Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cheese Blintzes with Berry Sauce

I thought it would be simple to put together a nice blintz recipe to put up in time for New Year's Day brunch.  But then again, somehow I forgot that I am a compulsive food nut!  I started with my original recipe which called for 3 eggs, 1 cup of skim milk, 1 cup of flour and a few other ingredients (we'll get to the filling in a minute).  These wrappers were good, but they weren't quite as sturdy as I would have liked them and the batter was just a tad heavy which made swirling the pan a little harder than necessary.  I had seen some recipes on the Internet that varied a bit, and so I proceded to make them again, and again, and again until I can barely stand the thought of blintzes (at least in the near future).  I tried adding more milk, using water instead of milk, adding melted butter, etc.  The ones made with water were flat tasting and didn't brown up enough.  The ones mades with less egg and more flour were tough and dry and stuck to the pan.  Finally I thought I would try adding a little more egg, and voila - I had the wrapper I was after.  As for the filling, you might see recipes that call for pot cheese, farmer's cheese, cottage cheese or ricotta.  Personally, I have never seen pot cheese in the store, and I knew that the farmer's cheese that we get here was totally wrong - it is a brick of cheese with a dense texture- not at all the right texture or taste (we don't get Friendship farmer's cheese, which I understand might be perfect).  Ricotta didn't work for me either because it contains vinegar, and the taste is all wrong.  After researching pot cheese and farmer's cheese I learned that traditionally, these are fresh milk cheeses that aren't readily available because they spoil fast, but that they are basically cottage cheese that has been drained so that the texture is drier and firmer (and that's what I had always used in the past).  I made my filling with a low fat cottage cheese, and also a full-fat cottage cheese, but the difference wasn't great, so I opted to stay with the lower fat cheese.  Don't forget that once you press out the liquid, the denser cheese is also denser in calories and most other nutritional elements.  Besides the type of cheese, there were instructions for processing the cheese, whipping the cheese, hand-beating the cheese or stirring it.  For my Light Jewish Holiday Dessert cookbook, I had made some lowfat blintzes, in which I had processed the filling.  I remembered that I didn't quite like the texture this made, but it hadn't made much difference for that book, because there was also an apple filling inside of the blintz.  But with just cheese,  I wanted this filling to be perfect.  I tried the processing method again, and also used the beater on another batch. Both of those methods created a cheese that was too thin. I decided to stir everything together by hand, pressing the cheese against the side of the bowl to make it a little smoother (I don't think for blintzes that you want a totally smooth filling).  I also used the filling at room temperature and one batch with refrigerated cheese and the difference was vast.  The ones with the room temperature  cheese were runny and grainy, while the chilled filling hung together nicely and remained creamy.  Even with the colder cheese, the filling wasn't as firm as I would have liked it.  I did some more experimenting adding more egg  and then egg and flour to the filling, and here again, the results were spectacular.  The filling with more egg and a little flour held on to its shape even after the blintzes were fried and warmed in the oven.  I'm sure that those of you who eat blintzes have a mental idea of what is perfect for you.  Now that you know the effects of these ingredients, techniques and temperatures you'll be able to tweak the recipe to create your own perfect version. By the way, the berry sauce was also an adventure (recipe follows). 
Happy New Year!

Makes 10 Blintzes

Blintz Batter
2 large pasteurized eggs
1/2 cup milk (skim to whole, your choice)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour, measured by fluffing, scooping and levelling

Cheese Filling
2 pounds cottage cheese (brand matters - use one that tastes sweet and delicious to you!)
2 ounces light cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons powdered sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large pasteurized egg, whisked (instructions for regular eggs follow)

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, for frying

Berry Topping
3 cups blackberries
3 cups raspberries
2 cups blueberries
1/3 -2/3 cup sugar, to taste
dash cinnamon, optional
1 teaspoon cornstarch,  optional

For the very best results, you'll want to make the filling far enough in advance so that it will be cold when you fill and fry the blintzes.   You can also make the wrappers a few days ahead, if you like.  If you want  the berries softer and sweeter, make them in advance, too.  At the very least, you want to make the berry topping at least 1-2 hours ahead of serving, especially if using blackberries, which have very firm center cores.

For the blintz batter, place the eggs,  milk, salt , and sugar  in a food processor bowl.  Process until well blended.  Add the flour, all at once.  Process for 5 seconds to blend the ingredients.  Scrape down the bowl and pulse for 3 more seconds to blend well.  Transfer the batter to a storage container.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 3 days.

To make the filling, you'll need to drain and press the moisture out of the cheese.  I've tried cheesecloth, the traditional method, but find it messy and inefficient.  I find that the easiest way to do this is in a knee-high stocking.  Cut off the top 3 inches of the stocking, and then put it in a tall glass with the top of the stocking cuffed over the top of the glass so that it will stay in place when you fill it with the cheese. 

 Hold the stocking over the sink with one hand, squeeze all of the filling towards the tip of the stocking. 

Continue to squeeze the cheese until the stuff coming out looks very thick or like curds are coming out.

The best way to get the cheese back out of the stocking is to put the stocking back into the glass, fold the top over the glass (as in the beginning), and then holding onto the stocking on the outside of the glass, turn the glass upside down over the bowl.  Shake the glass crisply and the cheese should start coming out of the stocking. Once it starts coming out, you can squeeze the stocking to help it along. 

You have now made pot cheese or farmer's cheese!  Add the cream cheese and press it against the sides of the bowl with a wooden spoon.  Once it is smoothly against the bowl, start mixing the cottage cheese and cream cheese together by mashing it against the side of the bowl.  The object is to mix the two together and to smooth out the cottage cheese a little - you are not aiming at a smooth filling - just one that is smooth enough to be pleasing on the tongue!  Stir in the remaining filling ingredients until well blended.  Transfer to a covered storage container, and refrigerate until cold or up to 1 day ahead.

Before starting the blintz wrappers (crepes),  have a piece of parchment paper near the stove onto which you will flip the crepes.  Remove the blintz batter from the refrigerator and stir it.  Heat a small nonstick pan over medium to high heat (depending on your stove and pan), until a droplet of water rolls around in the pan ( you can also use a carbon steel crepe pan, but you'll need to lightly butter it).  Ladle about 3 tablespoons of batter (a scant 1/4 cup) directly into the center of the pan.  Immediately pick up the pan and swirl the pan around and around so that the batter widens out  to fill the whole pan with batter.  By the time you do this, the crepe will almost be finished cooking.  Set it back down on the burner to finish cooking any spots that still look shiny.  As soon as the entire surface is dull, the crepe is done. 

To get the crepe out of the pan,  start the edge with a fork and then just turn the pan upside down over the parchment.  Once the edge is raised you'll be able to grab it and pull, and the whole crepe should come down onto the parchment paper.  You want this side of the crepe to be nicely browned, but not too brown or burned.  Adjust the burner accordingly.  On my heavy-duty gas range with an All-Clad pan, I start off medium-high and then need to turn it down to medium-low, but each stove will be different.

For my taste, the crepe on the left hand is too light, while the one on the right is just a bit too dark.  You can stack the crepes one on top of the other, and fill them as soon as they are all done, or cover them with wrap and refrigerator for several days before using.

Make the berry topping, sometime before you start filling the blintzes, either within 2 hours or ahead. 

In a small pot, combine 1 cup washed blackberries and 1 cup of washed blueberries**.  Place the remaining washed berries in a bowl.  Add 1 tablespoon sugar to the berries in the pot and 1/4 cup sugar to the berries in the bowl.  Let both sets stand for 10 minutes.  Mash the berries in the pot with a potato masher or fork. 
Place the cornstarch in a small bowl and stir in 2 teaspoons water.  Bring the berries to a boil, reduce the heat and let the mixture cook for 4 minutes.  Stir in the cornstarch mixture, bring it back to a simmer and let the mixture cook for 1 minute or until it goes from being cloudy to being clear. Let the cooked berries cool for 1 minute, and then strain them over the berries in the bowl.

Toss the berries with the cooked mixture until everything is well coated.  Set aside at room temperature for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally, or transfer to a covered storage container and refrigerate until ready to serve (we like the berries at room temperature but you can eat them at any temperature you like).

 When ready to assemble the blintzes, preheat the oven to 200 degrees if you've used pasteurized eggs and to 300 degrees if you've used regular eggs in the filling.  Take the wrappers and cheese out of the refrigerator.  Set one wrapper on a piece of parchment or work surface with the browned side up.  Place about 2-1/2 tablespoons of the filling  on the crepe, just downward of the center in a mound that is about 1-inch x 3-inches. 

Most instructions call for folding over the bottom edge first and then the sides, but I think they are easier to make if the sides are folded in first, and then the bottom.  If done this way the crepe will stick to itself and you won't be fighting with it trying to get the sides to stay in.

Fold the bottom part over the filling and then continue to roll the blint up into a cylinder.

Add 1 tablespoon butter to a large frying pan (I use cast iron), and heat until the pan is hot and the butter has started to brown.  Add half of the blintzes to the frying pan  and cook for a few minutes on each side until they are brown on both sides.
Drain the blintzes on paper towels and then put them on a pan and set in the warm oven.  Repeat with the remaining blintzes.  If you have used pasteurized eggs in the filling, they won't need more than 5 minutes in the oven to warm them up.  You don't want the filling too hot or the blintzes will be hard to eat.  If you have used regular eggs, you want the filling to reach 160 degrees.  This should take 10-15 minutes in the oven.  Let them cool down before you eat them, or the filling will be unpleasantly hot.

Serve the warm blintzes with a bowl of sour cream and the berries.

**You can use any mix of berries that you like, but don't mash raspberries unless you are fond of the seeds.  Even if you strain them, lots of the raspbery seeds will get into the sauce (to strain raspberries you need a fine mesh strainer, a food mill or a chinois).  If you are using only blackberries, you can skip the heating process. Just mash 1/3 of the berries, add back into the  remaining sugared berries and let them macerate for 1-2 hours or overnight.

Enjoy the berry sauce on pancakes, waffles, blintzes, cottage cheese or ice cream.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Mushroom Barley Soup

I love soup  because it's so easy to make, doesn't really need fussing, measuring or gussying up - in other words, just the opposite of baking.  Especially when I've put all of my energy into making dessert and making it pretty, soup is just so easy!  And nothing is better on a cold winter evening, than a nice bowl of hearty soup.  My Dad, who loved to eat, didn't start cooking until later in life, after he and my mother both retired.  He, too was a great lover of soup.  This recipe is basically his with just a few minor changes and a fleshing out of the techniques.  He used equal portions of dried and fresh mushrooms, but I don't usually keep dried mushrooms around, and they can be hard to find.  I find that the cremini mushrooms are so tasty that the dried ones are not needed.  If you do decide to use some dried mushrooms, soak them in hot water, drain them reserving the liquid and then strain the liquid into the soup

Serves 6

1 tablespoon mild oil, divided
3/4 cup cremini mushrooms, washed, dried and chopped
1/4 Vidalia onion, skin removed, and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
4 cups low-sodium beef stock
1/2 cup pearl barley
1 cup non-fat half & half
salt and pepper to taste

Add the 2 teaspoons oil to a large stockpot.  Heat on high, and when the oil is hot, add the mushrooms, and saute until brown.

Reduce the heat, add the remaining oil, onions, celery and carrots, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions are translucent but not brown.  Add the stock and the barley.  Cover the pot and simmer for 1-1/2 hours.

You can leave the soup as it is, but I like to puree a few ladlefuls , which makes the texture more pleasant to me, and also thickens the soup.  I use a slotted spoon to transfer about a cup or two of veggies and barley to the processor, and then I process it until it is not quite smooth.  After it is ground up pretty well, you can add a little of the broth to help get it pureed.  Once it has the texture you like, scrape it back into the soup.  Stir in the half & half, bring back to a simmer, and serve.  Soup almost always thickens overnight.  If you want it more liquidy when you reheat it, add more half & half or puree some more of the veggies.

Saturday, December 18, 2010