Russian dancers must walk around town with bricks attached to their ankles, their quads are so tough. In preparation for this article, I've gone down a rabbit hole of All Things Russian, and let me tell you, the thigh power required to do those squat kicks must be tremendous. Personally, after a typical Russian meal I don't feel inspired to do much more than lumber over to the couch, moaning "nyet." In my drinking days, Russian parties seemed particularly glittering, but even without the requisite shot of iced vodka after every bon mot, a classic Russian blini and caviar brunch is still one of the most delightful ways to meet your weekly buckwheat quota.
What we know as Russian blini were initially conceived by the pre-Slavs (ain't no party like a pre-Slav party) as a welcoming-the-sun-end-of-winter dish, during Maslenitsa, or Butter Week (!). They are made with a yeasted batter that ideally rises overnight, which gives them that scrumptious yeasty flavor that marries delectably with the hearty, toothsome taste of buckwheat. They are popular both in the Russian Orthodox and Jewish traditions, a double whammy over at Rancho Brotman, and have become our traditional Christmas and Easter brunches. They would be our Purim brunch if we weren't such crappy Jews (sorry, Grandma Tina).
Traditionally, blini are served with sour cream, smoked fish and caviar, and we use them as an excuse to eat The Best Food God Ever Made, Tracklements Highland Cold Smoked Salmon, which I have raved about previously ("Add to Cart," April 3, 2014). If you are a salmon fan, I highly recommend treating yourself to the most buttery salmon you can afford, which then will provide the perfect reason to have a big blini party, if you needed a reason.
The recipe requires preplanning but isn't difficult. The batter, which will serve eight for brunch, also makes great sweet pancakes if served with syrup or jam. They need to be fried in lots of butter (Butter Week, folks) to get the requisite crispy edges, so don't try to cut calories and go all parsimonious. Dollop on the butter. We serve them hot off the frying pan alongside slivered scallions, sliced radishes (very Slavic, radishes), sliced cucumber, sour cream and caviar. After going for broke on the Tracklements, we buy the inexpensive caviar at the North Coast Co-op (black is best) and it is delicious. Ice some shot glasses and serve a shot of Russian vodka after every round of blini. Vashe zrodovye!
This version, from my father Darius Brotman's Rather More Butter Than You Might Think is the Cadillac of blini recipes for a spectacular brunch. Requires 6 hours total or or 3 hours active time plus resting the batter overnight.
Ingredients and method:
For stage 1
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon yeast (a pinch less if leaving overnight)
1 cup water
cup buckwheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
In a small saucepan, scald the milk, heating it just until little bubbles form along the sides of the pot, and let it cool.
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in water. Add the milk and flours, and mix well. Cover the bowl and leave to rise for 3 hours or overnight.
For stage 2
1 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup milk
3 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons sour cream
3 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks
Beat the buckwheat flour into the risen batter and let it rise another 2 hours.
Scald this milk, too, and let it cool. Add it to batter with egg yolks, salt, sugar, butter and sour cream.
Mix well. Fold in beaten egg whites. Let the mixture stand 30 minutes without stirring.
Spoon the batter onto the buttered pan in 3-inch circles and fry them as you would silver-dollar pancakes, turning them when they bubble at the edges. They will go quickly. Keep the cooked blini warm in the oven set to low heat.
Serve with dishes of sour cream, caviar, smoked salmon, smoked trout, pickled herring, slivered scallions, sliced radishes and cucumbers and more butter. Fold a warm blini over a dollop of the filling of your choice (caviar and sour cream is classic) and eat with your fingers.