Russian blini is not what you see on Iron Chef that looks like a tiny thin silver-dollar pancake (this is actually a totally different Russian dish called “oladuski”). It is a delicate, lacy edged, light as air, glistening with butter crapes my mother used to make. Just like she was taught by her mother-in-law. My mother was known as a great cook in our family, a phenomenon baker, but the little secret was that my grandmother taught her everything she knew, literally starting from how to boil water.
I can cook anything. I taught myself how to make the most complex dishes and desserts. I can whip up French macaroons and croissants, I learned how to debone poultry and make bread, I can plan and execute a menu of 30 dishes for 30 people in two day, but I can’t make blini. I just can’t.
When I was little, my mother taught me many things in the kitchen, but she mostly let me watch and listen, rarely letting me get down to the actual cooking. On the contrary my grandmother let me get down to business in her kitchen. She let me make and mess up cakes, clean berries for jams even though I ate more than I cleaned and help her make dumplings even though my share came out looking more like clumps of glue. Her house was an ultimate playground and she spoiled me rotten. She always wanted a little girl and having had two boys, I was adored beyond measure. She let me finger-paint and roller-skate in the halls of their apartment; she sewed dresses for my dolls and indulged the messiest and smelliest chemistry experiments I could find. Her huge kitchen was my favorite place in the world; it always smelled of my favorite foods and was filled with adventure. It was technically a communal kitchen as my grandparents shared a huge pre-war apartment with an old maid who lived in a tiny room just of the kitchen. (The room was originally meant for a maid, and its occupant instilled a paralyzing fear in me when I was little. She was old and never married nasty woman, who wore her mousy hair in a bun and would appear and disappear without warning, never smiling or talking, just grunting at me through her pursed dry lips. I pictured her sitting in that little room contemplating ways to poison my whole family so she can have the apartment all to herself.)
It was in that kitchen that my grandfather was waging his never ending war on mice, it was that kitchen that had a stain on ceiling from an unfortunate condensed milk explosion (my grandmother was boiling cans of condensed milk for dolce-de-leche for her famous rum cake. She forgot about them and they exploded with a force of a small nuclear bomb, covering the entire ceiling in sticky, delicious goo). The place was filled with wonders, like a huge copper bowl that my grandmother made jams in, that doubled as my bathtub when I was a baby. A mysterious water heating device, which was the only thing I was not to go near, pretty little tea cups decorated with pink roses, meant for guests that I could actually play tea-party with, many different rolling pins (one was said to belong to a famous baker to the czars) and many other trinkets that I could explore on my visits. It was in that kitchen I was actually allowed to sift flour and separate eggs, spill things, burn things and start from scratch, stuff that was unimaginable under my mother’s reign of perfection. My visits with my grandmother were cherished and anticipated like most welcome of gifts and we made a great pair. We were the best of friends.
My relationship with my grandmother turned rocky after my mother’s death. As a young teen I was burdened with a sense of misplaced loyalty, confused by a complex mother-daughter-in-law relationship. And then one day, I grew up and realized that whatever battles I was fighting in my mom’s name were meaningless. Overnight my grandmother became my friend once again, generously forgiving all the teenage bullshit that came before. I visited her Brooklyn apartment often, sometimes to escape, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to eat. She was a tiny little thing, barely tall enough to fit under my armpit, but you should have seen her move around that kitchen. She was like a little silver-haired hurricane feeding me my favorite fried potatoes and “kotletki”; which are little pan-fried Russian chicken meatballs, which I am now known for and are the only truly secret family recipe I possess. She taught me how to make her rum cake and proper sponge cake and crapes. How to make them thin and lacy and light as air. Piled on with her homemade jam, they were a solution to any ailment. And I made them impeccably as long as she was standing near. Not helping, just standing, chatting, gently reassuring before each turn. If she would leave the kitchen for any reason, my blini would clump and be ruined. As soon as she would come back, each came out perfectly once again. It was a mystery I could not explain, but didn’t think of much at the time.
She died shortly after my wedding, unexpectedly, leaving me with bitter regret of wasting so many years with her, wishing I had more time. There was so much more I wanted to ask her, learn from her…
I didn’t try my hand at crapes for years and when I finally did it was a disaster, they were clumpy and lumpy. They tore and fell apart when I tried to turn them and I didn’t know why. I tried again and again with no better result, following batter recipes to a ‘t’, I had no explanation for my failure other than she was not there, standing near me. After many unsuccessful tries I gave up, resolute to accept it as just something I cannot do without her.
Recently, on a quiet Sunday morning, I woke up, went downstairs and made blini. No fuss, no big whoop. No metal preparation of any kind. I mixed the batter by memory, and each one turned out perfectly fine, just like my grandmother’s. I missed her more that morning than I did all the years she was gone…She would never stand next to me…she would never teach me anything…I could do this all by myself now…
Russian Blini ( Crapes)
Makes 12-15 crapes
2 large eggs
1 cup of milk
¼ cup of water
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbs melted butter (cooled)
3 tbs melted butter for the frying pan.
In a blender, combine all the ingredients and blend until smooth. Refrigerate the mixture for about an hour or longer (overnight works very well). Pre-heat a 9 inch non-stick skillet and brush with melted butter. Off the heat pour ¼ cup of batter and swirl it around so that the entire skillet surface is coated. Cook on medium-low heat for about 30-40 seconds, or until the edges become dry. Turn by either sliding the blini off the skillet edge and using your fingers or use a very thin flat spatula. If you are really awesome you can try and flip them in the skillet. The idea is to get the job done, so whatever work for you, use it and don’t worry about the theatrics.
Serve with sour cream, jam, red caviar, or commit an American atrocity, like my daughter, and slather peanut butter on the blini.
And don’t forget to think of your grandmother, wherever and whenever she was from, she surely made some kind of crapes or blinis. Maybe you are lucky and she is standing right next to you making them now.