A recent picture of a Blintz/Blini posted on Facebook by Farallon’s fabulous pastry chef Emily Lucchetti set me off on a long explanation that Blintzes are considered Ashkenazim fare, but that they are part of a larger European cuisine called Eierspeisen and Mehlspeisen (egg dishes and flour dishes) which extend from the Balkan states through Germany, more popular in Southern Germany, and reaching what I have always assumed to be their acme in Austria, the one time capital of the “Danube Monarchy”. Blintzes may or may not have begun in Hungary. Their German name, Palatschinke, comes from Rumania and has nothing to do with “Schinken” or ham, but rather is derived from the Latin word for Placenta. Fair enough, if you can escape the visual image. It’s the sort of things mothers use to keep their sons close.
Balkan/Germanic flour and egg cookery encompasses a wide variety of magnificent foods from omelettes to Knoedel (dumplings) to a kind of cinnamon, sugar and butter smothered French Toast jumble called “Arme Ritter”, or “Poor Knights”. The occasionally manage to spoil Knoedel (steamed dumplings) by filling them with liver, but most Eierspeisen tend to be slightly sweet. They are on the whole “Lecker” (somewhere between tasty and delicious).
Germ Knoedel are only slightly sweet steamed dumplings, soft and mushy spungy, filled and covered with poppy seeds and butter. Blini/Blintzes/Palatschinke are crepe like pancakes filled with Quark or “Topfen”, a low acid farm cheese and a little egg yolk sugar, and usually served with apricot jam. Many, like Clafoutis/Kirschpfannkuchen and Swiss “Waihe”, a flaky pastry tart filled with fruit and custard then baked until the top is golden brown, contain seasonal fruit.
Eierspeisen are poor people’s food – good sources of energy and protein, less expensive than meat. Most of them – they are not overly sweet – serve as main dishes for lunch or dinner, generally accompanied by a simple salad.
When I first lived in German territory not that long after the war, poverty or at least lack of wealth was a lot more common than it is today (except Switzerland, whose recent declaration of the Happiest State in Europe definitely replaces the stupid saying that money doesn’t but happiness with the fact that a lot of money buys a lot of happiness), meat was a luxury enjoyed by many only once a week, usually on Sunday. Chicken was a luxury. The rest of the week was filled with cold cuts (considered cheap back then, how times have changed) or cheese or “Auflauf” dishes – baked casseroles – plus a salad.
Waihe was usually Friday lunch or dinner, as Friday was house cleaning day, and the tart is quick easy to make before beginning the tasks, so we could gather for “Kaffele” and maybe a town stroll with friends in the afternoon.
Eating dessert first was the done thing, as it probably still is. I liked it. A lot. There’s nothing like Apfelauflauf” (apple casserole) to top off a rotten, cold, rainy grey day, of which northern Europe has more than its share.
Over the past three decades – perhaps more – I have seen the nightly cheese plate, cold cut plate, salad, casserole or Waihe replaced by more meat dishes. In Germany, as a friend noted, the three main choices are still pig meat, pig meat and pig meat, but beef has gained popularity. Veal, once a small luxury, has become a staple. I think it’s a pity.
So do many environmentalists, who identify livestock, particularly cattle, as a source of greenhouse gasses equal to automobile emissions, noting the rising rates of climate change to be expected as the rest of the world adopts our levels of meat consumption. We are all going to Hell in a handcart..unless..
…We turn the tables and pick up what they are leaving behind. Trust me – you’ll like it, and Eierspeisen provide the perfect excuse for nutritional/environmental smugness: Heavens no, I am not living a six year old’s dream having apricot custard for dinner – I am suffering for the environment. Please pass me another piece of that peach souffle.”
Health? Don’t worry. Considering that the dishes generally contain fruit and protein (apricot jam is a fruit, ja?) it’s also a moderately balanced diet. Most of these dishes are low sodium and surely no more onerous than a plate of prime rib or Mac and Cheese. Live a little. Feel virtuous.
So try this one:
Apfel Auflauf (apple casserole, also known a bread pudding)
You will need a couple of apples. A bag of Zwieback, milk, five eggs, sugar, butter, a pinch of salt and cinnamon, raisins, nutmeg or lemon peel if you want.
Peel the apples. Preheat the oven to 375. Butter a form – it can be a soufflé form or a lasagna form – whatever you have. Souffle is deeper and takes a bit longer to cook.
Beat 3 eggs with about 3 cups milk and ¼ cup of sugar.
Cover the bottom of the form with Zweibeck, breaking off corners to fill in holes. There should be only a single layer.
Cover the Zwieback with the custard mix. Layer on the apples, add raisins, peel spice if you like. Carefully cover with the custard. Repeat layering. A pyrex bowl will hold about 2 layers of apples between three layers of Zwieback. You can end with either Zwieback or apples. If your final layer is Zweiback, they should be soaked in the custard. (If you run out of custard, make a little more). Let it sit for a few minutes, then put in the oven. Let bake for 15 minutes to 30, depending on how deep the form is (If you let it back longer, cover it for the first fifteen).
Cover the bottom of a low rimmed quiche pan with flaky or short crust pastry of your choice (In Europe it is sold by the pound, so nobody makes it). Pierce the crust with a fork to let the steam escape.
Cover the crust with thinly sliced apples, berries (blackberry or raspberry), apricot or Italian plum halves or quarters. If using half or quarter fruit, place the skin side down, so the moisture does not soak the crust. Put in the oven until the fruit begins to bubble a bit and some moisture is gone..about 7 minutes.
Mix 5 eggs with ¼ to ½ cup of milk and ½ cup to 1 cup of sugar. Pull the (hot!) form from the oven and gently pour on the custard mix. Return and bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, until the crust begins to darken. When the crust is set, you can sprinkle sugar on the top, which will caramelize nicely.
Put the form on the bottom rack of a 400 F oven and cook for about 7 minutes or until the fruit is a bit dried out.
Serve salad first, then the egg dish. Fruity whites work just fine with Eierspeisen. The Swiss usually drink cider or tea. Can be followed with cheese. I rarely have room.
Linguistic aside: * “Lecker” is the precise German word for “Yummy”, equally insipid and annoying. If one has nothing better to say about food than “Yum”, one should concentrate on chewing.