Blini: Russian Pancakes with Trimmings

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Author Notes: Blini has always been the most traditional, ritualistic, and ur-Slavic of foods—the stuff of carnivals and divinations, of sun worship and an- cestral rites. In pre-Christian times, the Russian life cycle began and ended with blini—from pancakes fed to women after childbirth to the blini eaten at funerals. “Blin is the symbol of sun, good harvest, harmo-nious marriages, and healthy children,” wrote the Russian poet Alexander Kuprin (blin being the singular of blini).

To a pagan Slav, the flour and eggs in the blini represented the fertility of Mother Earth; their round shape and the heat of the skillet might have been a tribute to Yerilo, the pre-Christian sun god. Even in Soviet days, when religion was banned, Russians gorged on blini not only at wakes but also for Maslenitsa, the Butterweek preceding the Easter Lent. They still do. Religions come and go, regimes fall, sushi is replacing seliodka (herring) on post-Soviet tables, but blini remain. Some foods are eternal.

Authentic Russian blini start with opara, a sponge of water, flour, and yeast. The batter should rise at least twice, and for that light sour- dough tang I chill it for several hours, letting the flavors develop slowly. Russian blini are the diameter of a saucer, never cocktail-size, and these days people prefer wheat to the archaic buckwheat. Most babushkas swear by a cast-iron skillet, but I recommend a heavy nonstick. Frying the blini takes a little practice: “The first blin is always lumpy,” the Russian saying goes. But after three or four, you’ll get the knack.

The accompaniments include—must include!—sour cream and melted butter, herring, smoked salmon and whitefish, and caviar, if you’re feeling lavish. Dessert? More blini with various jams.

Reprinted from the book MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by Anya von Bremzen. Copyright © 2013 by Anya von Bremzen. Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
Anya von Bremzen

Serves 6-8

For the blini

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 2 1/2 cups half-and-half or milk, at room temperature
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for brushing the blini
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
  • 2 large eggs, separated, yolks beaten
  • Canola oil for frying
  • 1 small potato, halved

For serving

  • melted butter
  • sour cream
  • at least two kinds of smoked fish, caviar or salmon roe
  • a selection of jams
  1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together yeast, water, and 2 teaspoons sugar and let stand until foamy. Whisk in ½ cup of flour until smooth. Place the sponge, covered, in a warm place until bubbly and almost doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
  2. Into the sponge beat in the half-and-half, 4 tablespoons melted butter, 2¼ cups flour, egg yolks, the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, and salt. Whisk the batter until completely smooth and set to rise, covered loosely with plastic wrap, until bubbly and doubled in bulk, about 2 hours, stirring once and letting it rise again. Alternatively, refrigerate the batter, covered with plastic, and let it rise for several hours or overnight, stirring once or twice. Bring to room temperature before frying.
  3. Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into the batter. Let the batter stand for another 10 minutes.
  4. Pour some oil into a small shallow bowl and have it ready by the stove. Skewer a potato half on a fork and dip it into the oil. Rub the bottom of a heavy 8-inch nonstick skillet with a long handle liberally with the oil. Heat the pan over medium heat for 1½ minutes. Using a pot-holder, grip the skillet by the handle, lift it slightly off the heat, and tilt it toward you at a 45-degree angle. Using a ladle quickly pour enough batter into the skillet to cover the bottom in one thin layer(about ¼ cup). Let the batter run down the skillet, quickly tilting and rotating it until the batter covers the entire surface. Put the skillet back on the burner and cook until the top of the blin is bubbly and the underside is golden, about 1 minute. Turn the blin and cook for 30 seconds more, brushing the cooked side with melted butter. If the skillet looks dry when you are turning the blin, rub with some more oil. The first blin will probably be a flop.
  5. Make another blin in the same fashion, turn off the heat and stop to taste. The texture of the blin should be light, spongy, and a touch chewy; it should be very thin but a little puffy. If a blin tears too easily, the consistency is too thin: whisk in ¼ cup more flour into the batter. If the blin is too doughy and thick, whisk in ¼ to ½ cup water. Adjust the amount of salt or sugar to taste, and continue frying.
  6. Repeat with the rest of the batter, greasing the pan with the oiled potato before making each blin. Slide each fried blin into a deep bowl, keeping the stacked cooked blini covered with a lid or foil (see #7 below). Serve the blini hot, with the suggested garnishes. To eat, brush the blin with butter, smear with a little sour cream if you like, top with a piece of fish, roll up, and plop into your mouth.
  7. Note: Blini are best eaten fresh. If you must reheat, place them, covered with foil, in a bain marie in the oven or in a steamer. Or cover a stack with a damp paper towel and microwave on high for 1 minute.

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