Our story ends in front of a pile of Ukrainian crepes. Some are flavored with savory herbs and cottage cheese, and others are filled with strawberries, vanilla and sweet cheese. These crepes, called nalysnyky (gnaw-lees-nike), make the perfect Mother's Day meal. But first, some thoughts on the true meaning of Mother's Day.
We have this little black hen who recently became obsessed with sitting on eggs. Any time she or another hen laid an egg she would roll it into the pile she had going, and gently settle herself on top. All day long, sitting in the nesting box atop her pile. When I collected the eggs she'd peck at my hand.
We don't have a rooster in the flock, so the eggs our hens lay aren't fertilized and won't hatch. So I called a farmer friend with roosters, and she brought me a dozen freshly laid eggs to market. We put them in the layer box, marked with Sharpie, and little Blackie sat down and got to work. Twenty-two days later six of them hatched, and our little heroine realized that the work had only begun.
Mother's Day as we know it began as a memorial to the peace activist Ann Jarvis. During the Civil War, Ann Jarvis had run "Mother's Work Camps" in West Virginia, where she and other women worked to improve sanitary conditions for children. They declared these camps neutral and treated both Union and Confederate soldiers. When the war ended, Jarvis organized a reconciliation event with soldiers from both sides. At that time, she and fellow activist mother Julia Ward Howe had proposed a "Mothers' Peace Day" to empower a mother's sacred right to protect the lives of her boys, aka the soldiers.
The first Mother's Day celebration came two years after Jarvis' death, on the second Sunday of May 1905. It was organized by her daughter Anna, who made sure it was a celebration for all mothers, not just hers. The younger Jarvis filled a church with white carnations and led a day of mother appreciation, the likes of which nobody had ever seen. The event was such a hit that it kept going, and growing, year after year until President Wilson declared it a national holiday in 1914.
My mom’s parents came over from Ukraine, where the baked Ukrainian crepes called nalysnyky are a comfort food.
Nobody understands the cost of war like a mother, and no conflict is more gutting than a Civil War. The Ukraine War feels like a Civil War, given the close historical ties between the two nations, with years of intermarriage and interactions between the people of both nations. If mothers were in charge of Mother Russia—perhaps the most ironic nickname ever—this war would simply not be happening. Mothers want calm, stability, safety. They have wisdom and perspective. They want peace.
After little Blackie the hen hatched her eggs, she fussed over them tirelessly, following and herding the little puffballs around the chicken yard, teaching them how to scratch and peck. Or she would sit in a sunny spot and let the chicks burrow into her feathers, from where they'd continue cheep-cheeping, invisibly. The other hens were inspired. One ran at me when I entered the yard, presumably to protect the baby chicks. Another took a stab at sitting on eggs. The mothering impulse is contagious.
My mom's parents came over from Ukraine, where the baked Ukrainian crepes called nalysnyky are a comfort food. They are traditionally filled with cottage cheese and dill, which happens to be my mom's favorite herb, so to her these dilly crepes deliver a delicious dose of nostalgia. But she is cool with strawberries and chocolate, too. I've made them with ham and cheese, which my kids like, and even tried a version filled with fake crab and asparagus. It's a very forgiving dish.
If only life were so forgiving, and peace as easy to make as crepes.
If mom isn't a dill lover with a Ukrainian mother, I've come up with a sweet nalysnyky that's more in line with what we've come to expect from Mother's Day. It's filled with a blend of mascarpone and ricotta cheeses, mixed with chopped strawberries, flavored with vanilla and drizzled in chocolate sauce.
Whichever filling you use, the rest of the technique won't change. My son likes chopped ham in his dill nalysnyky, and his brother prefers them filled with imitation crab, asparagus and brie. Just be careful of watery ingredients, as they will make for a soupy filling. Serves 2
Crepe Ingredients 4 eggs ½ teaspoon salt 1 cup milk 1 cup flour ¼ cup heavy cream ½ stick butter
Savory Filling 1 cup full fat cottage cheese, preferably large curd 2 egg yolks 2 tablespoons dill, chopped (or more, if you're cooking for my mom) ½ teaspoon salt
Sweet Filling 1 cup ricotta cheese 1 cup mascarpone cheese 2 yolks 1 cup chopped strawberries 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
If your filling contains cottage cheese the first step will be to place the cheese in a colander and let any water drain. Then proceed to making crepes.
Add the eggs, salt and milk to a mixing bowl. Mix furiously, with a whisk or electric mixer until the eggs are thoroughly beaten. Add the flour, ¼ cup at a time, mixing as you add it to avoid lumps, which a real crepe maker would never tolerate.
When the batter is completely smooth and homogenized, heat an omelet pan on medium. Add about a teaspoon of butter and tilt the pan around to spread it evenly. Add ¼ cup of batter to the buttered pan, quickly making a spiral from the center. Immediately tilt the pan around to fill the gaps and completely cover the bottom of the pan. The window for doing this is very short as the crepes will quickly cook. It is an art to fill the pan bottom with a perfect circle. Imperfect circles are fine too, because when they are filled and rolled nobody will notice.
Shake the pan to keep the crepe from sticking—if you've used enough batter and it's a decent pan it won't. After about two minutes the crepe will shrink a little, and moisture will start to bubble from the top. It's about done at that point. Do not flip it. Slide it off the pan and onto a plate. Repeat until the batter is gone and you have 10 crepes.
Mix together the ingredients to your filling of choice. Place a tablespoon of filling near the edge of a crepe. Roll that edge over the filling. Fold and tuck the two ends as you roll the crepe across the plate.
Stack the rolled crepes in a lightly buttered pan and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Let them cool to a safe temperature and serve warm.