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 decided to take on a second version. Many traditional recipes for yeasted blini start with making a sponge, a fermented precursor for doughs and batters that's made with yeast, flour, warm liquid (either milk or water), and often a little sugar. After the yeast has had time to do its thing, the sponge is combined with the rest of the blini batter ingredients, and the batter is set aside again for another stage of fermentation.
This double fermentation means that you're spending upwards of three hours on a pancake batter. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, if the payoff is big enough. But, as I mentioned earlier, when you're going all out and having blini and caviar, you want the star of the show to shine.
I decided to experiment with a yeasted batter that eliminated the second fermentation step. And it worked! These blini have just the right amount of tang from the sponge fermentation, and just a hint of sweetness for balance.
Both the buckwheat and the yeasted blini go perfectly with caviar and bubbly. Read on for more on how to make them both.
How to Make Yeasted Blini
Start by scalding two cups of whole milk in a small saucepan. Transfer the milk to a large bowl, and let it cool until it registers between 105°F (41°C) and 115°F (46°C)—any hotter, and you risk killing the yeast; any colder, and you'll slow down the yeast's activity.
Add a packet of active dry yeast and one teaspoon of sugar, and let that mixture hang out for a few minutes. You should see the mixture begin to foam and bubble. If you don't, there's a good chance your yeast is dead—go buy some new yeast and start again.
Next, whisk in three-quarters of a cup of all-purpose flour, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and leave the mixture in a warm place until it has roughly doubled in size.
To bring the batter together, I whisk another three-quarters of a cup all-purpose flour into the sponge, along with egg yolks, melted butter, vegetable oil, sugar, and a little salt. Treat the batter as you would a breakfast pancake batter; you don’t want to over-mix it, because gluten development will lead to tough blini. Leave it a little lumpy.
Right before cooking, whisk two egg whites until they hold soft peaks, then gently fold them into the batter.
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.
Can you use a cast iron skillet instead of a nonstick? Of course you can. But pancakes are one of the few things that I prefer to cook in a nonstick skillet. No matter how well you’ve seasoned your cast iron pan, it really can’t compete when you need to guarantee that nothing will adhere. (Cast iron is also a poor conductor of heat, making it more prone to hot and cold spots and thus more likely to produce unevenly browned pancakes.)
Use a spoon to portion out little silver dollar pancake–sized blini, about two and a half inches in diameter. Because these are yeasted pancakes, you can’t just go by the old rule of flipping them once you see bubbles, because they'll bubble right from the start. When you first drop the batter in the pan, you'll notice that the bubbles on the surface of the blini are reabsorbed into the batter. After a couple of minutes, though, the bubbles will stop collapsing back into the batter and will hold their shape. That’s when you want to flip them, checking first that they're a nice, pale golden brown on the bottom side.
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.
How to Make Buckwheat Blini
The process for making buckwheat blini is a lot simpler. 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.
Cook these the same way as the yeasted blini: a couple minutes per side in a nonstick pan or on an electric griddle.
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 blin, or a potato chip, it’s all delicious.