I might be a tad early with this recipe for Maslenitsa, an Eastern Slavic religious and folk holiday that marks the end of winter and the arrival of spring and is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent.
According to the Russian Orthodox calendar, it is not until the week of March 11 through March 17 this year.
Maslenitsa is derived from the Russian word maslo (butter) and roughly translates into “Butter Week”. It is actually the meat-fast week leading up to Lent, during which fish, eggs, butter, cheese and other dairy products are still permitted.
The week is usually spent in partying, dancing, and feasting on blini (pancakes)—the most characteristic food of Maslenitsa. The round blini shape symbolizes the sun and its emergence in spring.
As a kid growing up in communist Russia, I’d never heard of Maslenitsa. Back then both my parents were atheists. My mom more so than my dad because she was raised and greatly influenced by my granddad Yevgeny who was at the head of the Communist party in our hometown.
It wasn’t until I moved back to Russia from the Balkans as a teen and lived with my babushka (grandma) Zoya for a while that I got familiar with the holiday. Although she never waited until Maslenitsa to make her signature blini.
On the weekends I loved being woken up at the crack of dawn by the smell of her batter-rich in eggs, milk, and butter-being browned in a worn, heat-hardened cast iron skillet and watching puffs of smoke drift in from the tiny kitchen into the only bedroom of her tiny apartment. That’s how hot that skillet was. A plain-looking skillet that had cooked so many batches it got tarnished and rusty. A very special skillet that nonetheless delivered superb results. A skillet that she used only for making pancakes.
I loved to just lie in my bed and smell and listen. Listen to the batter sizzle as it ran across the skillet every time Babushka poured the batter onto it and swirled it to get an even coating. By the smells and sounds coming from the kitchen I knew exactly what she was doing. The moments of silence in between the sizzles always meant she was slathering a cooked pancake with a hefty chunk of butter so it wouldn’t stick to the next as she stacked them. Then she was greasing the skillet with a bit of pork fat she’d pierced on a fork and kept on a saucer by the stove.
By the time I’d smelt and listened enough, Babushka would make a stack of perfectly round, perfectly thin, perfectly golden pancakes with delicate hole-studded edges. Those tiny holes reminded me of eyelets in Babushka’s embroidery and made her pancakes look almost decorative.
She would serve them with sour cream, jam (often swirled into sour cream), melted butter, caviar. Caviar was rarely served. Mostly when she expected guests. But my favorite was an egg and butter mixture. In a small saucepan, she would melt a tablespoon or two of butter over medium-high heat until shimmering hot, then she would whisk in an egg and stir the mixture fast so the egg didn’t have a chance to fully cook and ended up looking like shreds of white paper. A dash of each salt and pepper would round it out.
We dunked our blini in this mixture while it was still warm.
Yeah, memories I have plenty! It’s the recipe that I lack. Should’ve stood by her side learning instead of lying in there listening!
The other day Mom skyped with her good old friends in Moldova, and they happened to mention that they’d just made a batch of eyelet blini.
I sure asked them for the recipe and was excited to see that it called for the use of kefir. You know how fond I am of this healthful cultured milk product. I make my own kefir at home by growing kefir grains and I am always on the lookout for ways to use it up as it multiplies super fast.
I am not sure if my grandma used kefir to make her blini, but I was ready to give it a try to just recreate that beloved hole-studded design.
So I made a batch of 40 that same day in my own pancake-designated skillet. Mom had her blini with fresh strawberries crushed and swirled into sour cream; Nicole dunked hers in plain sour cream while I enjoyed mine with egg and butter. It is still my favorite.
“They are very good, Mom, but not as delish as Babushka’s,” I summed up.
“Of course not, honey. They are not Babushka’s,” she replied.
It was a satisfying meal of reflection. Reflection on people and days gone and anticipation of people to meet and times to make as a family. I love the way food connects generations. I am sooooo passing down this recipe and my skillet to Nicole!
There are abundant recipes for blini. Bountiful ways to make them and copious condiments to serve them with. And you don’t have to wait until Maslenitsa to make them. In Russia we eat them all year round, and it’s a very popular breakfast item.
Recipe for Russian Eyelet Pancakes
Recipe credit: Mom’s friends from Moldova—Galya and Larisa
1. 4 eggs, beaten
2. 2 tablespoons raw sugar
3. ½ teaspoon table salt
4. 2 cups (500mL) kefir
5. ½ teaspoon baking soda
6. 1 teaspoon white vinegar
7. 21/2 cups (570g) cups unbleached ultragrain flour
8. 2 cups (500mL) milk, at room temperature
9. 4 tablespoons (about 50g) butter, melted and cooled down to room temperature
10. ¾ cup (175mL) boiling water
11. sunflower oil and a paper towel for greasing
12. 2/3 cup (150g) coarse salt like kosher salt or sea salt for heating the skillet through
1. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, and salt until sugar has dissolved.
2. Whisk in kefir until combined.
3. In a cup, mix together baking soda and vinegar. After the mixture finishes foaming, add to the batter. It makes it fluffy.
4. Add flour and stir until incorporated, and there are no lumps. The batter will be thick at this point.
5. Start thinning it out by adding milk. Add milk gradually, stirring constantly until smooth.
6. Add melted butter and continue to stir until smooth.
7. Add boiling water gradually, stirring constantly until smooth. The batter will be thin and runny now.
8. Cover the bottom of a thin 9.5-inch nonstick skillet with coarse salt and heat it over high heat until you see it smoke. Reduce heat to medium-high, discard the salt, wipe the skillet with a dry paper towel, and get ready to pour your first blin.
9. Grease the skillet before each blin with just a little oil on a paper towel.
10. Using a ladle, pour about 1/3 cup batter onto the center of the skillet. Lift pan to gently swirl the batter so it evenly coats the skillet. You want to make the coating as thin as possible.
11. Return the pan to heat and cook the batter until it starts to lose its shine, and the edges are barely starting to brown, about 45 to 50 seconds.
12. With a thin, wide non-metal spatula, loosen the blin and flip it over. Cook an additional 15 to 20 seconds.
13. Gently slide it out onto a plate or use the spatula to lift it out. Stack the blini one on top of the other as you are cooking. If you wish, you can stack the blini in a ovenproof dish, wrap them in foil and keep them warm in the oven set at 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Another option is to cover them with a dish towel.
14. Serve with sour cream, yogurt, fresh fruit, jam, melted butter, or egg and butter mixture.
15. Store them in the refrigerator for several days.
Makes about 40 pancakes.
1. Expect the first blin to backfire. Первый блин всегда комом—the first pancake is always spoiled—as we say in Russia. That’s because you have to get the pan “going” by bringing it to the right temperature and seasoning it with fat. Just scrape it out and keep going.