In Russia, when you want the recipe for a fancy dish, you go to the restaurant that prepares it to your taste and beg the chef to give it to you. When you want the recipe for a simple dish, you go to a good cook: a member of your family, a friend or neighbor with the lightest touch in the kitchen.
So when I wanted a recipe for syrniki (also called tvorozhniki) I went to my neighbor at the dacha, who has been making these light pot cheese pancakes for at least 60 years and feeding them to me for almost 15.
No one knows when syrniki appeared in the Russian diet, but chances are that Russians have been enjoying them for the last millennium or so. The main ingredient is tvorog (once called syr in Russian) which is made from soured milk. When milk is allowed to sour, it divides into curds and whey. The curds are called cottage cheese, and if they are crumbled and drained, the resultant slightly tart mass is pot cheese. This pot cheese - tvorog in Russian - is one of the versatile basics of the Russian diet and used in hundreds of recipes for baked goods and sweets.
Syrniki are traditionally made of nothing more than pot cheese, eggs and flour, with a pinch of salt and a spoonful of sugar. But in the hands of a good cook, these homely ingredients are transformed into something festive and filling. They are usually served with sour cream or jam for breakfast, but they make a good addition to tea or a light meal at the end of the day.
Like all the "simple" recipes that people make, syrniki are a bit tricky to prepare because pot cheese varies in consistency by brand and batch. Pick a brand that is rather firm. If you can only find cottage cheese, put it through a food processor or mash it, then put the mass into a sieve lined with cheese cloth, put a weighted plate on top, and let it drain into a bowl in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Ingredients: 2 cups moist but firm pot cheese, 1 egg, 2 Tbsp sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, 3 Tbsp to 1/4 cup flour.
Put the pot cheese in a bowl and mash it thoroughly with a fork. Add the egg, sugar, salt and 3 tablespoons flour. Mix well, making sure that the mass is not lumpy. It should have the consistency of stiff muffin dough. If it is too soupy, add a bit more flour, up to 1/4 cup. Let stand 20 minutes.
Sift some flour on a plate. With a soup spoon, scoop up some dough (about the size of a ping pong ball) and place it on the flour. Pat the mound into a round pancake about 1/3 inch thick and 2 inches in diameter. Flip the syrnik over to flour the top. Put about 1/8 inch of oil in a heavy skillet and heat over a medium flame. Lift the pancakes carefully and place on the heated skillet. Turn to brown on both sides; they should rise up a bit as they cook. If there is a browned or burnt flour residue in the skillet after a batch, wipe the pan and add fresh oil.
Serve hot with sour cream, jam or sprinkled sugar. If you are not a purist and like to mix and match culinary traditions, they are excellent with applesauce or yogurt. Makes about 15 little pancakes.
Basic recipe. To make the pancakes lighter, some add a 1/2 tsp baking soda or first beat the eggs and sugar to a frothy mass. To make them sweeter, some add 1/4 cup softened raisins, two more tablespoons of sugar,and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla. Other cooks add 2-5 tablespoons chopped apples or pears, fresh or dried berries or even grated carrots. If you want more uniformly round pancakes, try using rather dry pot cheese and kneading the mixture with lightly floured hands until it holds together. On a floured surface, roll it into a long log, cut into circles, and fry.