Blinchiki: Sweet or savory, they're culinary treats

The popular food that symbolizes feasting will be on hand at this weekend's Russian Festival

October 18, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

In France it's a crepe. In Mexico, a tortilla. China has the won ton. Cuisines all over the world feature the simple act of wrapping food inside a thin pancake.

In Russia, those pancakes are called blini, and when they are filled with ground meat or sweetened cream cheese or something else, they are called blinchiki.

These sweet or savory treats will be made to order and served warm at the 33rd annual Russian Festival scheduled to start Friday at the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore. Two blinchiki will cost $5.

Tatiana Vass, a member of the church, plans to offer a variety of fillings, including ground meat, ham and cheese, hard-boiled eggs with chives, a vegetarian option and a sweet one. Other traditional Russian dishes sold at the festival will include borscht, kasha and gorgeous sweet breads called babkas.

Vass, who grew up in St. Petersburg, offered recently to demonstrate how she makes blinchiki. Because she doesn't speak much English, her husband, John Vass, the pastor at the church, served as translator and offered his own insights into blinchiki tradition.

He noted that blinchiki are eaten year-round by Russians both wealthy and poor. The most popular sweet filling is probably a sweetened cream cheese. Savory fillings range from mushrooms and spinach to ground fish, eggs and chives or even caviar. But nearly all taste best with a dollop of cool sour cream on top, he said.

Blinchiki are sold from carts on street corners in Russian cities, and are served in homes, mostly as side dishes or snacks.

But in the week before Lent begins, blinchiki move to the center of Russia's culinary stage. "We eat them the entire week because we clean out the refrigerator of milk and eggs and all the dairy products we don't eat during Lent," John said. "It's called Butterweek."

The feast coincides with the end of the usually brutal Russian winter - or at least the hope that the end is in sight. In The Art of Russian Cooking, author Anne Volokh writes that Butterweek is when "blin [the singular of blini] becomes more than a delicious meal; it becomes a meaningful symbol." The book quotes Russian writer Alexsandr Kuprin, who lived about the turn of the last century: "The blin is the symbol of fine days, abundant crops, fulfilled marriages and healthy children."

The Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, by Dana Goldstein, says blinchiki are "one of the oldest Slavic foods, dating back to heathen tribes that worshipped the sun and created pancakes in its image."

Though they symbolize feasting and times of plenty, blini are made with the humblest of ingredients: flour, milk and eggs. Some recipes call for yeast. Tatiana's version does not.

To begin making the blini, Tatiana cracks eggs into a bowl, then adds salt, sugar, whole milk and flour. She whisks the thin batter until it is lump-free and slightly bubbly, thin but not watery.

Then she preheats a 9-inch frying pan on her stove top. (It doesn't have to be that size - a larger pan would use more batter and produce a larger pancake.) When it's hot enough to make a drop of water sizzle, she adds a quarter cup of the batter, swirling the pan to make sure it reaches the edges. She uses "just enough [batter] to put a thin layer in the pan," says John.

In less than a minute, the underside is slightly brown, and she turns the pancake with a spatula. In a short time, the batter has set. She removes the pancake to a plate and repeats the process, making about 25 blini in all.

"She usually has four pans going at one time," John said. "By the time she's finished spreading the batter in the fourth one, the first one is ready."

Tatiana already has her meat filling ready. She has fried three strips of bacon and a chopped onion, then added a pound of ground beef and a 4-ounce can of tomato sauce. When the meat is cooked through, she tosses a cup of grated cheese into the pan.

Tatiana places about a tablespoon of the meat mixture in the bottom half of a blin. She folds over the side that's closest, then folds the long way, then the short way and then the long way again, creating a neat cylinder.

She quickly rolls the rest of the pancakes, placing them on a plate seam-side down, then turns back to the stove. She heats a pan and adds enough oil to coat the bottom, then gently fries the blinchiki until they are golden brown on all sides. John gets the sour cream out of the fridge and Tatiana makes tea. It's time to eat.

Tatiana Vass' Sweet Blinchiki

Serves 4 to 6

PANCAKES:

3 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 1/2 cups whole milk

2 cups flour

FILLING:

two 8-ounce packages regular cream cheese

4 to 5 ounces sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup sugar or to taste

Whisk ingredients for the pancakes together until there are no lumps and batter is thin but not watery. Preheat a 9-inch nonstick pan on medium-high heat on the stove top.

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