Party food, Russian style

The caviar is optional, but not the blini. Annie Bell rhapsodises about thick yeasted pancakes and melted butter
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The Independent Online
Finally the kitchen maid appeared with the blini. The blini were deep golden, airy and plump - just like the shoulder of a merchant's daughter. Podtikin glowed with delight and hiccuped with joy as he poured hot butter all over them.

Then, as if to further inflame his appetite with pleasurable anticipation, he slowly, painstakingly, spread them with caviar. To the few patches not covered with caviar, he applied a dollop of sour cream. He reflected a moment and then piled on to the blini the fattest piece of salmon, a smelt and a sardine, and only then, panting and delirious, he rolled up the blini, downed a shot of vodka, and opened his mouth.

So wrote Chekhov in On Human Frailty: An Object Lesson for the Butter Festival. The blini, a thick yeasted pancake made with white flour, sometimes mixed with buckwheat flour, has ancient roots in Russia, and stories of blini-eating verge on the apocryphal: in turn-of-the-century Moscow, the average order at the Slavyansky bazaar was said to be four dozen per person.

More important, however, is how you like this pancake: lacy, honeycombed and white, or plump like cushions specked with the black of buckwheat. Both are traditional. Thereafter, the priority is size: when small, they can make an ideal base for a canape, but one or two large ones, dressed up, will do for lunch.

Come dinnertime, my ideal ritual might go as follows: first, I would wet with melted butter a tender white blini, 6in in diameter; into the centre I would spoon a mound of those voluptuous, orange salmon eggs, then some creme fraiche, before enclosing it with a second blini, and neatly consuming it wedge by wedge.

Caviar may be a classic accompaniment, but few people are born to beluga and there are plenty of options. If you are caviar-minded, save the beluga to eat, unadorned, with a teaspoon, and use sevruga; it is more assertive, and the eggs are harder.

Buckwheat blinis are just as worthy of rhapsody: earthy, almost musty and slightly sour. Again, I would have a jug of melted butter to hand; and spread them with a mushroom caviar laced with dill, or lay on each a few thin slices of smoked eel and some pieces of crispy bacon.

The blinis you find for sale, packaged like crumpets, look more appropriate for cleaning the car. Good blinis require hands-on home cooking.

As far as yeast cookery is concerned, they are virtually foolproof. And even if pancake-tossing is not your forte, blinis require just a nifty flick in the pan with a palette knife; they are sturdy chaps and will not tear or end up in a crumpled heap. They can also be reheated in a low oven or under the grill - a mark of convenience food.

Blinis and parties go hand in hand. In the spirit of zakuska, serve a variety of smoked fishes, salmon roe, pickled herring, chopped spring onions, boiled eggs - hens' or quails' - and sour cream or creme fraiche. Try a few leaves of rocket or sprigs of watercress with the smoked fish.

The Russians make a feature of vegetable caviars: mushroom, beetroot or aubergine. Prepare the blinis in quantity, any size you want. Serve with shots of freezing vodka. Pancakes for dinner? That's fine by me.

Plain blinis

Makes 12 6in blinis

Ingredients: 1/4 oz (7g) fresh yeast

15 fl oz (52ml) lukewarm milk

6oz (170g) strong white flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 level tsp castor sugar

2oz (57g) unsalted butter, melted

1tbs groundnut oil

2 eggs (size 2), separated

Preparation: Blend the yeast with half the milk, then whisk to a smooth paste with half the flour, the salt and sugar; cover with a plate and leave in a warm place (oven on lowest setting) for 1 hour until it has doubled in volume.

Whisk in the remaining milk, flour, butter, oil and egg yolks, and leave to prove for another hour. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Leave to stand for 20 minutes.

To cook the blini, select a heavy-duty cast-iron or well-seasoned frying pan; I usually have two on the go at once. Give it an initial brush with groundnut oil; no need to oil it thereafter because of the butter in the batter. Heat the pan over a medium heat, whisk the batter thoroughly and ladle into pan so it spreads to a 5-8in diameter. After 45-60 seconds, when it appears pitted and almost dry on the topside, turn it with a palette knife and cook for another 45-60 seconds. Practise with the first blini and, if necessary, discard it. Stack the blinis on a plate and cover with foil to keep them warm.

You can also make vegetable blinis by scattering thin strips of blanched French beans, celeriac, carrot and herbs over the blini as the first side is cooking: melted butter or creme fraiche being the only requisites.

Buckweat blinis with mushroom caviar

Makes approx 20 4in blinis

Buckwheat flour is available from healthfood shops.

Ingredients for blinis: 1/4 oz (7g) fresh yeast

11 fl oz (38ml) lukewarm milk

3oz (86g) buckwheat flour

3oz (86g) strong white flour

1/2 tsp salt

2 level tsp castor sugar

3oz (86g) unsalted butter, melted

2tbs groundnut oil

3 egg yolks (size 2)

2 egg whites (size 2)

Preparation for the blinis: Cook 4in in diameter, according to the plain blini recipe.

Ingredients for the mushroom caviar:

(In cooking this puree, the flavour of the mushrooms is concentrated, so the common-or-garden cultivated type are fine.)

2tbs groundnut oil

2oz (57g) shallots, peeled and minced

2lbs (907g) mushrooms,

coarsely chopped

salt, pepper

squeeze of lemon juice

3 heaped tsp dill, finely chopped

1 heaped tbs creme fraiche

Preparation of mushroom caviar: Cook the mushrooms in two lots. Heat some groundnut oil in a frying pan, cook shallots for 1 minute, add mushrooms, season and cook for 10 minutes. Initially they will throw out all their liquid; continue to cook until the mixture is dry; remove to the bowl of a food processor, and then repeat with remaining half of these ingredients.

Process mushrooms so they are finely chopped. Remove to a bowl and cool, then sharpen with lemon juice. Stir in dill and creme fraiche, and adjust seasoning. Serve at room temperature.

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