Sunday, March 2, 2008

Maslenitsa and Simple Blini

Ма́сленица, Maslenitsa, or "Butter Week," the Russian equivalent of Carnival or Shrovetide, is celebrated during the week leading up to orthodox Lent (March 2-8 this year). The holiday is full of merriment: Punch and Judy-style puppets shows, theatrical performances, troika sled rides, singing, bonfires, fireworks, a burning kostroma effigy to bid winter farewell and fertilize the coming crops... and nutty fun like icy-pole-climbing contests, naked "polar bear" dips in frozen rivers and lakes, and fistfights.

While I grew up celebrating Fat Tuesday, for some reason I've always preferred the blini and vodka-laden festival that is Maslenitsa.

Blini, an essential part of Maslenitsa, can be likened to Russian pancakes. They come in thin, delicate un-yeasted (like French crêpes) and thick, fluffy yeasted versions, and are always, always, always eaten in copious quantities with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings.

During his six-week high school homestay in Moscow, L was told by his host family that a real man will eat two forearm-length-tall stacks of blini, but that as an American, he would be allowed to get by on a one-forearm-length stack. Three years later, when I was a student in Moscow and L flew over from Egypt to visit, we were invited to an amazing, sumptuous dinner at the family's home, where true to her word, his former host mother cooked up the only appropriate amount for her family and the two of us: eye-high stacks of fabulously delicious blini.

A year later, my friend C and I were two of the four Russian majors in our class, and we lived in the same on-campus house that senior year of college. So naturally, we offered to host the Russian Department's yearly Maslenitsa festivities at our place. Early that morning, we rose and prepared the yeast blini batter, and I mixed up a huge batch of un-yeasted blini as well, for good measure. Early afternoon, when the guests started to arrive, arms piled high with bottles of vodka and homemade blini fillings, the fun officially began.

Out came both enormous bowls of batters. I showed our other housemates, who had happily joined in the merriment, and a few cooking-inclined Russian Studies students, how to pan-fry blini, and everyone took turns pouring batter, flipping the golden blini higher and higher, and sliding piping hot ones quickly onto plates ready for refills.

Over the course of a few hours, we made hundreds of blini for guests to pile high with the incredible array of homemade fillings: savoury sautéed wild mushrooms, ever-present and addictively-tasty marinated mushrooms, delicious баклажанная икра (bakhlazhanaya ikra, or eggplant caviar), salty home-smoked fish, thick sour cream, creamy fresh tvorog, glittering kompot, syrupy jams, sticky dark honey, rich local butter, and much more.

As bellies filled and blini consumption slowed, shots of icy-cold vodka flowed and "za druzhba! to friendship!" toasts carried through the house to the snow-covered front porch. As winter twilight descended and night fell, all around cheeks glowed pink from the blini-cooking stovetop warmth and free-flowing vodka. We celebrated for hours, and a faint, rosy morning light shone as the last guests departed, singing and laughing at the tops of their lungs.

Thankfully, most of our guests were students who lived on campus, and they left in pairs and groups to walk safely home; those who weren't students left with two designated drivers. No walking alone or driving for anyone that night!

I don't think I will be outdoing that celebration for at least a few more years! In the meantime, however, we will celebrate Maslenitsa with my favourite blini- a light, unyeasted recipe that turns out very thin pancakes with curled, crisp, lacy edges. There is some argument as to whether or not these can be called blini at all, as some people say that unyeasted pancakes are entirely different and must be called blintzes, but my Russian friends assure me that I can call them blini without reproach.

These blini are identical to many recipes for Czech palačinky- one of my childhood and current comfort foods- which is probably why I like them best. While it's not the traditional thick and fluffy version, this recipe is absolutely respectable for Maslenitsa celebrations.

This recipe lends itself well to doubling, tripling, and beyond. Don't worry if the first blin comes out looking awful, as this is just the way blini cooking works. The Russians even have a phrase for it: pervyni blin komom (the first blin is a flop)!

Simple Blini (or Palačinky)

1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour
1 1/3 cups milk (not skim)
1 egg
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional- only for sweet fillings)
Butter for pan

If possible, turn oven to very low heat and put a stack of plates inside to warm up. Alternately, you can use Alton Brown's method and warm the plates under an electrical heating pad. Cold plates will cool the blini very quickly, and they are best when piping hot.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour and salt to combine. In a separate bowl, beat the egg, then add milk (and sugar, if using) and whisk until well-mixed. Add egg and milk mixture to flour mixture and beat until smooth. You should have a fairly thin batter with few lumps.

Heat a heavy medium-sized griddle (a crêpe pan works well) on medium heat for two minutes. Add a pat of butter to the pan- if butter immediately smokes, pour off butter and turn the heat down. You want the butter to sizzle without burning.

Add 1/2 or 1/4 cup batter* to the pan and quickly swirl the pan at an angle so that the batter runs out in from the center all directions. Cook for 30 seconds and then start checking the underside- when it is golden brown, quickly flip the blin and cook for 15-30 seconds more, until golden spots appear on the pale underside and the blin moves freely on the pan.

Slide the blin onto a warm plate, top with a thin layer of filling(s), roll or fold up, and serve immediately.

* Makes 6 medium (1/2 cup batter) or 12 small (1/4 cup batter) blini.


lesha said...

wooooow! blini must be deliciuos...

you told me you were on holiday, did you stay home or did you go somewhere warmer?

my trip to Bosnia has been amazing, I can't explain how I really wanted to go and be there. I love Balkans! :)

la petite gourmande said...

hi lesha!

we went to new york city for a while, and then we had a holiday of sorts at home- rest and relaxation!

how are you doing- still travelling? home yet? i can't wait for stories!