Blinis just might be one of the most celebrated and even revered treats that we have had the pleasure of exploring. These thin, crêpe-like delights have an almost mythical history, and each year Russia devotes an entire week to eating blinis.
What is it about these heavenly hotcakes that has captivated a nation and inspired a weeklong celebration?
Perhaps it is the legendary creation of blinis one thousand years ago, or the pagan sun worship that remained a critical part of the blini eating culture today. Or it might be that blinis are believed to follow a person from birth until death.
Blinis: The Accidental Blin, Pagan Worship to Pancakes, and Butter Week
Some of history’s greatest inventions were created unintentionally. The kitchen has been the scene of many illustrious “accidents” like chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, and corn flakes.
And you can add the famous Russian blinis to this list of fortuitous flukes. We owe this recipe to a tired traveller sitting by a fire and laughing at a good joke.
A Mishap of Epic Proportions
According to Russian blini lore, the very first one was created one thousand years ago. Our hero is a weary traveller on a journey through what is now Russia. Hungry from his expedition, he sat by a fire to warm himself some oat jelly.
Before we continue with our tale, you might be wondering what “oat jelly” is. It’s quite similar to porridge; oats are soaked overnight in water, then boiled down and strained. The mixture travels well and can be reheated for a satisfying (though probably bland) meal.
Okay, let’s get back to our champion. As he warmed his oat jelly by the fire, he was distracted by a very funny joke. He chuckled heartily, and his oat jelly overcooked and hardened into a thin, solid disc. And thus – the world’s first blini was made!
Some Russians believe that this was the world’s first occurrence of thin pancakes, and they quickly spread outward from this hilarious ancient campfire to the rest of the world. It doesn’t really matter, though, whether this great hotcake migration theory is true, or whether thin pancakes were created independently in other nations. They are a sumptuous addition to each and every country that enjoys them.
Here Comes the Sun
If you were a Slav in medieval times, winter was quite certainly not a fun time. Cold temperatures and long nights endured for months, so the first sings of spring were a cause for celebration. This is still true today in nearly every part of the world that has four seasons. When spring springs, it’s time to party!
In medieval Russia, the Slavs practiced a somewhat mysterious form of pagan polytheism. In spite of the Slavs being one of the largest branches of the Indo-European peoples tree, there is a dearth of information about their religion. The written word only made its way to then in the 9th century CE, or about 150 years pre-blini!
What we do know is that the Slavic gods involved nature, the elements, and the sun and moon. Like we saw with Ukranian nalysnyky, one of the Slavic holidays was a festival devoted to worshipping the sun, Maslenitsa. The sun festival is a celebration of the impending end of winter and a serious time to party.
Russians still celebrate Maslenitsa today, making it one of the oldest Slavic holidays still fêted. Once Christianity made its way into Russia the holiday was incorporated into pre-Lent festivities, and it’s now very much like a Russian Mardi Gras.
Sometime within the last thousand years, somebody looked up at the sun then back down at the blinis on their plate, and they realized that the two look mighty similar. Perhaps we are over simplifying, but the point is since blinis are round and gold like the sun, they were regarded as a symbol of our wondrous warm and bright celestial body.
Pretty soon, blinis were incorporated into the Maslenitsa festival. Incorporated may not be a strong enough word though, because they are now the very heart of Maslenitsa. What better way to celebrate the sun than to indulge in dozens of hot, round, golden treats?
B is for Butter… Week
Over the years, Maslenitsa began to evolve into a weeklong celebration of blini, and is now affectionately called butter week. Towns and cities across Russia host weeklong festivals, with each day heralding new activities and traditions.
The first day of the festival is a day to remember the dead (but not in a morbid way). It’a a celebration of the ancestors by giving blinis to those in need. The first pancake is always given to a beggar or placed on a windowsill for a beggar to find.
The following days involve lots of merriment and activities like horseback riding, sledding, and even organized fist fights. But don’t worry, you and your family can enjoy them 100% fist-fight free if you so choose.
After seven days of eating these delicious pancakes with the mélange of toppings that accompany them, the Russians put away their party hats and buckle down for the Lenten fast. It’s a week’s worth of revelry that gets them all the way through until Easter.
You may recall that at the outset of our story we said that blinis follow a person from birth until death. This is because in Russia they say that it is good luck for pregnant women to eat blinis. Blinis are served to women right after giving birth. They’re then eaten throughout one’s life, and finally, blinis are served at funerals.
So there you have it. These thin golden cakes, symbolic of the sun, heralding celebrations and good fortune, and leading Russians through their lives.
About the Recipe
In a way, blinis possess the top three qualities most any of us want in a recipe: they’re tasty, they’re versatile and diverse, and they’re really easy. In fact, preparing the blinis themselves isn’t the hard part at all. It’s choosing your toppings where you might have the greatest trouble!
Still, preparing blinis takes no time at all, and you’ll have your first set of blinis ready in under 10 minutes. There are two major keys to the recipe itself: the batter and the cooking.
You might see it differently elsewhere, but traditional Russian blinis are made with a yeasted batter. The yeast can be dissolved in lukewarm water with some sugar, and you’ll add it to your batter once it’s activated. Ideally, you’d let it sit for at least 10 or so minutes to let it work its magic in creating an airier dough, but it’s not really necessary if you’re in a rush.
The key to a good batter is to make it really, really runny. You’ll take your flour – which is most commonly a wheat flour, though buckwheat or other flours are totally fine – and mix it together with a fair amount of eggs and (preferably high-fat) milk. You want to have a good proportion of milk to your flour in order to get an easy pour, quick-moving consistency.
Then there’s the cooking. Traditional blinis used to be cooked in the oven, but it’s becoming more and more common to simply pan-fry them like pancakes or their close French crêpes relatives. If you do decide to pan fry, there’s a very special way to get a nice and even pour on your batter.
Start by taking your heated pan at a tilted angle, and hold your ladle full of batter near the top. Once the first drop of batter hits the top of the pan, you’re on the clock. Very carefully pour a tiny amount (close to 2 tablespoons) into the pan, and tilt and turn it as the batter moves around. If you’ve tilted quickly and with enough gusto, your batter should cover the entire bottom surface of the pan before the pan’s heat has set the batter in place.
From there, blinis are a total cinch to cook. Wait for 1-1.5 minutes on the first side, then carefully flip and cook the other side. Repeat until you’ve made all the blinis your batter can offer, and you’re done!
Except you’re not really done. It’s in the presentation and the toppings of the blinis where the magic really begins. You can choose to go sweet with your blinis with jams or fresh fruits and whipped cream, or you can go savory. Possible savory choices can include (but aren’t limited to): smoked salmon, salmon roe, caviar, whipped cheeses or smooth ricotta, and more. Really, the sky is the limit!
Our Take on the Recipe
When looking for a resource recipe for our blinis, we came across a very nice authority on Russian recipes, so we opted to take their blinis as the basis for our own.
Even with such a helpful and easy approach to blinis, we still opted to make changes of our own. Perhaps the most significant change we made was to turn our batter into a yeasted one. The difference is slight and to some barely noticeable, but for us it made a big difference in the end result. To help activate the yeast, we added in a touch of our ever-favorite coconut sugar into the recipe.
For our batter, we also created a mixture of flours other than wheat. We kept a proportion of buckwheat flour in the recipe because it’s a great flour for making crepe-like dishes, but we also wanted to make our blinis slightly (relatively) healthier. We used a protein-rich chickpea flour to make this happen.
When cooking our blinis, we chose to use butter instead of vegetable oils in part because of tradition but also because of our general aversion to vegetable oils. Using butter created a fully flavor anyways, and it would be the only way if we were to make these for butter week!
Finally, for our toppings, we tried them all. We loved blinis folded into quarters with jams and fruits, and we also loved trying blinis with caviar, salmon roe, smoked salmon and smooth cheeses. We can certainly attest that you cannot go wrong with any type of blini topping… so long as it’s the one you want.
In the end, blinis are perfect in so many ways. Where else can you get an elegant, easy and incredibly versatile food like this?
How would you top your blinis? Comment below!
Food plated and styled by Phil Roepers
Helpers for this Recipe
Blinis: Russian Crepe Pancakes with Toppings
Yield 6 blinis
- 1/4 cup buckwheat flour
- 3/4 cup chickpea flour
- 1 teaspoon dry active yeast
- 1 teaspoon coconut sugar
- 2 tablespoons warm (100-110 degrees Fahrenheit) water
- 1 whole egg
- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk (preferably fuller fat)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon butter (for greasing pan)
Savory Topping (Optional)
- 1/2 cup cream cheese or ricotta cheese
- 4 oz smoked salmon
- 4 oz salmon roe or caviar (optional, but nice and fancy)
- Handful of fresh dill or fresh chives, finely chopped
Sweet Topping (Optional)
- 1/2 cup greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup blueberry jam
- 1/4 cup fresh raspberries
- 1-2 teaspoons of fresh honey for drizzling
Stage 1 - Create Batter for Blinis
- Start by whisking and dissolving your coconut sugar into your warm water in a small bowl. With the sugar dissolved, add in your yeast and gently mix in. You’ll let the yeast sit for at least 5 minutes while it activates
- In a mixing bowl, combine your buckwheat flour, chickpea flour and sea salt. Mix well
- Bit by bit, add in your milk and mix well into the flour. What should result is a fairly runny batter that drips easily off a spoon if you dip it in
- Add in your egg and mix well into the batter as well
- By this time, the yeast has activated and has started to foam. Take this small bowl with the “yeast water” and pour into your batter and mix well
Stage 2 - Make Your Blinis
- Take a small pan (ideally 4-5 inch diameter on the bottom) over medium-high heat. Let the pan sit over the heat for at least a minute as it starts to get nice and hot
- With a nicely hot pan, take a tiny piece of your butter and let it melt over the entire surface area of your pan
- Once the butter has melted, take the pan by the handle and tilt it towards you so that one side is higher than the other
- Ladle a small bit of your batter (~2 tablespoons… 1/4 cup of batter at most) to the top of the pan
- As the batter drips down to the side of the pan, rotate the pan around to evenly distribute the batter around the entire surface area of the pan
- With your batter thinly and evenly distributed around the pan, let the blini cook for ~1-1.5 minutes. The key indicator of when it’s time to flip is when the top edges of the blinis start to brown. Don’t flip until you start to see these browning edges
- Flip your blini, and cook for another 1-1.5 minutes, then take the blini out of the pan and onto a plate
- Repeat until you’ve made blinis from all your batter
To serve your blinis, either fold the blini into quarters and layer toppings on top, or layer the toppings within the blini and rolling it up. However you choose, enjoy!
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