~ Please Pass the Caviar: Russian Buckwheat Blini ~
For centuries, these small yeast-risen buckwheat pancakes have been traditional fare on the opulent "zakuska table" ("appetizer table") at important Russian gatherings and festive celebrations. "Zakuska" literally means "little bite". Stacks of them are served alongside iced bowls of pickled herring, smoked sturgeon, salmon, many types of caviar, aspics and pates. There are plenty of condiments too: tangy sour cream, finely-chopped eggs, onions, briny pickles and sauteed mushroom mixtures. No one can eat just one blin (singular), so, make plenty, and, don't forget to freeze the Russian vodka as an accompaniment -- it's mandatory.
Times have changed, and, even though the splendor and opulence of Czarist Russia is past, the zakuska table is still alive and well in Russian life. Even in the poorest of households, the Russians are known for their hospitality and generosity to guests, even if you drop in unexpectedly. The moment you enter a Russian home, small plates of food will be placed on the table and vodka will be poured. As a guest, you are expected to take a taste of everything, and, even if you don't drink, be sure to take a sip. "Nasdrovia", meaning "to health", is not as much a Russian toast as it is a thank-you to the host and hostess for the food, drink and hospitality.
A blin is a small 2 1/4"-2 1/2"-round, 1/4"-thick, 100% yeast-leavened griddlecake (resemblant of a small American pancake) made from a thick, spoonable batter of buckwheat flour, warm milk, melted butter, egg yolks and egg whites. Russian buckwheat blini are the classic foil for the classic caviar service with minced onions, sauteed mushroom mixtures and sour cream. Russian cuisine, no one else's, gets full credit for blini. You other Eastern Europeans can argue this point amongst yourselves all you want. I won't. That said, while blini resemble small, American "silver dollar" pancakes, they are not made like American pancakes.
If you aren't making blini with yeast (they are NEVER EVER made with baking powder or baking soda) and you are not using buckwheat flour: You ain't makin' real-deal Russian blini baby!
A bit about buckwheat flour: Native to Russia, buckwheat is thought of more as a cereal, but, it's actually an herb that provides a rich source of vitamins and minerals to a poor population. Buckwheat porridge, made from roasted groats* cooked in broth or water similarly to rice or bulgur, is the definitive peasant dish. The seeds are milled to make buckwheat flour and its assertive, pungent flavor makes it a favorite addition to Russian baked goods.
*Buckwheat groats, "kasha", are the hulled, crushed buckwheat kernels. Available in coarse, medium and fine grinds, both the flour and the groats are available in American specialty and health food shops.
Buckwheat flour + yeast = real-deal Russian blini.
2 packets dry yeast granules, not rapid-rise
1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salted butter, melted
3 jumbo egg yolks, at room temperature
3 jumbo egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
* A bit about scalding milk: In many "old" recipes (recipes passed down from generation to generation), especially recipes for yeast doughs, milk is "scalded" prior to using it. Scalded milk is milk that has been gently heated to 182 degrees -- the temperature at which bacteria are killed, enzymes are destroyed and proteins are denatured. These are recipes that were written for food safety prior to pasteurization (which accomplishes the first two but not the third -- denaturing the proteins). In the case of yeast doughs, it is wise to carry on the tradition of scalding milk because denatured milk proteins promote a better rise. Fast forward to present times. Milk can successfully be scalded in the the microwave by heating it slowly.
~ Step 1. To "scald" milk the old-fashioned way, in a 1-quart saucepan, place the milk. Over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally and checking the temperature often, heat to 182 degrees. This will take about 10-12 minutes. Tiny bubbles will have formed around the perimeter but the mixture will not be simmering or boiling. Remove from heat allow to cool to 80-85 degrees -- this cool down will take about 20-30 minutes. Pour the 80-85 degree milk into a large bowl.
~ Step 2. Stir the yeast into the warm milk. Using a large rubber spatula, gradually stir in the buckwheat flour and sugar until just blended. Do not over mix -- small lumps in the batter are desirable. I know, it's disagreeable looking.
~ Step 4. On stovetop or in microwave, melt the butter and set aside. On low speed of hand-held electric mixer, beat the egg yolks, gradually drizzling in the melted butter as you work. When butter is thoroughly incorporated, gradually add and beat in the all-purpose flour and the salt. The mixture, while sticky and wet, should look light and dry and resemble tiny, irregular flakes and crumbs.
~ Step 5. Using the rubber spatula, fold the yolk mixture into the buckwheat batter mixture. On medium speed of mixer, beat until well blended, about 1 minute, once again, ignoring any small lumps. Do not over mix.
Recover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the batter rise a second time until almost doubled in bulk, about 45 more minutes.
~ Step 6. Clean the mixer blades and dry them thoroughly. When the buckwheat batter mixture is looking like it is just about doubled in bulk, on high speed of mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
~ Step 7. Spray an electric skillet with no-stick and heat to 325 degrees. Test heat by allowing a few drops of water to fall onto it. If water bounces and sputters, heat is hot enough. If water sits and boils, skillet is not hot enough. Adjust heat accordingly.
~ Step 8. To assure well-rounded blini, do not drop the batter onto the skillet from high. Using a round-shaped tablespoon held close to the skillet's surface, roll a generous tablespoon of batter off the end of the tablespoon using your index finger to guide it. The blini will be about 2 1/4"-2 1/2" in diameter. Cook one or two blini, as a test, before filling the entire skillet. Note: Don't overcrowd skillet -- I cook 12 at a time in my 16" electric skillet.
~ Step 9. Once the blini are in the skillet, cook them for about 45-60 seconds, or until broken bubbles appear on their surface. Using a thin spatula, gently check one or two to see how browned the first sides are. If they are nicely golden, gently flip the blini and cook them an additional 20-30 seconds. The second side will take about half as long as the first side to cook and will will not be evenly browned. Using the spatula, transfer blini from griddle to cooling rack to coolcompletely. Do not stack blini during cooling process as steam will make them soggy. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: To freeze blini, place completely cooled blini in an airtight container, interleaving each layer with wax paper. Tightly seal container and freeze. To reheat, place frozen blini, in a single layer on a large baking pan that has been lined with parchment paper. Loosely cover with aluminum foil. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven until thawed and heated through, about 8-10 minutes. Do not use a microwave to thaw or reheat blini as it will toughen their light, airy, delicate texture.
Meet 5 1/2-6 dozen Russian buckwheat blini...
Special Equipment List: 1-quart saucepan; instant read thermometer; large rubber spatula; plastic wrap; hand-held electric mixer; nonstick electric skillet; round tablespoon; thin spatula; large cooling rack
Cook's Note: Somewhere on the Russian table, besides vodka, there will be always be a bowl of sour cream ("smetana"), and, many times it will be mixed into a fresh salad too -- Russians love salad ("salat"), and, if thay have fresh vegetables, there will be a salad served with the meal. You can find my recipe for ~ Creamy Russian Cucumber & Radish Salad ~ can be found in Categories 4, 10, 12 or 14!
"We are all in this food world together," ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)