During Lucas North’s marriage to Elizabeta Starkova, he would almost certainly have been invited to a Maslenitsa celebration, the Russian Orthodox meal that signals the beginning of Great Lent (“Cheesefare Sunday”); perhaps Elizabeta would have made her own. With roots in both pagan and Christian traditions, Maslenitsa is a joyous and luxurious herald of the beginning of Spring. Even during the Soviet era, when religious holidays were officially not celebrated, many families observed Maslenitsa for fun and fellowship and to look ahead to the oncoming Spring season.
This meal is best made for a large group of friends and eaten over a few hours, with lots of drinking and merriment. The centerpiece of the meal are the round, slightly sour “blini”, which are buckwheat crepes or pancakes. They can also be made without buckwheat flour, but the buckwheat flour lends them a unique flavor that blends well with the salty fillings. Each round of blini (singular, blin) is occasion for another round of toasts with vodka, plum brandy, or wine, and the dinner stretches on as the guests find new and intriguing combinations of fillings to try.
Maslenitsa at the Mitchell House
Preparations here begin a few days early as we move all the furniture out of the living room and set up card tables and extra chairs, get out the good china and crystal, and lay in the supplies: smoked salmon & other fish from local smokehouse, sour cream, *lots* of sweet butter to melt and pour on the blini as we’re adding our fillings, chopped green onions, caviar, and for the sweet lovers (like me), fresh fruit, specialty jams and local maple syrup to put on “dessert” blini.
The batter mixing begins early, as the batter goes through a couple of rises (as you’ll see below). It looks tricky, but once you’ve done it, it’s not that hard, and it’s well worth the effort. An hour or so before dinner, Kevin (my husband, who cooks) heats up two or three pans on the stove, then starts making the blini and stacking them in a deep bowl with an upside-down plate on top to help hold in the heat. The process is very similar to making pancakes, and the heat you’ll use is about the same. He can keep two or three pans cooking at the same time, especially if he has an assistant. When the first fifty or so blini are done we can sit down to eat.
For a typical Maslenitsa dinner, we have between 20 and 30 guests in our tiny condo; each guests eats between five and ten blini, so Kevin is usually up a few times during dinner making new rounds of blini, and we almost always finish all that are made. Due to the amount of vodka consumed, we encourage guests to stay after dinner for a few rounds of cards (if relatively sober) or kung-fu movies (if mostly inebriated) or sleeping on our couch (if utterly pickled).
All in all, there are lots of reasons Maslenitsa is such a popular holiday, and that it survived the Soviet era. And that we have a core group that continues coming back every year, despite an utter lack of Russian heritage or special affinity for fish. It’s just fun. If you try this recipe, I hope you have success with it, and think of Lucas and Elizabeta enjoying this during their happier days. Cheers!
Family Blini Recipe (tweaked by Kevin Mitchell)
Fortunately, buckwheat flour is gluten-free! This recipe can easily be made completely gluten-free by using the same amount of gluten-free flour as a substitution for the “white flour”. We use rice flour instead of white.
1 package yeast
1 1/4 c lukewarm water
1 1/4 cups buckwheat flour
3/4 cup white flour (or rice flour, to be gluten free)
1 cup hot milk
2 eggs, separated
1/8 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp melted butter
1/4 c heavy cream
Dissolve yeast in warm water, add 3/4 cup buckwheat flour & all the white flour. Beat thoroughly and put into a large size bowl. Cover and let rise in warm place for 3 hours. Beat batter well with spoon, adding remaining buckwheat flour, until well blended. Let rise again in warm place, about 2 hours, and add 1 cup scalded milk to batter, mixing until smooth. Cool, then add 2 egg yolks, salt, sugar, and melted butter.
In separate bowl, whip cream. Beat egg whites until very stiff. Fold egg whites into cream and whole mixture into batter.
Let stand one hour without stirring again. Fry in small pancake size, about 4-5 inches in diameter. Dough is taken carefully with a spoon and put into a heated and buttered pan. When the blini are done on the under side (you’ll see holes bubble up from the bottom to the top, just like crepes or pancakes), sprinkle with melted butter and turn to cook on the other side.
Blini may be served with melted butter, smoked fish, caviar, sour cream, scallions, marinated mushrooms, herring in cream sauce, chopped hard-cooked eggs, or other vegetables,or — for the kids or those who don’t like fish — with fresh fruit, jam, or syrup (like pancakes or blintzes). Cinnamon and sugar are also a favorite for light “dessert” blini. As you’re getting to the end of the meal, a pot of tea is a nice touch for those who’d like to wake up or sober up.
Make sure to have lots of cold beverages on hand as all that salted fish will make you extra thirsty, and because blini is, frankly, a very sauced-up sort of occasion. It’s traditional to offer lots of toasts to the chef, your host, the guests, the occasion, your favorite shoes, the noble fish laying on the table, and other silliness; toasts may be offered with non-alcoholic beverages, wine or beer, of course, but we stick with the very traditional shot of Russian vodka straight from the freezer. We collect shot glasses and have about 25, so we can accomodate a crowd at blini. (Also be prepared to accomodate over-drinkers who shouldn’t drive home or even take public transport.)
Inspiration photos, courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com
Christine (@msgigglepants) is a full-time bellydance/Bollywood dance teacher and performer living in Michigan with Kevin, who is pretty much the best cook ever. Also, he has purple hair and laughs at her jokes, which counts for a lot.
C’s first introduction to Richard Armitage was via “North & South” (seemingly the gateway drug of choice) and shortly thereafter “The Vicar of Dibley”. A fan of earnest, straightforward men who tell it like it is, she will always have a crush on Mr. Thornton and lovely, charming Harry Kennedy. As a fan of gorgeous snotty bastards who secretly long for redemption if it comes with wealth, power, and the girl, she finds Guy a guilty pleasure. As a fan of utterly delectable men of action who wear tight trousers (and often NO SHIRTS!) and save the day despite heavily conflicted agendas, she admits to watching (LOTS of) Lucas and Porter. But it’s Thorin Smokinshield who stole a surprise march on her affections and made her fancy dwarves…
With a raised glass,