When planning the relaunch of my blog, I realized I’d like to shed more light on the foods of my homeland, the varied cuisine of Ukraine. The colorful vegetable dishes, the homestyle meat-and-potatoes classics, the oft-ignored yet drool-worthy breads and sweets. Considering how awesome it was to be featured in the New York Daily News with a Ukrainian recipe, and the fact that one of the consistently most-searched recipes on my site is this eggplant ‘caviar’, I realize it’s an area worth exploring.
A word on Ukrainian vs. Russian food: when I was a kid in Ukraine, regularly eating all those dishes I’m planning to eventually write about, I obviously didn’t think of it as Ukrainian food – it was just food. When I moved to America and had something to compare it to, the dishes of my homeland suddenly became “Russian food,” as Russian food stores are where my family and I had to go to procure favorites like kielbasa, good crusty bread, and “Salat Olivier”. With recent flare-ups in the political climate, many Ukrainian people have become quite vocal about the distinction of their Ukrainian heritage – forsaking the idea of the Russian identity despite the fact that Ukraine was under Soviet control until relatively recently (the month I was born, to be exact). In reality, Ukrainian food traditions are influenced by many places, including Poland, France, Austria and Hungary, and even Central Asian territories of former Soviet rule, notably Uzbekistan and Georgia. For these reasons, I am not super adamant about the Ukrainian vs. Russian distinction, and am comfortable using the two terms interchangeably.
As opposed to being introduced to global cuisines tangentially – by way of adapted or inspired-by recipes – it’s important preserve authenticity by sharing how certain ingredients or recipes are used in their native content. Case in point, Russian blini (pronounced blee-knee; blin, when singular). It is a popular belief that blini are the bite-size pancakes meant to be topped with crème fraîche and caviar, and served as hors d’oeuvres. In truth, the Russian word blini refers to thin French-style crepes often eaten for breakfast with honey, fresh fruit or preserves, and sour cream. On festive tables, they get topped with caviar. When filled and rolled, they become nalisniki (nah-lis-knee-key), aka blitzes (their Yiddish name). The bite-size blini are usually referred to as blinchiki (“little blini”); these, too, are eaten for breakfast.
Blini are one of my mom’s go-to Sunday morning breakfast treats. When I still lived at home, I remember that whenever she made them, it was a sign she was in a particularly good mood. The buttery vanilla scent of crepes on the stove would permeate the house early in the morning, leading us by our noses out of bed and into the kitchen. While there are as many Russian blini recipes as there are Russian cooks, I am confident proclaiming that my mom’s blini recipe is the best. Barely sweetened, and perfumed with vanilla sugar, her blini are characterized by their velvety texture and slight elastic chewiness. All the while, she has never measured a single ingredient while making blini.
No measuring here…
As my first From the Motherland post, I planned on phoning my mom and asking for the recipe, but then I figured what better way to document the process than by actually being in the kitchen with her. So on a recent visit to my parents’, we made blini – the recipe is outlined below. Achieving true blini success calls for a bit of practice – both in mixing a proper batter and in cooking them with the required level of swiftness. Remember: the first blin you make is meant to test the temperature of the skillet and to eliminate any extra oil from the surface of the skillet. You’ll probably have a tough time flipping it and that’s to be expected. Just eat it and move on to the next blin. It’s entirely up to you how to consume blini with their accompaniments – you may fill and roll them like tiny burritos, fold the blini into triangles and top with accompaniments, or simply eat lox with one hand and a blin with the other.
Still not measuring.
Check out that kick-ass Soviet whisk from the old country!
Ready to flip
- 4 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon Russian vanilla sugar OR 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (*omit if making for a savory application)
- 2 teaspoons granulated white sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons canola oil, plus more for skillet
- 2 cups whole milk
- About 6 heaping tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/3 stick unsalted butter, melted (*optional)
- Savory accompaniments: Feta cheese, tomatoes, lox, caviar, fresh dill, sour cream
- Sweet accompaniments: Fresh fruit, fruit preserves, honey, sour cream
- In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugars, salt and 3 tablespoons oil. Add milk and whisk to incorporate.
- Using a tablespoon (not a tablespoon measure), begin adding the flour, starting with 4 heaping tablespoons; whisk for several minutes, until there are absolutely no clumps left. Continue adding flour until desired consistency is reached: the finished batter should be thin, pourable and a bit viscous, similar in texture to cooking oil (way thinner than American pancake batter).
- Lightly grease an 8″ non-stick skillet and heat over a medium-low flame. Using a small ladle in your dominant hand, scoop a ladle-full of batter; holding the hot skillet in your other hand pointed at approximately 45 degrees toward yourself, slowly pour the batter into the skillet while rotating your wrist in a circular motion to coat skillet in a thin layer. Place skillet onto the flame and cook until most of the batter is no longer liquid, about 35 seconds. Run a butter knife or small offset spatula around the perimeter of the skillet to loosen the blin, slip the knife underneath, using the thumb and forefinger of your other hand, quickly grab the blin, and flip it to cook the other side. Cook for 10-15 seconds and slide onto a plate. Lightly brush the edges of the cooked blin with melted butter, and move on to cooking the rest of the blini.
- Blini are best eaten right away. If you can’t consume them all in one sitting, wrap the remainder in plastic and refrigerate up to 4 days. Fold leftover blini into triangles and reheat on the stove in a generously buttered skillet.