My Mom’s Russian Cheese Pancakes Are Utterly Soul-Satisfying (but So Easy to Make)

published May 19, 2021
Secret Family Recipes
Sirniki

These lightly sweetened farmer’s cheese pancakes are studded with raisins and rolled in semolina that forms a thin, crispy shell when fried. 

Makes12 pancakes

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Photo of Russian cheese pancakes to go along with Gabriella Gershenson's Secret Family Recipe video.
Credit: Gabriella Gershenson
Sirniki (Russian cheese pancakes)

I’m the daughter of Soviet-Jewish immigrants, the first person in my family to be born in the United States. But you wouldn’t necessarily guess it based on what was on our dinner table when I was growing up. Some Russian foods did make the occasional appearance —buckwheat groats (aka kasha), borscht, blintzes — but by and large, my mother, Anna, the sole cook in our household, forged a culinary direction befitting her adopted country.

It was the late ‘70s when she set out to get the lay of the edible land in her new home of Worcester, Massachusetts, sampling what was in the grocery aisles and finding herself dissatisfied with industrial staples like Wonderbread and Ritz crackers. She managed to get her hands on books by nutrition gurus Adelle Davis and Paavo Airola, who espoused whole-food diets that made more sense to her. So, she joined a co-op, and set an unflinching health food agenda that reigned for the entirety of my childhood.

It’s possible to eat healthfully and eat old-world cooking, but in reality my mother took more culinary inspiration from California than from her native Riga, Latvia (think: more brewer’s yeast and less yeast-dough pirog). My exposure to Soviet dishes came mostly from relatives and family friends who were less eager to assimilate, for whom Russian remained the primary language spoken at home, who still bought Russian newspapers, and who patronized Russian markets to fill their pantries and tables. Once in a while, usually at the request of my father, Ed, who had a stronger attachment to the comfort foods of his youth, my mom would bring out the frying pan and whip up the odd batch of kotletki (ground beef cutlets), oladushki (golden-edged pancakes), or sirniki, lightly sweetened farmer’s cheese pancakes studded with raisins and rolled in semolina that forms a thin, crispy shell when fried. Sirniki is a very common dish that’s whipped up at a moment’s notice and can be served for breakfast, dessert, or a snack. 

As I get older, the lure of the Russian grocery store grows stronger. I can rarely pass a NetCost without dipping in for Russian candies called grilyazh (caramelized nuts dipped in chocolate), a fillet of herring, and a bag of frozen pelmeni (Russian dumplings). I have started doing some Russian-style entertaining — the grandest way I can imagine, with zakuski, a dizzying collection of salads, pickles, cured meats and fish, and other small plates crowding the table, like I had seen our friends and relatives do. And when I spot it in the dairy section of the supermarket, I can rarely pass up a brick of farmer’s cheese, an Eastern European ingredient that is essential to so many beloved Russian foods, not least of all, sirniki. 

As a child, I remember watching my mother swoon over the homemade farmer’s cheese that my paternal grandfather, Abram, used to make at his apartment in Worcester. Many immigrants made their own, my mother later told me, because that ingredient, called tvorog, was impossible to find locally. It was sour, dry, and fermented, and the base for my grandfather’s vatrushka, a yeast-dough tart with sweet cheese filling. My mom would even drink the whey from the jar he saved it in, smacking her lips with pleasure. 

The funny thing is, I didn’t appreciate tvorog and the recipes it starred in until I got old enough to grow nostalgic for them. Which is why, with the latest package of farmer’s cheese that I purchased, I attempted sirniki, which, appropriately, translates to “little cheeses” or “cheesies,” from a recipe I found online. They were quite good, and shockingly easy to make, but I wanted to know how my mother made them. I learned that she uses the yolk only, not the whole egg, and that they are typically served with smetana (sour cream), a delightful gilding of the lily, and sometimes, jam. I also learned that she fries them in a combination of butter and oil, adding a bit more decadence to a dish that is at once humble and utterly soul-satisfying. The end result is a little like cheesecake, pleasantly tart, with sweetness from the plump golden raisins and a hint of vanilla. I did try them with sour cream and jam, as instructed, but in the end, I like them most plain. It seems that, just like my mom, I’m a bit of a purist, too.

Sirniki

These lightly sweetened farmer’s cheese pancakes are studded with raisins and rolled in semolina that forms a thin, crispy shell when fried. 

Makes 12 pancakes

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 14 ounces

    farmers cheese

  • 2

    large egg yolks

  • 1/4 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup

    all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • Pinch kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup

    raisins, preferably golden

  • Semolina flour, for dredging

  • 2 tablespoons

    vegetable oil, divided

  • 2 tablespoons

    unsalted butter, divided

  • Powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

  • Sour cream, for serving

  • Jam, for serving

Instructions

  1. Place 14 ounces farmers cheese, 2 large egg yolks, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, and a pinch of kosher salt in a medium bowl and stir together until well incorporated and smooth. Add 1/2 cup raisins and stir to combine. (If the raisins are very dry, place them in a heatproof strainer, covered, over a pot of simmering water for a few minutes until they plump up. Drain on a paper towel to absorb the extra moisture and cool before using.)

  2. Generously sprinkle a piece of wax paper or a work surface with semolina flour. Transfer the cheese mixture onto the flour. Using your hands, roll the cheese mixture into a log about 12 inches long. Cut crosswise into 12 pieces. Shape each piece into a round patty about 1-inch thick. Make sure all sides are well coated in semolina to create a nice, crisp texture. (The patties can be placed on a baking sheet and refrigerated for a few hours before frying.)

  3. Heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon of the unsalted butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until the butter is melted and the oil is shimmering. Add half of the patties and fry until golden-brown, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Add the remaining oil and butter to the pan and repeat frying the remaining patties.

  4. Dust the sirnikis with powdered sugar if desired and serve with sour cream and jam.