Sunday, July 02, 2006

Eating. blini.

A few months ago I wrote at great length about crêpes, and how when we were young my friends and I would get together and devour dozens of them. We filled them with sweet things, and ate until we could eat no more and the kitchen was covered in drops of batter and scatterings of flour and powdered sugar. I thought crêpes were the most delicious things I had ever eaten. And then I discovered blini.

Several years ago, I spent a month in St. Petersburg studying Russian and wandering around the city. It was here in Petersburg that I ate blini in a cafeteria on Nevskii Prospekt, a shiny, clean little place with plastic chairs, tables, brightly colored trays, that served blini with about twenty or so different fillings. With sour cream. With cheese. With jam. Anything you could imagine. A perfect lunch consisted of a ham-and-cheese-filled blini, and a jam-filled blini for dessert. The blini were made with a yeast batter that yielded a light, yet more substantial pancake with a rich tang from the yeast and a deeper flavor from the buckwheat flour that made an ordinary French crêpe seem pale and uninteresting.

In college (how long ago this all seems now) I had become friends with two sisters, Americans who were nonetheless Russian Orthodox and followed the fasting rules. Which meant at least three days a week (maybe four, my memory is a little fuzzy) they were not allowed meat, dairy, etc. I remember eating bowls of pelmeni with sour cream (preceded by a shot or two of ice-cold vodka, which they kept in the freezer at all times) just after midnight in order to get around the fast. Pelmeni are those little Siberian meat dumplings, a bit like ravioli, which, by the way, soak up vodka remarkably well. Anyway, the fast days continued all year round, but just before Lent comes Maslennitsa, or Butterweek, which as far as I recall involves eating vast quantities of butter-and-sour-cream-laden blini and knocking down the occasional shot of iced vodka. Happiness is a few icy shots of black-currant vodka and a plate of blini or pelmeni.

I believe we did not restrict our blini-making activities to Maslennitsa; they were too delicious to save for only a brief time once a year. It was mere child's play to whisk up some batter and set it aside to rise (as I type this, I am waiting for a batch of buckwheat blini batter to rise on the countertop - oh! look! it has already risen to the top of the measuring jug that I use to prepare my batter) before frying up the blini in a pan of sizzling butter. I suppose you could roll your blini up with all sorts of fillings, and they are very delicious indeed, but all I need is a smear of sour cream or jam, or a drizzle of sweet melted butter, and I am in heaven.

(At the moment my blini batter is foaming away; twice I have stirred it so that it subsides a little. The buckwheat flour has given it the color of swamp mud and the way it bubbles and heaves ominously makes it seem as though something is alive under there. I know yeast is a living organism but I have never seen it be so alive before).

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