You don’t need a passport to travel around the world; you just need a kitchen. Through cooking and eating you can experience the diverse menu of the Jewish diaspora one bite at a time. I’m always interested in finding parallel dishes in cuisines of different cultures, and one of the most delicious of these is the blintz.
Blintzes really are a universal food. The origin of the word is Russian and suggests a thin pancake to be filled, rolled and fried. We see evidence of blintzes as far back as the 14th century, and we’ve been eating them in the U.S. since at least 1900. These types of treats are found throughout Eastern Europe also and aren’t unique to Jewish cuisine—think egg rolls, Vietnamese summer rolls, French crepes and even enchiladas, which are all the same basic concept.
Blintzes are blank canvases just waiting to be filled. This time of year, as we’re approaching Shavuot, my thoughts turn to the traditional cheese blintz. Why are blintzes and Shavuot tied together anyway? There are many thoughts on this, including that two rolled blintzes next to each other (because who’s eating just one?!) resemble the tablets of the 10 commandments that God sent down with Moses on Mount Sinai. Another idea is that we’re celebrating the Promised Land full of milk and honey, so we eat sweet dairy foods. But frankly I don’t think we need an excuse to eat this simple but delicious dish!
My personal favorite recipe is for these cheese blintzes from Smitten Kitchen, which are decadent and nearly perfect. For a great how-to video on making a traditional blintz, check out this one from the New York Times. Dealing with gluten intolerance or celiac disease? Here’s a recipe for gluten-free blintzes.
Once you’ve gotten the general method down and feel comfortable creating the pancakes, you can get creative and fill them with your family’s favorite fillings. It’s a great opportunity to get your kids involved! My family recently made a dessert version of Vietnamese summer rolls, which were a big hit. We wet rice paper wrappers and filled them with our favorite fruits and chocolate, then rolled them tightly.
Want to make crepes instead? Make them ahead of time, and then invite family members and friends to choose their own fillings at brunch the following morning. Kids will especially like filling and wrapping their own crepes and may even be more likely to eat them!
In one of my favorite Jewish children’s books, “Sadie and the Big Mountain,” Sadie is feeling anxious about going hiking with her classmates to celebrate Shavuot, but the lure of blintzes helps motivate her to make the trek. You can make Shavuot a fun family activity in your house too by putting together a holiday dairy lunch and enjoying it outside during a picnic or hike. (But if you just want to stay home and eat ice cream instead, I won’t judge!)
Sarah Ruderman Wilensky is an experienced Jewish educator and founder of JewFood. She specializes in teaching about Jewish identity, holidays and culture through food, and has worked with every age group, from toddlers and preschoolers to elementary school students, teens, adults and families. She lives in Newton with her husband, two young children and cat, Brisket.