According to Alice Waters in the “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook,” whenever legendary chef Jeremiah Tower made blini at Chez Panisse, he’d recount how his Russian uncle felt about butter. You had enough only when it ran down and dripped off your elbows as you ate the blini. His were, of course, topped with sour cream, that glorious melted butter and a stupendously indulgent amount of caviar.
If not Chez Panisse, you could be indulging in blini and caviar at Spago or Pétrossian, certainly. But what if you didn’t have to go out? What if you could be at home luxuriating in front of the fire listening to Thelonious Monk playing on the stereo and popping warm blini in your mouth between sips of vodka?
Picture a tray set with shot glasses, an icy bottle of vodka, a generously sized tin of osetra caviar and freshly made blini kept warm inside a linen napkin. There’s a small bowl of crème fraîche — and melted butter for anyone who wants to drizzle that over the cream. Very old school, true, but nevertheless outrageously delicious. Their history goes back a thousand years in Russia and they used to be eaten before Lent during what was known as “Butter Week,” celebrating the end of winter. An entire week of eating pancakes. Maybe we should revisit that tradition here in L.A.
Blini don’t travel well, so the only way to make this scenario happen is to get in the kitchen and make those little pancakes yourself. It’s a much easier cooking project than you’d think. We’ve rounded up recipes for classic yeast-raised buckwheat blini from former Cooks County and Ammo pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, a tender potato blini from the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller and lemon herb blini from Lee Hefter, Wolfgang Puck’s longtime corporate executive chef.
If you know how to make a regular buttermilk pancake, you’ll have no trouble with blini. You just make them smaller — the size of silver dollar pancakes, if you like. And because they’re so fragile, it helps to have a spatula with a thin lip in order to turn them over without breaking when the time comes.
You can make them on a griddle (Keller likes to use an electric one), in special cast-iron blini pans with shallow depressions or in a regular cast-iron or nonstick skillet. Put two pans on the fire if you’re making them for a crowd. And have a basket lined with a cloth napkin at the ready to keep them warm.
No need to wait until you win the lottery, and can bring home a big tin of top-of-the-line caviar. Salmon eggs are delicious — and pretty, atop a smear of crème fraîche sprinkled with minced chives. Smoked salmon or trout, even smoked sturgeon, make great toppings too. You can shave bottarga over butter-drenched blini.
You don’t always have to stick with tradition — and can certainly do something unexpected, such as topping buckwheat blini with fried eggs and kimchi. Or try rabbit rillettes, or salmon tartare, or sautéed wild mushrooms. But stay away from sliced duck breast or meats that would make the blini difficult to eat. Avoid piling on ingredients — as with many things, less is always more — but do experiment with the blini as a canvas for flavors. Cauliflower florets with pan-roasted spices, fresh uni, even a warm oyster might work. You’ll never know until you try it.
Before you start making the blini, it’s a good idea to lay out all your toppings on a tray. Then once you’ve finished making them, rush them to the table warm, tucked inside that napkin and let everyone garnish their little pancakes with whatever and however they like.