O.k., so you survived last week! Now it’s Lent all the way to May 5th for San Francisco’s Russian Orthodox community. Seriously, not all observe this period of major dietary restrictions before Easter, but some do. I wanted share the essence of Maslenitsa, or Butter Week, which precedes the Great Lent, with an excerpt from The Lobanovsky Family Table in the chapter entitled “Things Made of Dough.” If you really get adventurous try making blini. A shortened recipe for “Blini Mamontoff” is included for your pleasure. (When grandmother made them, she used a pot the size of a cauldron. That’s her on the right, age 19, photographed in Chita, Siberia. Courtesy Maria Lobanovsky private archives.)
Blini are the indulgence, the last hurrah, for Russians during Maslenitza, the seven days preceding the Great Lent. Literally translated as “Butter Week” (and for good reason) Maslenitsa is when the sisterhoods of San Francisco’s Orthodox parishes serve blini after church services. Or, you may get lucky enough to secure an invitation to someone’s home for more. It’s what every Russian household engaged in when I was growing up, if only for the immediate family. As time went on, fewer people observed Maslenitsa, and today hardly anyone does.
Blini by themselves are nothing more than simple, yeast leavened pancakes. In elite, five-star restaurants and at home during Maslenitsa, they are elevated to a position of mystique and status. An easy way to handle the expense at home is to have everyone bring a single accompaniment like the caviar, smoked salmon, or other preserved fish. That way you can have this feast, mitigate the expenditures, and create a party all will remember. Just the amount of butter alone, would be a contribution, since it flows like a river during this celebration!
My grandmother was well known for her feather-light blini and excelled in making these wonderful creations. If not properly made, can be heavy and feel like a lump of lead in your stomach. Maybe that’s where some not-so-fond memories come from, but not from my grandmother’s house. When the family first arrived in America, over the course of the day my grandmother, Aunt Cleopatra and my mother would all take turns at the stove, sending out piles of blini from the hot kitchen to the dining table. After all, nothing tastes as good as a hot, fresh blini, which is how they are ideally served.
Grandmother always made two kinds, plain and buckwheat. She would start the batter early in the morning, about 6 hours before guests were scheduled to arrive, allowing enough time for the batter to rise (or enough time to make another batch if the yeast proved faulty). (R: The Urusoff brothers and sisters in America. Grandmother (Olga Mamontoff) is seated in the center. Courtesy Maria Lobanovsky family archives.)
Because they are so light people have about 5-6 of these Blini, which may sound like a lot. Serve them with ice cold, lemonized vodka and all will go home satisfied and happy. There is nothing like a blini party. Over the years I have to credit my dear friend, Vera Grab, for continuing the tradition of gathering us all together for Maslenitsa. We did it the way I mentioned above, each person contributing at least one of the items needed to enhance the pancakes. That made it possible to continue this tradition. When my mother came to the United States in 1927, local fishermen threw out salmon roe when they brought in the catch. When this came to light, the Russian immigrants quickly made their way to the wharf to help the fishermen out and take these useless sacks off their hands! Also, back then many immigrants smoked their own fish, so these were not expensive things to obtain. Now I would recommend the communal approach.
Ingredients for about 4 people (or 21 Blini. Recipe follows.) 2 tablespoons (fast rising) yeast, dissolved in 1/2 c. water and 1/4 c. milk, 6 eggs, separated, 1 tablespoon salt, 2 tablespoons sugar, 3 cups milk, 1 tablespoon corn oil, 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons buckwheat flour, 1/2-cup water, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 pound clarified butter for frying and serving with the blini
Making the blini batter: In a cup dissolve the yeast and set aside. Beat the yolks, salt, and sugar until light. Stir in the dissolved yeast if it has proofed (started to bubble and rise). Heat the half and half to warm. Mix it with the yolks, pouring it in slowly and alternating with the flour until all is well blended. Add 2 tablespoons corn oil and mix again. Let this rise for an hour or until double in bulk. Then sprinkle in two tablespoons buckwheat flour over the batter. Dissolve the soda in a cup of tepid water and add that to the batter. Mix gently.
Preparing clarified butter: Slowly melt one pound of butter in a 1 ½-quart saucepan. Remove any milky foam floating on top. Pour off the clear, liquid butter into a small pitcher for serving at the table. Keep the rest near the stove for frying. Discard the whey at the bottom before storing any leftover clarified butter.
One hour prior to frying the blini, beat the whites until stiff but not dry. Carefully fold them into the batter. Let it rise again for at least 20-30 minutes or until the batter doubles once more.
Frying blini: With a ladle, skim about a third-cup of batter off the top and pour it onto a cast iron or other heavy, preheated pan, brushed lightly with clarified butter. My grandmother always had a small cup of melted butter at the stove and greased the pan lightly with a brush between each blin. When lacy on top and browned on the bottom, flip the blin and brown the other side, just like pancakes. Stack the blini in a warm oven until ready to serve. Bring them to the table covered with a tea towel to keep them hot. Makes about 50.
Garnishes for blini: Melted, clarified butter, sour cream (Knudsen or crème fraiche), smoked salmon, sliced, smoked sprats, red and/or black caviar, matjes herring pieces in red wine sauce (available at IKEA), sugar and/or jam for the kids
Serving Blini: Brush each blin with melted butter, stack by threes and top with a dollop of sour cream. Guests choose the garnish of their choice. As a child, the idea of blini with fish was revolting, so my garnish was sugar. My friend, Vera, liked her blini with strawberry jam. I grew to appreciate the traditional toppings and now steer away from the sugar topping. Most children prefer the sweet version.
Tips: *To have both white and buckwheat Blini, divide your batter in half and put the buckwheat flour in one half only.* If your yeast does not proof, discard it and use fresh packages. One tablespoon of yeast equals one package of yeast. Ascorbic acid is added to fast rising yeast, and that speeds up the rising process immensely. Regular yeast can be substituted and was what my grandmother used. In that case allow more time for the blini to rise. * Another way to speed up rising is to put the batter on a heating pad set to low or on a Salton warming tray. In that case place a thick towel between the batter pot and the warming unit.* If you are making your own clarified butter, be sure to remove all the whey and use only the clear, golden liquefied butter. Any leftover butter can frozen or refrigerated for later use.* The best pans or griddles for frying blini are cast iron. Ideally make several blini at once, using a combination of a griddle and small pan(s) or 4-6 small pans about 7 “ wide. *Leftover batter can be refrigerated overnight and used the next day, in which case you can fry up more, fresh blini. Any cooked or frozen and defrosted ones can also be warmed in the oven or microwaved ( 30-45 seconds) and still be quite edible, though nothing compares with a freshly made blin!