As a child, I would often find my mother or my grandmother standing over the stove making a fresh batch of farmer’s cheese. In a large pot, I’d find a wide open half gallon milk carton sitting in simmering water. With a little lemon juice the milk transformed from liquid to solid. Strained of any excess liquid it would be transferred to the fridge, where there seemed to always be a never-ending supply.
That homemade farmer’s cheese (“tvorog”in Russian) ended up in all kinds of things: blintzes, piroshki, and on its own served as a side at breakfast. It also ended up in a pancake form called syrniki (pronounced: syr-nee-kee). Syrniki can be made with farmer’s cheese, cottage cheese, or quark.“Syr” means cheese in both Russian and Ukrainian, and these cheese pancakes are commonly made in those parts of the world; it’s also the part of the world that my family comes from.
I like to think of syrniki as deconstructed blintzes - all the good parts with less work. The outside of the syrniki have a satisfying crispness that differs from grain-based pancakes. The inside stays creamy and fluffy. They are vaguely reminiscent of the best kind of latke. Syrniki are also perfect vehicles for all manner of sweet things, and I love them topped with strawberry rhubarb compote. The sweetness of the strawberry and tanginess of the rhubarb are the perfect compliments to the creaminess of the pancakes.
If you’re not buying into the concept of cheese pancakes, the strawberry rhubarb compote is great all on its own. It also goes beautifully with a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream, or as a topping on oatmeal, scones, yogurt, or your more “traditional” pancake.
Syrniki with Vanilla Strawberry Rhubarb Compote
(Farmer’s cheese pancakes)
For the syrniki-
1 lb. farmer’s cheese, about 2 cups
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Big pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon oil
½ cup all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
Butter or oil, as needed
In a bowl, mash the farmer’s cheese until it is well broken up with a fork. Add the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt to the cheese, and combine until mostly smooth.
In a small dish, combine the baking soda and oil. The baking soda may bubble slightly. Add the baking soda mixture and the flour to the cheese mixture and stir until well-combined.
Generously dust your work surface with flour. Place one heaping tablespoonful at a time (about ¼ cup) of the batter onto the floured board. Sprinkle more flour over the top of each small mound of batter.
Form the batter into round pancake shapes, about ¾” thick. You can be really generous with the flour; it will help the pancakes keep their shape in the pan.
Heat a large pan or a griddle over medium-low heat (I like to use cast-iron). Add a few tablespoons of butter or oil to the pan. Place the pancakes in the pan and cook over medium-low until golden brown on each side, about 3-4 minutes per side. Two important notes: do not crowd the pan as the pancakes expand and puff up as they cook, and do not rush the cooking process. Cook the pancakes in batches, adding more butter/oil as needed. Keep the heat pretty low, and allow the pancake to really cook on one side before flipping. Once it is golden brown, it will begin to unstick and will make flipping much easier. If your pancake falls apart a little, have no fear, you can nudge it back into a circular shape with a spatula and continue to cook it.
Serve warm with compote or your favorite pancake toppings.
For the vanilla strawberry rhubarb compote-
1½ lbs (700 grams) strawberries, hulled and quartered (about 4 cups)
½ lb. (250 grams) rhubarb, chopped into ½” chunks (about 1½ cups)
¾ cup (165 grams) granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split (or substitute with 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
Combine half of the cut strawberries (about 2 cups) with all of the rhubarb and granulated sugar in a pot. Split the vanilla bean, scrape the seeds into the pot and add the pod as well. Add the lemon juice and salt.
Over medium heat, heat the berry mixture and bring it to a boil. You may wonder how the heap of strawberry and rhubarb will become liquid, but in a few moments the juices will be released and no added water will be needed. Once the mixture comes to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until the rhubarb just starts to break down and is tender, about 5 minutes.
Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the remaining fresh strawberries. Allow the mixture to cool, then transfer to the fridge for at least 1 hour, or overnight. It keeps well in the fridge for a week.