I love nothing more than to pour a cup of tea and to flip through my great-grandmother Olena’s recipe books. Although there are many good cooks in my family, Olena was uncontested in her expertise and passion. I was a toddler when she passed away, but my mother and aunt’s stories and Olena’s handwritten books give shape to the woman of whom I only have a few sepia tinted photographs. Our family lore wouldn’t be complete without stories of Olena’s garlicky pork roasts, bright yellow sponge cakes filled with vanilla cream and raspberry compotes.
My favorites among Olena’s recipes are the forgotten old dishes that got lost during the decades of Soviet food shortages, standardization of the cuisine and obliteration of regional traditions. Some of it was forced by the state to create a market for commercial products; some of it was a part of a natural process as more women joined the work force and no longer had time to prepare complex meals. Olena’s recipes belong to another generation, but this is not to say that all of them are time consuming, extravagant affairs. For instance, her solozhenyk, crepe cake filled with lemony cheese garnished with raspberries, is elegant, but it’s also inexpensive and easy to make.
Solozhenyk is a Ukrainian dessert made from crepe or thin sponge cake batter. In old cookbooks, it appears in all sorts of guises and is garnished with different types of fruit. Olena also has recipes for apple and cherry solozhenyk decorated with Italian meringue. But it was her cheese solozhenyk that caught my attention, because it’s essentially deconstructed cheese and raisin crepes (nalysnyky in Ukrainian or cheese blintzes), a dish I adore.
Making a crepe cake is even quicker than rolling individual crepes around the filing into neat logs. Olena suggests using fresh white cheese, which was commonly made at home, but farmer’s cheese, Polish twaróg, Russian tvorog, quark, fromage blanc or even ricotta all work well. The cheese shouldn’t be too runny (drain it in a sieve to remove excess liquid) and it should have a delicate flavor.
Even if you don’t make the cake, I urge you to try the vanilla and Madeira wine perfumed raisins. It takes minutes to put together, but the boozy raisins last for months and can be used as an aromatic garnish for cakes, crepes, yogurt and fruit salads. Maidera is a type of fortified wine, and I prefer to use it instead of rum to macerate dry fruit. The flavor is milder, more caramelized, with natural dark vanilla undertones. The raisins are delicious and so is the macerating liquid.
Olena suggests garnishing the cake with raspberries, but of course, other berries or even orange segments would complement the lemon and vanilla flavors perfectly. Pistachio slivers were my decorative addition, but I think that Olena would approve.
Solozhenyk (Crepe Cake with Sweet Cheese, Raisins and Raspberries)
I deliberately avoided giving the amount of sugar, because it depends on the type of cheese you can find. If you’re using ricotta, a sweet, mild cheese, you may need less sugar than if you’re using much more assertive farmer’s cheese. To sharpen ricotta, I recommend adding a teaspoon of lemon juice.
If you don’t have time to make Madeira raisins or wish to skip alcohol entirely, soak raisins in orange juice with a little bit of vanilla extract for at least an hour or overnight (start it as soon as you make the crepe batter). It will add a richer dimension of flavor.
Crepes (makes 20 8″ crepes)
200 g (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose or pastry flour
4 egg yolks and 2 egg whites
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups of milk and 1/4 cup of water
2 Tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
Sweet Cheese Filling
1.5 lb (~750g) fresh white cheese (ricotta, farmers cheese, fromage blanc, quark)
Sugar to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of 1 lemon
Madeira raisins (see below), fresh raspberries and pistachios for garnish
Beat egg yolks with softened butter, sugar, salt and vanilla (if using). Add sieved flour and 1 cup of milk. Mix well and add the rest of milk and 1/4 cup of water. Stir well. Let the batter rest for at least an hour or overnight in a cool spot. Add egg whites whipped to soft foam just before you’re ready to make crepes. The finished crepe dough should be the consistency of heavy cream and without lumps. If the batter appears too thick, add more water. Overly thick batter makes tough crepes.
Pass the cheese through a sieve and mix with sugar, lemon zest and vanilla. Taste and add more sugar, if neeed. Keep in mind that the crepes aren’t too sweet, so if you want your cake to be sweet, adjust the sugar quantity accordingly. Set the filling aside.
Stir the crepe batter well. Place a nonstick or seasoned 8-inch crepe pan over medium heat. Brush the surface with oil or clarified butter, and once the pan heats up, add a ladleful of batter and swirl just to cover the surface. Cook until the bottom just begins to brown, about 30 seconds, then lift an edge with a thin spatula and flip the crepe. Cook on the other side for 10 seconds. Flip the crepe onto a plate. Continue until you use up the dough. Stir the batter well before ladling it onto the pan. You should have 20 crepes.
Save the best looking crepe for the top of the cake and set aside. Lay 1 crepe on a cake plate. Cover the crepe with the cheese filling (about 1/4 cup). Sprinkle a few raisins over the filling, add another crepe and repeat to make a neat stack. Garnish with fresh raspberries and pistachios. Enjoy!
1 cup of raisins
Madeira wine to cover
1/4 piece of vanilla bean, split in half
Rinse raisins and let them dry. Cover with Madeira and add the vanilla bean. The flavor starts to develop after 24 hours, but it gets better the longer the raisins steep. For this reason, I suggest making a double batch.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin