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My husband and I got our start in farming in rural northwestern Russia, 3 hours by train from St. Petersburg. In those days, a holiday we really enjoyed was the pre-Lenten feast called Maslenitsa (Ма́сленица), or “Butter Week.” Among other excesses, Russians enjoy great big stacks of buttery pancakes during Maslenitsa, and these pancakes are called blini. This year, Maslenitsa runs from March 7 – 13.
In addition to being the ultimate Russian street food and the headlining dish of Maslenitsa, the word blin–singular for blini–is a mild swear word, something like “dang”or “shoot.” If at some point in the process of making these pancakes you have a little trouble, it would be wholly appropriate to mutter the word blin! to console yourself. After the pancakes are made, they are filled and then folded in the triangular shape of a pocket handkerchief, sometimes to be heated again.
Be advised that despite your most careful preparations, the first couple pancakes often don’t turn out well. There’s even a saying for that in Russian: the first pancake is a disaster.
This recipe makes about a dozen pancakes, including some ugly ones.
Makes 12 pancakes
Hands-on Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
- 1 ½ cups whole buckwheat flour (substitute whole wheat flour for all or part of this)
- 3 eggs
- 2 cups milk
- 3/4 teaspoon dry yeast
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons light refined oil, like sunflower
Note: Like many beloved recipes that make use of just a few simple ingredients, technique is everything with blini. Some parts of the process might not feel intuitive, so please note that if it’s your first batch of blini, you’ll know you’ve set yourself up for success when you’re very concerned that your batter is way too thin and your pan is far too hot. You should also not be able to resist eating some blini straight out of the pan. They’re very good hot.
Warm the milk a little and whisk in the rest of the ingredients, one by one. Set the batter aside to rise for a couple hours.
I often find I don’t need to use a spatula to flip the pancakes. You can tell when they are done cooking on the first side because the edges will begin to dry and curl toward you, at which point they can be picked up by hand and flipped. The key to this maneuver is a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. More experienced blini-makers than I are able to flip the pan itself. By all means, do use a butter knife or a spatula if you want something between you and hot iron.
To keep your pan seasoned between pancakes, you have options. You can unwrap just the end of a stick of butter and apply it to the pan whenever you seem to need it, not unlike a giant chapstick. You can also use a paper towel moistened with a light, refined oil like sunflower or canola. Third, you can cut a potato in half, spear the rounded end with a fork, and smear the surface of the pan with the oiled, cut face of the potato.
Your pan should be quite hot, a high medium-high on my stovetop. You can test a pan for readiness by flicking your wet fingers at it. If the water droplets bounce and evaporate right away, it’s hot enough. Oil the pan with your method of choice, and pour in 1/3 cup of batter, swirling the pan to distribute a very thin layer across the bottom. When the pancake is cooked enough to flip, do so.
Cook it for another moment on the other side, adding your choice of the below fillings to one quadrant, and then folding it over twice into a triangular shape for the plate. Add a little extra garnish for serving.
Smoked Herring and Gruyere Filling
- 4 ounces smoked herring
- A bunch of fresh dill
- 2 ounces smoked Gruyere cheese
Jam and Crème Fraiche Filling
- 3 ounces low-sugar preserves
- 2 ounces crème fraiche
Spinach and Mushroom Filling
- 1 onion, diced
- 1/2 pound Cremini mushrooms, chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 pound baby spinach
- A dollop of strained Greek yogurt
Sauté the chopped onions in olive oil. When they’re beginning to turn golden, add the chopped mushrooms and continue to sauté in the same pan. Turn off the heat, add the spinach, and cover until just wilted before adding to the crepes.
Along with her family, Mary Brower owns Bluestem Farm, a diversified organic farm that offers build your own CSA memberships, community events, and food outreach programs. Learn more at www.bluestemfarm.net.