Do you know someone who’s a real whiz in the kitchen? Someone who's dinner invitations always guarantee a mouthwatering meal? I’m not talking about a gourmet chef, but someone who simply knows how to put out good, tasty food? That’s our friend Vlad.
He loves to entertain, and his approach is to spoil his guests with a smorgasbord of appetizers: Russian dark bread, cheeses, caviar, smoked fish, garlicky cheese spread, beet salad, etc. His simplest concoctions are often the ones guests continue thinking about long after the party’s over.
Nothing demonstrates this better than his Syrniki, or Russian cheese pancakes. He was responsible for breakfast during a group vacation weekend in Lake Chelan and decided to make his family’s favorite (seriously, they request them every weekend). His American version uses cottage cheese, a simple substitute for the traditional, drier Russian farmer’s cheese that can be hard to find. Traditional Syrniki include a fair amount of sugar (and sometimes vanilla or raisins) to produce a sweet dough, but Vlad’s approach is more flexible. An egg, a little flour and a teaspoon of salt is all that’s needed for the basic recipe, which gets shaped into little cakes and pan fried until crisp on the outside. His family eats theirs drizzled with maple syrup but I suspect they’d be equally delicious with jam. While I do enjoy that sweet-salty interplay, I most often whip up a batch of savory Syrniki for a quick weeknight dinner. My go-to mix-ins include fresh chives or garlic and spinach, but this recipe is ripe for experimentation.
Fried cheese in all its cultural iterations is delicious (think Greek Saganaki, Swiss Malakoff or Indian dry chili paneer), and these cheese pancakes are no different. When it’s Syrniki night and I tell the kids what I’m making, their response is predictably, “Yay!! Cheez-nicky!”
Cottage Cheese Pancakes (Syrniki) – Basic Recipe
Traditionally made with hard-to-find Russian farmer’s cheese, this cottage cheese version comes together easily with a few staple ingredients. The thick batter is shaped into cakes, dusted with flour and pan fried until golden brown. Serve the basic recipe with maple syrup or jam, or try some savory mix-ins.
1 lb full fat cottage cheese (I like this one made with milk from pastured cows)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup flour, divided
Oil for pan frying (I use this one)
Lightly beat the egg in a medium bowl. Add the cottage cheese and salt and mix well. Add a ½ cup of the flour and stir to combine. The mixture should resemble very thick pancake batter. If it’s too thin and sticky, add a bit more flour.
Pour enough oil into a large skillet (I prefer cast iron) to generously coat the bottom; heat over medium-low. In the meantime, pour the remaining flour into a shallow plate. Scoop roughly a ¼ cup portion of dough onto the floured plate. Get your hands in there and dust generously on all sides with flour, then carefully shake off excess, forming each into a little flattened cake. Handle carefully - they will be very soft. Repeat this process with the rest of the batter.
Once the oil is hot, place four or five cakes into the skillet – do not overcrowd – and cook until a nice golden brown crust forms on the bottoms, about 4 minutes. Flip and continue cooking on the other side, adding more vegetable oil as needed. Remove to a platter and lightly sprinkle with salt if desired. Repeat with the remaining cakes.
Serve hot with maple syrup, jam or fruit compote, or as a main dish with a fresh salad.
Makes about 12 Syrniki