My grandmother made the best blintzes. Blintzes, for those who haven’t had them are small crepes, filled with slightly sweetened farmer cheese. My mother, a good cook in her own right, helped my grandmother for years, but couldn’t duplicate the taste. After my grandmother died, I would order blintzes in restaurants or from deli counters, but I was always disappointed.
My mother’s parents were from Romania. My grandmother left as a teenager, long enough to absorb her mother’s cooking. In between the roast beefs and roast chickens, she made the foods she grew up with. grandma made a vinegary eggplant, onion, green pepper and garlic relish she called shulatah, which I later learned meant salad. She served mamaliga (Romanian for polenta) with fried lox wings (the meaty part of the side fins of smoked salmon rolled in cornmeal and sautéed). She added helzel to her chicken soup. (For helzel, she sewed matzo ball batter into the breast skin of a chicken and poached it in the soup. It was delicious, even though you had to pay attention to avoid biting into the thread.) She fried smelts and when the shad ran in the spring, she served roe of the fish sautéed in butter. I never got to explain to her what an oxymoron was and she wouldn’t have cared. Roe of the fish what it was called. She was a good cook and let us kids raid the mayonnaise jar she kept filled with chocolate chips whenever we visited.
When you think back on the foods you loved as a child, the question is: did they really taste that good or were they simply familiar? Does the warmth of your families’ kitchens color your memories? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. All I know is that no one’s blintzes tasted like grandma’s.
While memory is a tricky thing, so are grandmother’s recipes. Grandmothers are notorious for knowing how much and how long without measuring cups or timers. My mother had many conversations with my grandmother about ingredients. They invariably ran like this: “When it looks right, you know it’s enough.” “How do I know what looks right?” “When it looks like this.”
I know of one person who filled measuring cups with flour, sugar, milk, etc. and had his grandmother make her blintzes. His grandmother poured the flour, stirred, and mixed and made her usual batch. He totaled up what was left and, voila, the recipe was his. The punch line, of course, is that they did not taste as good as his grandmother’s.
A couple of years ago, my daughter-in-law asked me to make her seafood crepes for her birthday dinner. I made a batch of crepes and a shrimp and scallop seafood filling. That night, when I bit into the crepe, through the shellfish my grandmother had never tasted, I got a taste of blintzes. Suddenly, grandma’s blintzes were within my reach.
Armed with James Beard’s crepe batter recipe and the knowledge that the local supermarkets sold farmer cheese, I set off to recreate grandma’s blintzes. I devoured a dozen recipes. They all used some combination of farmer cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, and eggs in wildly varying proportions. I tried a few and I finally hit on a mixture that tasted familiar. So I subjected it to the only tests I knew. I made a batch for my cousin Barry and asked him whether they tasted like grandma Ethel’s. He ate six without stopping, while telling a long and involved story about my grandparents, so I still don’t know what he thought.
When I visited my parents, I made them a batch. My mother kept her distance while I cooked, repeating “that’s not how mom did it” at regular intervals. When we ate them, she said they tasted like grandma’s but grandma’s bletloch were lighter. “What’s a bletloch?” I asked “The wrapper, you know, for the blintzes.”
My mother and grandmother served them with a dollop of sour cream, which I never liked. As a child, I ate my blintzes unadorned. When I serve blintzes today, I serve them with blueberry sauce. My wife likes to sprinkle sliced strawberries with a couple of tsp of sugar and let them sit for 10 minutes before topping her blintzes. You could serve them with sautéed apples.
My grandmother left a world of horse-drawn carts before WW I and died in the world of the Internet. Her cooking changed when she reached America She found new and different ingredients. She lacked some of the familiar staples. Items that were luxuries at home were available everywhere. I live in New England now. I use the local ingredients. I’m not kosher. My generation’s cooking includes different ingredients and a different view of fats, carbs, and vitamins.
So, the question remains. Are my blintzes as good as my grandmother’s? James Beard claimed to remember every meal he’d ever eaten. I’m not that good. All I do know is that my blintzes are tasty and my family likes them.
So grandma, no one will ever make blintzes as good as you. But when I place my blintzes on the table, I hear other plates being placed on other tables in a line through grandma Ethel back to grandmothers I never knew. And watching my family eat my blintzes, I can see ahead to grandchildren I will never know. At least they’ll have my recipe, so they can change it to their own tastes.