If you haven’t thought about blini lately, please may we have your full attention?
Let’s say you have some caviar, and let’s say that caviar is not triple O beluga or something just as good. (If you are the head of a studio or an international star, we are not addressing you.) Nothing is going to enhance your enjoyment of said caviar like a dollop of creme fraiche and warm blini, just spongy enough to absorb and add to the flavor of the roe.
Sure, you could use a toast point. But where’s the fun there? Where’s the elan?
Blini (singular: blin) are round, beige, airy, porous little pancakes that you put things on top of. Or you gently wrap things in. If you’re in a sweet mood, take out your best marmalade and slather it on. Perhaps some blackberry jam that a friend made for you. Or honey from Apulia or Crete.
Darra Goldstein, a Russian scholar and a professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says these versatile pancakes were created by ancient pagan tribes that worshipped the sun and created blini in its image. They are a fitting tribute.
When faced with a plate of smoked wild salmon, a tub of creme fraiche and a few snips of fresh dill, a world without the possibility of blini would be as bleak as a morning without sunlight. Make up a cunning hors d’oeuvre, give it a little squeeze of Meyer lemon, and you’ll see what we mean.
Fresh blini are like good background singers; they never shift focus from the star of the evening. Russians like mushrooms in blini. Try sauteeing chanterelles or other wild mushrooms in butter till they give up their liquid, stir in some creme fraiche, put that on a blin blanket, scatter snipped chives or parsley and wrap it up. Repeat 10 or 15 times, and invite the neighbors over.
You’ve got some herring in a jar, perhaps? Mix it with sour cream, plop it on the blini and garnish with minced red onion.
Feeling elegant? Slice up that foie gras burning a hole in your fridge, quickly sear the slices, position them strategically on blini, and drizzle on your best aged balsamico.
Blini bring out the creativity in chefs (but what neutral food does not?). Lee Hefter of Spago makes four kinds: buckwheat, sweet corn, pumpernickel-rye and lemon herb (with lemon zest, thyme, chives and parsley). He likes to top them with lobster mousse, smoked trout mousse or hamachi tartare. His favorite topping for the topping: one part sour cream, one part creme fraiche with lemon juice, chopped shallot, chopped dill, salt and pepper. Other chefs top blini with crab or quail.
Traditionally, blini are made with buckwheat flour. They’re only slightly trickier to execute than pancakes.
Here’s what you do: Make a sponge from all-purpose and buckwheat flours, milk and yeast. Let it rise for about an hour; it will double in volume. Punch it down and mix it with egg yolks, melted butter and sour cream. Then fold in beaten egg whites. The batter will be light and airy.
Cook the pancakes three or four at a time in a nonstick skillet brushed with clarified butter. You’ll probably want to have a couple pans going at the same time.
Blini are best served warm. But you can make them ahead and refrigerate or freeze them until you’re ready to use them. Just reheat them in the oven.
The Russians say the first blin is always a little lumpy. But progress is immediate. It’s a little like riding a bike. Or any other activity you can think of at which humans improve exponentially each time they do it.
Pagan rituals often placed blini at the gravesite -- sometimes even in the grave -- as an offering for the dead. Some things it’s really hard to say goodbye to.