Like pancakes or French toast, this useful breakfast/brunch dish can be given any number of sweet or savory spins. Creativity (e.g., rum instead of vanilla or crystallized ginger instead of raisins) will not be misplaced here. Russians usually serve syrniki with jam as well as sour cream and/or melted butter; all of these strike me as too much of a good thing. To me they taste better with fresh fruit or an uncooked fruit sauce (say, pureed blueberries or raspberries). Maple syrup lovers may like to try that pairing. The only indispensable elements are very good pot cheese or farmer cheese — Russian-style tvorog, if you can find it — for the fritters and very good butter for the frying. I prefer cultured butter with a slight lactic tang. Yields 8 small patties (4 servings).
1 pound firm, dry, well-flavored pot cheese or farmer cheese, preferably tvorog (do not use cottage cheese)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 4 tablespoons sugar (I use 1)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (optional)
1 egg or 2 egg yolks
A dash of pure vanilla extract (optional)
1/4 cup golden raisins, briefly plumped in hot water and well drained (optional)
1/3 cup (approximately) flour, plus more for shaping the fritters
1/3 to 1/2 cup (6 to 8 tbsp) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
If your pot cheese has the least suspicion of excess moisture, wrap it in dampened, wrung-out cheesecloth and place it in a colander under a weight (e.g., a heavy can on a small plate) to press out any whey. If it is not very fine-textured, force it through a coarse-mesh sieve.
Beat the cheese as smooth as possible with a wooden spoon. Beat in the salt, sugar and optional lemon zest. Whisk the egg lightly and beat it in along with the optional vanilla and raisins. A little at a time, sift the flour over the cheese and beat it in until you have a dough that is almost too stiff to work.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. With floured hands, shape it into a log about 10 to 12 inches long. Wrap it in waxed paper and refrigerate for at least half an hour (it’s easier to shape when chilled). Cut the cheese log into 8 slices. With floured hands, shape these into small, hamburger-like patties.
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet just large enough to hold the syrniki easily in one layer. When it is good and fragrant, adjust the heat to medium and add the cheese patties, which should be half-swimming in hot butter. Fry until nicely browned on both sides, turning several times. Drain briefly on paper towels and serve at once.
Nutmeg is a popular and good seasoning for syrniki; pass a whole nutmeg and a grater around at the table.
Variation: For a savory rather than sweet version, cut the sugar to 1 1/2 teaspoons and omit the lemon zest, vanilla and raisins. Add a handful of minced scallions (or chives), dill or parsley — or all three — to the mixture before working in the flour.
This recipe is from Anne Mendelson’s book, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. To read more from her fantastic book, check out The Astonishing Story of Real Milk from our October/November 2011 issue.
Check out more of Anne Mendelson’s fabulous milk recipes from around the world: