Perfect pancakes: how to cook Russian blini

Olga Rogacheva and Philippe Koch at Izba Russian Treats.
Olga Rogacheva and Philippe Koch at Izba Russian Treats. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Pancake, pikelet or crepe – many countries can stake a partial claim to the global pancake empire. But wherever you're from and whatever you call them, it's the Russian version that is known for its yeasty, fluffy goodness.

Light, delicate and slightly sour, Russian blini are dangerously moreish, says Olga Rogacheva, who together with chef Philippe Koch serves up blini and other eastern European treats at her shop, Izba Russian Treats in the Sydney suburb of Newtown.

"They feel so light ... when you eat them, you don't feel them and you can eat them all," she says.

One of Russia's oldest foods, blini date back centuries and are especially important during Maslenitsa, or "butter festival", a folk celebration that marks the passing of winter and arrival of spring before Lent.

And unlike the mini-pancakes often referred to in English as blini, Russian blini tend to come big, flat and round – that is, the shape of a sun, a symbol of spring and summer.

"There's a huge celebration behind it," Rogacheva says. "It is so ingrained in our DNA, everyone just grew up on it ... it has such a huge history, even though it's such a simple dish."

For Rogacheva, blini were also a cherished part of her upbringing in Russia.

"It's a childhood thing," she says. "[You'd] wake up in the morning and your mum would make it ... it was the first thing on the menu when I opened this shop. I wanted to bring something that would be dear to me and I wanted people to try."

Ingredients

Milk, sugar, eggs and flour – as a traditional peasant food, blini have simple ingredients that can usually be found in the pantry.

Finding fresh yeast may prove a challenge, but Rogacheva says your best bet is the freezer section of your nearest specialty or gourmet grocer.

"[You] just need to ask around," she says.

Don't be tempted to skip it, however – it's the yeast that gives Russian blini their distinctive tang and bubbly texture.

Although traditionally made from buckwheat, Rogacheva prefers the flavour of wheat flour. Sifting it will make the pancakes even lighter and fluffier.

And while it's traditional to use sunflower oil, any vegetable cooking oil will do, Rogacheva says.

As for milk, there's only one rule: "The fatter the better."

Making blini

If there's one missing item from the ingredient list, it is most definitely patience. While relatively simple to make, blini are no bang-'em-up, whip-'em-out dish. Once you mix the batter, you'll need to wait – and wait – for the yeast to work its bubbly, frothy magic.

In Rogacheva's kitchen, chef Koch uses a warming cabinet called a prover to let the batter develop. He sets the temperature to 30-40 degrees and lets the yeast develop for at least half an hour.

In Russia, you might see bowls of batter perched on a building's central heating system for the same reason, but home cooks in Australia will need to get a little more creative, Rogacheva says.

You could try wrapping the bowl with warmed wheat packs and a blanket or cooking on a hot summer's day. (But beware of reaching for the stove-top – unless you have an ultra-low setting, you risk heating your batter to 50 degrees, at which point the yeast will perish.)

If you can't find a warm spot, you could try leaving the mixture at room temperature, but you'll need to rest it for at least one hour, probably more, to activate the yeast.

Covering the bowl with a cloth prevents the top layer from drying out, Rogacheva says.

You'll know the yeast is kicking things along when lots of frothy bubbles appear and the mixture roughly doubles in size.

"The yeast creates the cavities in the blini, so the more you wait, the fluffier they are," Rogacheva says.

Knowing how much flour to use can also be tricky. Rogacheva suggests adding it gradually – once you reach roughly the same consistency as sour cream, you'll know it's time to stop.

Pour the batter onto a piping-hot frying pan, but take care the pancake doesn't burn. It's ready to flip when bubbles appear in the batter and the edge lifts easily.

After so much experience cooking pancakes, Koch is an expert at flipping blini in the air, but unless you're prepared to wear the batter Rogacheva recommends using a spatula. Even then, you'll need a bit of practice.

In fact, one of the most popular expressions in Russian is: "The first one is always lumpy,"  a rough equivalent to the English adage: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

"You shouldn't be discouraged if the pancake sticks to the pan – it's normal," Rogacheva says.

Endless flavours

Traditionally, peasants would pile blini into a stack to keep them warm and pass them around family and friends from the village, who might top them with sour cream and fold them into quarters before scoffing them down.

The stack method still rules in some parts of Russia and around the world, but Rogacheva says blini can be served in virtually any way, with any topping and at any time of day.

At her shop, she serves plain blini for breakfast with dulce de leche, honey or house-made cranberry jam and sour cream, as well as stuffed versions with sweet cottage cheese or savoury beef.

To make these at home, mix cottage cheese with sultanas and a hint of vanilla or stir cooked minced beef and caramelised onion together before folding the mixture into the blini like a pocket or roll.

Popular savoury toppings include chicken liver, pickles or salmon and caviar with sour cream. For a sweet option, you could try condensed milk, which was coveted in the communist era.

Blini also refrigerate well for a couple of days. Microwave them for a few seconds before serving or refry them for an extra crunchy crust.

Most importantly, remember to enjoy them, Rogacheva says.

"You can even have bananas or chocolate," she says. "It's not as traditional that way but who cares [as long as] you like the taste ... Because they're a blank canvas they play in any way."

BLINI RECIPE

Makes 30 blini

Ingredients

1.5 litres full-cream milk 

20g fresh yeast 

2 tbsp caster sugar 

3 eggs, lightly whisked

600-800g plain flour, sifted

30ml vegetable oil 

Method

1. Warm one litre of the milk on the stove and mix it with yeast and caster sugar. Cover with cloth or towel and leave bowl in a warm place with no draft for 30-40 minutes to activate the yeast. The temperature must be kept at 30-40 degrees but below 50 degrees. (If no warm spot is available, see tips above.)

2. Once the batter appears bubbly and it roughly doubles in size, add the three eggs to the mixture.

3. Gradually add flour until the batter is of a sour cream consistency.

4. Cover with cloth and set aside for another 30 minutes at 30-40 degrees.

5. Add the remaining milk, until the batter is the consistency of thickened cream.

6. Add the oil.

7. Heat the frypan to a high heat and spray cooking oil on it.

8. Use a soup ladle to spread a 2mm layer of batter on the pan.

9. Cook for 2-3 minutes on one side until bubbles start to form in the batter and the edge of the blini can be lifted easily. Using a spatula, flip the pancake and cook the other side until golden brown.

10. Serve with toppings to taste.

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