It’s a bold move to drench in butter something that has already been fried in the stuff. But Court Counsellor Semyon Petrovich Podtikin, a character dreamed up by Chekhov in his short story “On Mortality: A Carnival Tale”, is that kind of man.
When his blinis arrive, they are as “plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter”. As well as the butter, he lavishes them with soured cream, caviar, herring, a sardine and a tidbit of salmon. Panting with joyful anticipation, he rolls up his blini, downs a shot of vodka and dives in.
Many non-Russians would be puzzled by Podtikin’s blini rolling. Outside Russia, most blinis are small, puffy disks handed round at cocktail parties, topped with some kind of dairy product and fish eggs or something smoked. Such delicacies would never survive being folded. Podtikin’s blini sounds more like a French crêpe.
In Russia blinis can be any manner of pancake – big, small, leavened, unleavened, buckwheat, plain wheat – as long as they can be fried in butter and topped with something delicious. They are served to new mothers to bring luck (and sustain them after giving birth) and brought to funerals to nourish the mourners.
But it’s during Maslenitsa, or “butter week”, that they are served in the greatest quantities. Maslenitsa was originally a pagan feast that used to welcome the glow of spring after the frozen winter; like the sun, blinis are round, fat and golden. The church then appropriated butter week to usher in Lent, somewhat like Shrove Tuesday in Britain – when pancakes are also eaten – but longer and more impressive. Both offer an opportunity to finish up the riches of the house before the Lenten fast.
As Christmas (another purloined festival) and all its myriad parties approach, the diminutive form of blinis really come into their own. If you have time, make yeasted ones – the light fluffiness offsets the rich toppings. Buckwheat flour brings a nutty flavour. Cut it with plain white flour to prevent it dominating. Pour small, round puddles of batter into a sparingly buttered pan and wait for the telltale bubbles to form as it cooks.
Choose your garnishes judiciously – salted herring, smoked salmon and caviar all sit well atop the soured cream. But perhaps not all at once: Podtikin succumbed to an apoplectic fit after demolishing his impressive creation.•