and taste for tartness. Mix the water and cornstarch in a small cup and add to the sauce. Mix over low heat until you’re satisfied with the thickness of the sauce. If too thin, add some more cornstarch and water. If too thick, thin with water or—better yet—a little brandy or a liqueur like crème de cassis.

And finally: Melt two tablespoons of butter in large skillet over medium heat. Fry blintzes seam side down until golden brown on all sides. For a buffet, arrange on a warm platter and drizzle the sauce down the center of the row of blintzes. Serve the remaining sauce on the side. Serve as soon as possible. The sooner you can serve the blintzes when they come out of the pan, the better.

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