Blini have been on my mind lately because whenever I think about Ukraine, I think of blini. I mean, doesn’t everybody?
The first time I tasted blini, I was in high school, making an overnight excursion with my church youth group from Spokane to a small town in the Palouse where two friends and I were housed overnight in the home of another friend. The next morning, we were served blini with sour cream, chives, and soft scrambled eggs for breakfast. My god, they were delicious.
“This is the first time I’ve ever eaten authentic Russian food,” I gushed, weak with gratitude and eager to express it.
The breakfast chitchat ground to a halt. Everyone at the table turned to look at me. After what seemed like a very long time, my friend’s grandmother said, gently but firmly, “Blini are not Russian. They are from Ukraine. Where else would the blini come from but there? That is where the wheat grows.” She pointed out the window at the rolling fields of grain. “Like here.”
I must have looked every bit as mortified as I felt, because she added, “I know why you made that mistake. The Russians always try to steal everything good from Ukraine.”
To this day, as far as I’m concerned, the blini remains Ukrainian.
I didn’t taste blini again until I moved to Seattle for college. I ordered them at The Russian Samovar on Capitol Hill, and they were pretty good but not as good as the ones I ate in my youth in the Palouse. I wisely refrained from sharing the story I had heard about the terrible culinary crime that was committed centuries ago when the Russians stole the recipe. I thanked the waiter, kept my head down and ate, which is the best thing to do whenever you are presented with good blini.
Back then, my budget barely allowed blini with nothing on top, so it wasn’t until years later that I tasted blini with caviar, probably at some press function or fancy wedding. And that was that, until one glorious afternoon when I was invited to a small gathering at the apartment of a friend.
I don’t remember who made the blini we ate—or how they tasted—because, well…there was the caviar. It was provided in ridiculously generous amounts by the late and fabulously charming John Rowley, under circumstances that I’m still not at liberty to divulge. But let’s just say that those sturgeon roe were not from Russia, they were not preserved or salted, and they were spectacular. It’s always a good idea to be friends with someone who hangs out with the fishermen.
“Take more than that!” my host scolded as I spooned the customary miniscule amount on my blini. “You will never have another chance to have a mouthful of fresh caviar like this again.” I obeyed. It was as close as I will ever come to slipping into a caviar coma. And he was right. I have never eaten that much caviar at one time again. Unlike their boon companion caviar, blini are easy and inexpensive to binge on, especially if you learn to make your own.
My friend Shakti possesses many fine qualities, but one of the things I really love about her is that every year, she brings caviar for the kitchen staff at my house (me, my husband and our two daughters) to enjoy before the guests arrive for our Christmas Day dinner party. Everyone has an idea about what they want to be doing when the world comes to an end. In my family, that end-of-the-world thing is eating Ossetra (Beluga is too expensive and not snappy enough) caviar with sieved hard-boiled eggs, minced sweet onion and crème fraiche, all piled precariously on a tiny blini. We were doing that very thing on Christmas Day 2021 when Shakti announced that we should eat caviar again on New Year’s Eve, to pay tribute to the outstanding achievements of 2021 in its portrayal of an epically crappy year.
Once the decision was made, I realized that it offered me an opportunity to conduct a bicoastal blini bake-off. But before I go there, I should back up a bit and explain that there are basically three ways to make a blini. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two ways, because the third method tells you how to make a blini without using yeast. In some cookbooks, this is known as the “quick” method. In my book it’s known as the “lazy and terrible” method. If you are interested in making this kind of blini, here’s my advice about that: Don’t bother. If a blini doesn’t taste like yeast, it may indeed be an adorable little pancake, but it sure as hell is not a blini. If you’ve never cooked with yeast before, relax, because if you can make a pancake, you can make a blini. And if you’ve never made pancakes from scratch before, I feel sorry for you.
My two favorite blini recipes are variations on the basic yeast-based blini. One of the batters takes a little more time to prepare but, once they have risen, both batters require the same amount of time to cook, so does it matter? Not really. What matters is which one is lighter, yeastier, and more tender. What I learned after comparing my two favorite recipes is that which way you lean with a blini is a matter of personal taste. Each blini batter is beautiful in its own way. (Some writers get paid by the hour and some get paid by the word. I get paid by the “b.”)
If you want to make only one of these recipes, you can always choose one based on your geographical bias, since the first is from New York and the second is from Berkeley. (Want to know an easy way to remember how to spell Berkeley? Just insert an “e” almost every time you find room for one.)
The first is my variation on a recipe that came to me described as the blini recipe from the Russian Tea Room. This may or may not be true. I have a copy of The Russian Tea Room Cookbook, by Faith Stewart-Gordon and Nika Hazelton (Richard Marek Publishers, New York, 1981), and the recipe that’s printed in that book is different from the one that found its way to me. I prefer mine, but they are both very good. The recipe from the RTR cookbook is a little heartier because it’s made with a mix of whole wheat and buckwheat flour, while both of my favorite recipes use a mix of white and buckwheat flour.
Maybe the one from the book is more “authentic,” whatever that means. If you want to know for sure, you could always ask a Ukrainian. Or you could buy the book and try it for yourself. But don’t buy the book from Bezos. He’s already a billionaire. He doesn’t need your money and you don’t need your purchase to arrive at your door the day after you ordered it. Especially since your local seller of used books could use the business. Why feed the oligarchs, even if they are American?
The second blini recipe I used in my bake-off is based on one by David Tanis, whose recipes and techniques are always simple, beautiful, and delicious. His cookbooks are also a joy to read. I own three and I recommend all of them: A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, and One Good Dish. It’s easy to find new and used copies of all three.
Russian-Tea-Room-Style Blini Makes about 3-4 dozen
2½ cups lukewarm milk
1 tablespoon dry yeast
1 cup white flour, sifted
1 cup buckwheat flour, silted
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
3 eggs, beaten
Melted butter for frying.
Mix the warm milk and yeast together in a small bowl. Let that mixture sit for about 5-10 minutes until it gets bubbly. Whisk the white and buckwheat flours, the sugar, and the salt together in a large bowl. Beat the eggs in a small bowl, using a fork or a whisk, until they are mixed well.
Gradually whisk the milk and yeast mixture into the flour. Then whisk in the melted butter, and then whisk in the eggs. Beat the batter until it’s smooth. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave it in a warm, draft-free place for about 2 hours or until it is doubled in bulk.
When you’re ready to make blini, heat a griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Brush the griddle with a little of the melted butter and use a small soup ladle or large serving spoon to drop some batter onto the griddle. Cook your first blini for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is well browned. Flip it and cook for about 1 minute more. Depending on how this first blini looks, adjust the heat up or down and cook the rest.
Blini a la David Tanis Makes about 4-5 dozen
This way of making blini requires you to beat the yolks and whites separately before adding them to the batter. As the previous recipe above demonstrates, this isn’t strictly necessary, but it does give them a simultaneously lighter and firmer texture.
1 package of dry yeast (about 2 ¼ teaspoons or 7 grams)
1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups lukewarm milk
1 cup all-purpose white flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter
4 eggs, separated
More melted butter for frying the blini
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in 1 cup of the milk. Stir in 1/2 cup of the white flour and let this mixture sit until you see bubbles on the surface. This will take about 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t let it go much longer than that or the yeast will become a little exhausted.
In a smaller bowl, whisk the remaining white flour, the buckwheat flour and the salt together. Add the remaining 2 cups of the milk to the yeast mixture and gradually whisk the flour-and-salt mixture into that until you have a smooth, thick batter. Then whisk in melted butter. Cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap (if you must, but I hate plastic wrap) and leave it in a warm, dry place. If you plan to make blini today, keep the batter at room temperature for about 2 to 3 hours. Or you can refrigerate the batter overnight, but take it out and leave it at room temperature for about 30 minutes before you cook the blini.
When you’re ready, heat a griddle or frying pan over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Separate the eggs, putting the yolks in a smallish bowl and the whites into a large one. Sprinkle a pinch of salt into the egg whites (to stabilize them) and beat until they are stiff. Beat the egg yolks until they are frothy, about 1 minute. Now stir down the yeast batter, which will look very bubbly, and then whisk the egg yolks into it. Finally, gently fold the egg whites into batter.
Your griddle or frying pan should be hot by now. Brush the griddle with a little of the melted butter and use a small soup ladle or large serving spoon to drop some batter onto the griddle. Cook your first blini for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is nicely browned. Flip it and cook it for about 1 minute more. Depending on how this first blini looks, adjust the heat up or down and then cook the rest.
General comments about both recipes:
• I think the ideal size for a blini is about 2 inches in diameter. You can make them larger if you want, but remember that if they are much bigger than about 3 inches, they will bend when you try to pick them up with your hands (the only way to eat blini) and you risk dumping all that nice caviar (or whatever) into your lap on its way to your mouth.
• If you’re going to eat your blini right away, transfer them to a plate in a warm (150-200°) oven. If you want to save some blini for later, they freeze well. To reheat them, I run a little water across a piece of foil, shake most of it off, then wrap the blini in the dampened foil, and put that tidy little package in a 325° oven for about 5 minutes. Although frozen blini thaw quickly at room temperature, you can wrap them in foil while they are still frozen, in which case the reheating will take a little longer.
• You can eat blini with anything your bank account allows. They’re pancakes, after all, so they are also delicious with nothing more than melted butter. You can top them with one or more of the following in whatever combination makes you happy: sour cream, crème fraiche, hard boiled eggs pushed through a sieve, scrambled eggs, chives, minced red onion, smoked fish, expensive caviar, cheap caviar, or your favorite fish roe. My daughters like to eat blini with tobiko for that little extra crunch and bite. My friend Julie Sakahara likes to top blini with fat, luscious, coral-colored salmon roe, which is a very, very good idea.
You may have noticed that I have used “blini” for both the singular and plural form of the word. According to The Oxford Companion to Food: “Blini, in Russian, is the plural of the word blin, which denotes a small pancake. The same is correct in English, but in colloquial English, as in this entry, blini can serve as both singular and plural.” There’s no one better than the English at adding just the right touch of jovial condescension to their pedantry. And I am nothing if not a colloquial girl, so for me, no matter how many blini there are in the stack, it’s blini all the way down.
Although most of the sources I’ve consulted refer to the blini as Russian, all of them agree that it originated among the pre-Christian East Slavic people. Over the centuries, the East Slavic states have included all or parts of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Turkey, so it’s pretty difficult for any one of the modern versions of these countries to make exclusive claim to it.
Apparently, the round shape of the blini represented the sun, which is why they were traditionally cooked and eaten at the end of winter to celebrate, or maybe encourage, the return of spring. I never need an excuse to eat blini, but that’s as good a one as any. I still have a few dozen in my freezer right now for welcoming the sun to my neighborhood. When you make two back-to-back batches of blini, no matter how many people you invite over to enjoy them on the last day of December, you will probably have a bunch of frozen ones left over for summoning the sun three months later.
There’s another reason to eat blini right now, and that is to pay respect to the dead. The Oxford Companion to Food has this to say about that: “Three times a year, the middle and lower classes held prayers for the dead, after which they had a ceremonial meal of blini. At funerals blini, boiled wheat, and vodka were consumed beside the grave, and a small offering of each poured into the grave in a completely pre-Christian manner.” (What is that thing the Brits have about bringing class into every discussion? I find it odd that the entry makes no mention about what the upper classes did to mark the passing of one of their own. Perhaps they were too busy dividing up the dead guy’s possessions. What a fun bunch.)
Anyway, in these tragic times, I propose we revive that ancient tradition by cooking and eating some blini and raising a glass of vodka in tribute to the brave people of Ukraine, living and dead, in the hope that their pain and suffering will end very soon and they will prevail over the terror that’s raining down upon them.