Cheese latkes are not the madeleines of my childhood. My grandmother and mother didn’t make cheese pancakes – for the sake of historical accuracy it should be noted that my mother hated work in the kitchen or being burdened by it. Her specialty was heating up prepared food – and it was only recently that I had the pleasure of tasting some.
However the words “cheese latkes” are the literary madeleine of my childhood. I learned about the existence of such delicacies – cheese-filled, bubbling in butter and soaked in cream – on the pages of my books describing the escapades of child heroes in Eastern European Jewish towns. Hearing the two words was enough to evoke a Pavlovian reflex of salivation, longing to taste what they described. Over the years, with the dimming of the precise literary depictions in my memory, these words became associated with the words “gold coins.” Only the Jewish town’s rich folk who could afford to buy cheese, butter and cream to their heart’s content. Cheese dishes in those books differentiated between lords or masters and ordinary people or servants, as well as between holy days and the rest. My life’s dream was to sit on a pile of golden coins while gorging on cheese latkes dripping with butter.
At some point, these cheese latkes became associated with a character in a Haim Nahman Bialik short story. This villager, Aryeh, remembered the gigantic bread-sized latkes served to our forefathers, bubbling with butter and croaking like frogs. Thus, in my imagination, these dishes assumed grandiose proportions with attendant sounds reflecting a healthy village life. However, what poets and authors in the 19th century were referring to was not the fried mixture alluded to by the modern term latke. “In Hebrew, which for many years was a written, not a spoken, language, the word referred to many types of cooked or baked dishes, not fried ones,” explains Shmil Holland, a researcher of Ashkenazi food culture and the author of a wonderful recipe book called Schmaltz. The association with a fried dish came later.
“When Shaul Tchernichovsky lists the food eaten on Shavuot, he speaks of something which is boiled in bubbling water, like dumplings filled with cheese, or of oven-baked pastries filled with cheese,” he says. “Shavuot in a Jewish town in the Diaspora was not associated with cheese in the way it is now in Israel, something promoted by Tnuva for commercial purposes,” he notes, referring to the Israeli dairy giant. “The festive meal included meat, chicken soup and gefilte fish. On the morning of the holiday, when lighting a fire was permitted, they would eat dairy dishes such as dumplings with cheese or cheesecake. Those cakes were also far from the airy ones of today, which require refrigeration. That was not available then. Those dishes were village-style cheesecakes made with yeast or flaky dough, topped by hard white cheese, baked and eaten fresh on the same day.”
Holland says that Jews in Eastern Europe didn’t eat fried latkes. Rather, he says, “all the dishes referred to by poets and authors were boiled dumplings – their romantic imagination does not reflect reality.” Thus, my imagined childhood latkes were actually dumplings, or kreplach called Syrniki. There’s nothing wrong with those soft white dumplings filled with cheese, dipped in sour cream, but where are the perfectly browned creations in the frying pan? So, in honor of the holiday and unforgettable childhood fantasies, here are two recipes for butter-fried latkes. One is a classic Eastern European one from Holland and the other, which is citrus-scented, is by Michal Waxman, an author with a Hebrew-language blog called “Let’s Eat.” Despite their simplicity and ease of preparation, these are heavenly dishes worthy of a lord’s table.
Shmil Holland: “Cheese pancakes are called syrniki in Slavic languages. Different types emerged in Poland, Russia and Ukraine. In Jewish kitchens they included fresh white cheese. Frying is done in refined butter which doesn’t burn, making the job easier. Such butter can be obtained in delis and supermarkets – it keeps for a long time. If unobtainable you can use ordinary butter, but be careful not to let it burn.”
Ingredients (for 10-15 latkes):
400 grams cheese – Urda or Ricotta
2 tbs flour
2 tbs potato flour
3 tbs sugar
A dash of vanilla extract
50 grams butter (preferably refined)
Mix all ingredients except butter until smooth. Put in fridge for half an hour. Warm up a heavy skillet with some butter. Using a tablespoon, lower mixture into pan, fry for 4-5 minutes until golden, carefully turn over and fry for 2-3 minutes on other side. Serve with sour cherry jam and sour cream.
Citrus-scented cheese pancakes
Michal Waxman: “Twice a year grandmother Tila would make sweet cheese pancakes – on Passover, when she’d use matzah meal instead of flour, and on Shavuot. She’d mix with a light hand sour cheeses, adding sugar and grated lemon peel, using lemons from our garden tree and grated orange peel, using seasonal oranges picked by grandfather in the orchard. When the house filled with smells of butter, we all gathered in the kitchen waiting in suspense for the hot pancakes, brown and thin-crusted, with a bite exposing their white interior, soft and fragrant.”
Ingredients (for 10-15 pancakes):
250 grams white cheese (Quark – a low-fat, crystalline cheese with a slightly sour taste, or, if unavailable, Tuv Ta’am cheese)
150 grams Ricotta cheese
1 egg (not too large)
1 tbs sugar
1 tsp grated orange peel
1 tsp grated lemon peel
2 tbs regular flour
1 cup bread crumbs
Refined butter with olive oil for frying
Icing sugar for serving
Mix in bowl the cheeses, egg, sugar, grated peels and flour until smooth mixture is obtained. Form round latkes with a thickness of 1 centimeter (if the mixture is sticky you can wet your hands). Dip each pancake in bread crumbs on both sides. Heat frying pan with refined butter diluted in a bit of olive oil. The height of oil in the pan should be the same as when frying meat patties, not deep. Fry pancakes until brown on both sides. Transfer to a plate covered in absorbent paper.
Serve hot, powdered with icing sugar, according to desired sweetness.