Why It Works
- Substituting baking powder and baking soda for yeast produces blini in a fraction of the time that traditional recipes require, without sacrificing flavor.
- Buttermilk provides a subtle tang that would otherwise be missing in a non-yeasted blini batter.
- Folding whipped egg whites into the batter keeps the blini light.
New Year's Eve isn't a lot of fun when you're cooking in restaurants. As with other holidays, restaurants often offer a special prix fixe New Year's Eve menu ("complete with a champagne toast!") to lure diners. Special one-night menus translate to a lot of extra prep and scrambling for cooks who have to prepare dishes they often haven’t seen before. It’s stressful.
Odds are, you'll still be in the kitchen when the clock strikes midnight, and the best-case scenario is that you'll get to raise a deli container of bubbly with your coworkers. But there is one good thing about working on New Year's Eve in a nice restaurant: There will be caviar.
Caviar is the unofficial food of New Year's, which means restaurants are more or less obligated to offer it. I could always count on being able to swipe a few mother-of-pearl spoonfuls throughout service in the name of "quality control." At the end of the night, chefs share what’s left of the open caviar containers, scooping it up with potato chips that someone ran out and got at a bodega.
While I love the combination of potato chips and caviar, most people prefer to pair them with something a little more sophisticated, like Russian blini. Blini are what I want pancakes to be: more savory than sweet, and traditionally imbued with a good amount of tang thanks to a yeasted batter.
In the States, when we think of Russian blini, we commonly associate them with small buckwheat-flour pancakes, to be paired with smoked fish and caviar. Buckwheat blini are served in Russia, but, according to Anya von Bremzen in Please to the Table, you're more likely to find them made with regular flour there, and they're usually much larger than the silver-dollar versions served in Western Europe and in the US. I wanted to explore the blini possibilities, but with the goal of serving those small pancakes we expect with celebratory caviar.
I started down the blini rabbit hole by ordering a bunch of caviar and mixing up batch after batch of savory pancake batters. I made yeasted batters with 100% buckwheat flour and 100% all-purpose flour. I experimented with a 50/50 blend of the two and several ratios in between. Some yeasted batters I made with active dry yeast, others with instant yeast. I made sponges, and I made batters that required multiple proofing stages. I also made blini with no yeast at all. I tried my hand at Thomas Keller’s famous potato blini (which are, unsurprisingly, delicious) and French-style blini that have not only whipped egg whites but also whipped heavy cream folded into the batter right before cooking.
I held tastings in which we tried all these blini, first on their own and then paired with caviar and crème fraîche. The tricky part about making blini with the purpose of serving them as a vehicle for caviar is that you don’t want the flavor of the blini to overpower the expensive salted fish roe that you've shelled out all that money for. At the same time, you don’t want them to be bland and one-note boring. They need to complement the salinity of the caviar, not compete with it.
Tasters agreed that the blini made with only buckwheat flour were too intense, especially when the batter was yeasted. Even when the buckwheat flour was cut with all-purpose, the yeasted versions tasted too sour, as the yeast drowned out the earthy sweetness of the buckwheat. Once I'd eliminated yeast entirely from the batter, using baking powder and baking soda instead, the nuttiness of the buckwheat was able to shine through, and play the perfect foil to the creamy tang of cultured crème fraîche and the briny pop of caviar pearls.
I still wanted to develop a recipe for yeasted blini, so I decided to take on a second version that streamlined the fermentation process. And it worked! The resulting pancakes have a subtle tang from the sponge fermentation, balanced with a hint of sweetness. If you prefer to go that route instead, please check out my recipe for yeasted blini.
To make buckwheat blini, start by whisking together the dry ingredients: buckwheat flour, all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. I settled on a ratio of two parts buckwheat flour to one part all-purpose, which highlights the pleasant, nutty bitterness of buckwheat without making it overpowering.
Because I did away with the yeast in this recipe, I'm using traditional American-breakfast-pancake leavening agents here instead: baking powder and soda. I then whisk together buttermilk, egg yolks, melted butter, and a little vegetable oil. Buttermilk helps stand in for the tang that's lost without the yeast. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and stir until just combined. Again, you don’t want to over-mix. Lumps are good.
Right before cooking, whisk a couple of egg whites in a bowl until they form stiff peaks. I go for stiff peaks here, instead of the soft peaks we want in the yeasted blini—buckwheat pancakes are denser and struggle to get the same amount of lift as ones made with all-purpose flour alone, so they need all the help they can get. Gently fold the whites into the batter, and you’re good to go.
To cook the blini, heat up a nonstick skillet or electric griddle and brush it with vegetable oil. Traditional blini recipes call for a potato dipped in oil, but as you can see, a paper towel does a much better job of spreading a thin film of oil on a nonstick cooking surface.
Use a spoon to portion out little silver dollar pancake–sized blini, about two and a half inches in diameter. Cook until bubbles appear on their top surface and their bottoms are light golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Cook them for a couple minutes on the second side, then get them out of the pan. Wrap them in a clean kitchen towel so that they don’t dry out, and transfer them to a warm oven. Keep cooking and flipping blini until you're out of batter.
At Your Caviar Service
With the blini squared away, all you have left to do is pop some bottles, get your fish eggs on ice, and prepare some garnishes. Traditional caviar accompaniments include chopped hard-cooked eggs, sliced chives, perfectly minced shallots (check out my guide to serving oysters at home for a primer on shallot-cutting), and crème fraîche.
As for the caviar itself, there are a lot of options out there, and not all of them are as expensive as you might think. During testing, I got the green light to order a selection of different caviars from Browne Trading Company, one of the top seafood purveyors in the Northeast. They sell caviars that range from $40 to $300 per tin.
Of the caviars that we tried, the Prime Osetra was the consensus favorite. Its salinity is restrained, and it has a hint of sweetness, with well-rounded and balanced flavor. If you like your caviar on the saltier side, then spoonbill caviar might be up your alley; a number of tasters liked its briny pop. To be honest, once you spoon caviar on a blini, or a potato chip, it’s all delicious.
1 cup buckwheat flour (5 ounces; 140g)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (2 1/2 ounces; 70g)
2 teaspoons (8g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon (2g) kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon (2g) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon (1g) baking soda
2 cups (475ml) buttermilk
2 tablespoons (28g) unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs (110g), separated
1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil, plus more for cooking
Sour cream or crème fraîche, for serving
Chilled caviar or smoked salmon, for serving
Finely minced shallots, sliced chives, and/or chopped hard-boiled eggs, for serving (optional)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 150°F (65°C) or its lowest possible setting. In a medium bowl, whisk together buckwheat flour, all-purpose flour, sugar, kosher salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together buttermilk, melted butter, egg yolks, and vegetable oil. Add buttermilk mixture to bowl with dry ingredients and use a rubber spatula to stir until just combined.
In a small bowl using a whisk, or using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold egg whites into batter until just combined.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes (or use an electric griddle set to 350°F/177°C). Add a small amount of vegetable oil to the skillet and spread with a paper towel until no visible oil remains. Using a spoon, place silver dollar pancake–sized circles of batter (about 2 1/2 inches in diameter) in the skillet. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface of the blini and bottom sides of blini are light golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Carefully flip blini and cook on second side until light golden brown and completely set, about 2 minutes longer. Wrap finished blini in a clean kitchen towel, place towel on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, and transfer to oven to keep warm. Repeat blini-cooking process until all of the batter is used up.
Serve blini with sour cream or crème fraîche, chilled caviar or smoked salmon, and traditional accompaniments, such as finely minced shallots, sliced chives, and chopped hard-boiled eggs.
Large nonstick skillet, whisk or stand mixer, wire rack, rimmed baking sheet
Make-Ahead and Storage
Blini are best enjoyed immediately.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 1g||1%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||2%|
|Total Carbohydrate 4g||1%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|