Sunday, July 13, 2014

Russian Yeasted Blini

Oh, Russian yeasted blini. Why are you so, so much better than the standard American pancake? Let me count the ways:

1. With both an overnight fermentation and a healthy helping of half-and-half, these blini manage to be both rich and tangy. I heartily approve of this combination.

2. Unlike their chain-you-to-the-griddle brethren, blini are just as delicious a few hours — or even a full day — later, which means they're easily made in advance (even, say, the night or morning before, while you can still bear to turn on the stove, allowing you a cool meal later in the hot day).

3. Although the term is often used for those chunky little silver dollar-sized canape vehicles, a true blini is the a delicate whisper size of a dinner plate, all the better to wrap up the fillings (and you can set up a full smorgasboard of fillings, letting you play around from blini to blini).

I'm sure there are a few dozen other reasons as well. But basically: blini! So, so delicious! The impetus, again, was book club. We were reading Bulgakov, so it seemed only natural I take this as an excuse for a thematic snack. So I went to the Russian market, picked up some sour cream and frighteningly cheap caviar, and set to work.

The blini themselves, as with any pancake, start out as total straight-to-the-dog failures. And you think this is a terrible recipe and why did I ever come up with this idea and oh crap book club is in a few hours and what can I bring instead? But, amazingly, by the third blini or so, it all comes together. Your pan gets hot enough, and you figure out how much you need to thin out your batter (in my case: a lot), and then you're turning out blini after blini like the best Russian babushka.

And then, once you've got a nice butter-brushed stack, you get to fill them! I put out a spread including the sour cream and caviar, and a smattering of other non-traditional-yet-delicious additions — some cubes of cold-smoked salmon belly, minced onion, fresh dill, and whole lemons chopped into tiny wedges for a bracing (and addictive) sour pop. It's perfect for book club, it's perfect for a hot summer night, and it's perfect for reminding you just how crazy good Russian food can be.

Russian Yeasted Blini

adapted from Anya von Bremzen's recipe in Food & Wine
yields ~12-14 blini (I doubled it this — it takes some time to make a double batch, but they keep and they're delicious so you might as well)

1/2 cup warm water 
1 1/8 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar 
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 
1 1/4 cups half-and-half, at room temperature
 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus several more tablespoons for brushing 
1 large egg, separated 
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola, for the pan

For serving: sour cream, fresh dill fronds, chopped lemon, caviar, smoked salmon, diced onion, etc etc etc

In a small bowl, whisk the water with the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar and let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, whisk the yeast mixture with ¼ cup of the flour until smooth. Cover and let stand in a warm place until the batter has doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. 

After the batter has risen, add the remaining 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of flour, along with the half-and-half, 2 tablespoons of melted butter, egg yolk, salt and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk until smooth. Cover and refrigerate the batter overnight, stirring once or twice. 

When you're ready to fry, bring the batter to room temperature. In a medium bowl, beat the egg white until soft peaks form. Fold the beaten white into the batter just until no streaks remain. Let the batter stand for 10 minutes. If the batter is too thick, whisk in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you have a thinner-than-pancake-batter mixture (I needed to add A LOT more water — maybe a half cup or so for the double batch — so don't be afraid if you need it).

Meanwhile, line a plate with parchment or waxed paper. Heat an 8-inch skillet over moderate heat and lightly brush with oil. For each blini, add ~1/4 cup of batter to the skillet and quickly swirl to coat the bottom with a thin layer of batter. Cook over moderate heat until small bubbles form on the surface and the underside is golden, about 2 minutes. Flip the blini and cook for 1 minute longer. Transfer the blini to the prepared plate and brush with melted butter. Don't be dismayed if your first few blini tear apart or don't spread out in time or what-have-you — just add more water as needed, let the pan fully heat up, and all will be well.

Repeat with the remaining batter, brushing the skillet with oil as needed. You should have 12 to 14 blini. Serve at room temperature, top with whatever you desire, then roll up and enjoy.


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