When I was a little girl, my great-aunt Lilly came to visit us on occasion from Florida. She was probably in her mid-80s, but to my preadolescent eyes, she was a contemporary of George Washington. At a little over four feet tall, she was as broad as she was high. And while she had lived in America for decades, her English was halting and fractured, heavily accented in the Yiddish singsong of her youth.
But when she entered my mother’s kitchen, her stature grew and language was suddenly superfluous. Aunt Lilly was a towering giant and she spoke to us through savory soups, succulent roasts, creamy stews, and delicate pastries. She was eloquent.
My dear diminutive Aunt Lilly had been employed as a cook in a wealthy New England household. (According to family legend, the house sat next door to a branch of the Kennedy clan.) Her culinary acumen was such that she prepared meals that she herself could not eat. Aunt Lilly adhered to Jewish dietary laws — kashrut — forbidding her from eating certain foods, such as pork and shellfish. Keeping kosher also meant that she was not allowed to eat dishes that mixed dairy and meat products (think cheeseburgers). Nonetheless, she was able to adjust seasonings, untasted, and put out grand meals for her employer for many years.
Back in our kitchen, Aunt Lilly, who never had children of her own, recreated the dishes of her childhood. She harkened back to the Jewish cuisine of the tiny Lithuanian village where she grew up. Cheese blintzes (crepe-like dough logs stuffed with sweet cottage cheese) were her speciality. A labor-intensive dish, blintzes require deft maneuvers and a watchful eye. My mother cheerfully ceded the kitchen to Aunt Lilly, as did her mother before her in another kitchen, another time.
Mom sat back to appreciate the alchemy that was taking place. And yet, I was jealous of the attention that my mother lavished on my aunt. With the casual and cruel selfishness of a child, I acted out. It was your garden variety bratty, preteen behavior — ignoring entreaties, pouting, the occasional temper tantrum. If she noticed, Aunt Lilly didn’t let on. (I so hope that she didn’t notice!) She continued to move about the kitchen, reaching for eggs and flour, with a grace that belied her short, stocky body.
I often wonder about Aunt Lilly’s life — widowed and alone, and still a stranger in a strange land despite living here for so many years. She prepared foods that oozed love, and she never asked for anything in return. Was she happy? Was she lonely when she was away from family? Did she have friends? Did I hurt her feelings?
As I cut into a blintz and the sweet steam of the filling escapes, I revert to that child sitting in my mother’s kitchen. Only now, I hope that I am wiser and kinder, and worthy of the love that went into the many acts of kindness — culinary and otherwise — that have graced my life. It is the legacy of a devoted aunt to her ill-mannered niece.
Here is an approximation of Aunt Lilly’s cheese blintzes. She didn’t write down recipes. She never measured out anything, either. She just knew.
1 cup milk
1 cup water
2 cups flour
Pinch of salt
Place milk, water, and eggs in a blender and pulse to incorporate the eggs into the liquid. Add flour and salt and blend until combined. It will have the consistency of watery pancake batter. Let the batter rest for 45 minutes. Refrigeration is not necessary.
1 8-ounce block of cream cheese, softened on the counter
2 cups of cottage cheese (or, for a more delicate filling, use ricotta cheese)
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
Mix all of the ingredients for the filling in a bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.
4 to 6 tablespoons butter
Heat a crepe pan or an omelet pan (any small skillet will do). Heat the pan on medium heat. When the pan is hot, add a small amount of butter, allowing it to melt and coat the pan. Lift the pan away from the heat and pour in 1/4 cup of batter. Tilt the pan around so that the batter coats the bottom evenly. Place back on the burner and cook for about a minute until the edges are dry. Loosen the crepe and flip it over, cooked side up, onto waxed or parchment paper. (Aunt Lilly used to bang the pan and out it popped. You might want to use a spatula.) Continue with the rest of the batter, stacking the crepes, cooked side up, adding a bit more butter to coat the pan about every three times, if it looks dry. You should get about 16 crepes.
When the crepes are cool enough to touch, take one, keeping the cooked side up, and spread a heaping tablespoon of the filling about an inch away from the arc of the circle closest to you. Fold that extra inch over the mixture, being careful to cover it completely. Then fold the remaining sides into each other and roll, burrito-style (away from you), until the blintz is its own little closed unit. Repeat with the remaining crepes.
Melt a tablespoon of butter in a large frying pan. Working in batches, place the blintzes in the pan (but don’t crowd them) and fry to a golden brown, then flip to fry the other side.
Blintzes are delicious as is, but some folks like them topped with sour cream and cherry or blueberry preserves.