Palacsinta (Hungarian Crêpes) with Sweet Cheese and Caramelized Rhubarb
This week’s post is inspired by the Jewish holiday Shavuot, which, this year begins at sundown on Saturday, May 23rd and ends at sundown on Monday, May 25th. For Jews, Shavuot is a spring festival with both historical and agricultural significance. Often remembered as The Festival of The Torah, it celebrates the giving of the Torah (the Jewish Bible) at Mount Sinai. Sometimes referred to as Feast of The First Fruits, Shavuot also celebrates the harvest of the season’s first fruits and grains. To observe Shavuot, Jews are not required to perform any rituals or attend a particular type of service; only festive meals and celebration are called for.
Some have nicknamed Shavuot “the cheesecake holiday”, because it has become customary for Jews of all kinds to celebrate Shavuot by eating foods featuring dairy. Why dairy? Most food historians explain the tradition’s origins as an accident of economics: in the spring, as their calves wean, the milk of goats, sheep, and cows is more plentiful than at other times, and cheese-making became a way of preserving the surplus. Others attribute the focus on dairy to the statement in the Bible, “And He gave us this land flowing with milk and honey” and the reference to the Torah as, “Honey and milk […] under thy tongue” in the Song of Songs. Some Jewish scholars claim an etymological explanation, finding the same root for the Hebrew word for cheese (gevinah) as for one of the many names for Mount Sinai (har gavnunim). Whatever the reason for the tradition, for generations, Jews around the world have enjoyed foods rich with cheese, cream, and sour cream to celebrate the holiday. Today in the USA and in Israel, any number of cheesecake varieties is usually the creamy treat of choice.
The truth is, I’ve never celebrated Shavuot in my life. So, not having any family Shavuot recipes to refer to, I started imagining what my grandparents’ families may have eaten in Europe generations ago, when Judaism was a more central part of their every day lives than it is mine. I discovered, thanks to one of my all time favorite books, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food, that on Shavuot, Hungarian Jews like my father’s ancestors would have enjoyed cheese-filled palacsinta to mark the day. Palacsinta, thin, delicate Hungarian pancakes that resemble French crêpes, are a family favorite that my Grandma Rose served year-round. Like latkes and matzoh balls, palacsinta belong to the category of foods that my older brother ate with such gusto that everyone at the table kept count of how many he was able to put away in one sitting. News that Grandma Rose was making palacsinta always turned the evening meal into a celebration, regardless of the time of year.
Palacsinta (Hungarian Crêpes) with Sweet Cheese and/or Caramelized Rhubarb.
Palacsinta can be filled with anything that strikes your fancy, but Grandma Rose always used one of two traditional fillings: apricot with walnut or sweetened cottage cheese with golden raisins. Given Shavuot’s emphasis on dairy, I’ve included the cheese filling here. And, for the raisin-haters out there, I’ve also come up with a rhubarb version: a modern twist still in keeping with the holiday to celebrate one of the first fruits of the season.
For the Pancakes:
(makes about 8 pancakes)
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup seltzer
butter for the pan
1. Make the pancakes: Mix all the ingredients except the seltzer thoroughly, and whisk until smooth. Let rest, refrigerated, for one hour.
2. At the last moment, just before cooking, stir in the seltzer.
3. Heat an 8-inch non-stick pan, frying pan, or crepe pan. When the pan is hot, add about ¼ teaspoon of butter, allowing it to melt and, using a brush, spreading it to cover the bottom of the pan.
4. Pour about ¼ of a cup of the batter into the pan, and swirl it around, gently tapping and twisting, until it covers the whole pan. When the top looks dry, and the edges become papery and pull away from the sides, use a small spatula to lift the edge of the pancake, and flip it over. Cook for another 10-15 seconds on the second side. Remove from the pan, and continue, until you have no more batter. Don’t be discouraged by a few failures at the beginning.
Cooked pancakes can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerated for several days or frozen for longer.
For the Cheese Filling:
1 cup small-curd cottage cheese (Breakstones is a favorite)
1 tablespoons powdered sugar, plus a dusting for garnish
¼ cup golden raisins*. (If, like mine were, your raisins are on the dry side, plump them in a bit of boiling water and drain before using).
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract, optional. (I’m a weirdo who doesn’t like vanilla on its own, so I leave this out and replace it with lemon zest and cinnamon).
¼ teaspoon lemon zest, optional
1 tiny pinch cinnamon, optional
1. Make the cheese filling: Combine all the ingredients and set aside.
*If you plan on using it together with the rhubarb filling, leave the raisins out.
For the Caramelized Rhubarb Filling:
1 lb. rhubarb, cleaned, trimmed, and chopped into 1 inch pieces.
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1. Make the rhubarb filling: combine sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium heat. Cook without stirring, until the sugar starts to turn a bronze, caramel color. Don’t worry if there are some crystals. They’ll dissolve eventually.
2. When the sugar has caramelized, carefully add the rhubarb and stir (be safe: use a wooden spoon--metal will conduct the very high heat of the caramel and you could burn yourself). Don’t worry, at this point, the caramel will likely seize, but it will dissolve as the rhubarb continues to cook.
3. Allow the rhubarb to cook, stirring once or twice, until the fruit has broken down and it resembles a chunky jam. Let cool.
*If, like mine, your rhubarb is particularly watery, just drain off some of the syrupy juice after it has cooled. I mixed my leftover juice with some seltzer (on hand already for the pancakes), and it was a delightful little soda.
To fill the pancakes:
1. Using either of the two fillings (or both), place a few tablespoons of filling in the center of a pancake. You can either roll the pancakes or fold them in quarters.
2. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve.