Russia, February 19, 1999
My favorite Russian food!February 19, 1999 Reuters, via Johnson's Russia List
Pagan pancake fest readies Russia for Lent
By Peter Henderson
MOSCOW - One is a blin, two are bliny and any of the famous pancakes cooked by a real Russian grandmother are delicious. That becomes clear to millions of Russians this week during pagan celebrations marking the end of winter, which the Orthodox Church has accommodated as a week of feasting before Lent. The winter snow is unlikely to melt for some weeks in many parts of Russia, but the celebrations mean seven days of walks through the snow, visiting relatives and gobbling piles of thin pancakes, usually made by the family's grandmother, or babushka.
Bliny are Russian pancakes with a slightly sour taste and the thickness of a few playing cards, accompanied by caviar or indeed almost any other filling on hand, from jam to sour cream and salmon. The light brown bliny are shaped like small suns, accounting for their central role in pre-Christian festivals of the end of winter, when the returning sun brightens the sky.
CHRISTIANITY TAKES ON PAGAN FUN
Christianity came to Russia near the end of the first Christian millennium, long after Slav peasants began working the land. Paganism took hold in Russia as early as the second century AD and Maslenitsa, a shortened form of the Russian for 'butter week,' was first mentioned in the sixth century, said Larisa Zhigaitsova, a Russian history teacher at Moscow State University.
Each of the seven days had a purpose and a name such as Flirting Day, when couples wooed each other over a warm pancake, and Sweet Tooth, when mothers-in-law invited daughters-in-law over for bliny, an invitation reciprocated later in the week.
The week, which this year finishes on Sunday, ends with more bliny and the ritual burning of a straw puppet symbolising winter, the ashes of which are spread on the fields to assure fertility ahead of spring planting. Christian missionaries facing such fun had a clever strategy to ween the Slavs from paganism, Zhigaitsova said. 'The Church knew that it could not completely destroy those festivals, and so it made sure many Church holidays fell at the same time as traditional holidays.'
Maslenitsa was traditionally celebrated at the end of March at the equinox, when the day has finally become equal to the night and peasants could think about spring planting. Now it falls during cheese week, a build-up to Lent's seven weeks of self-denial before Easter, said Viktor Malyukhin, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. 'Maslenitsa is a folk holiday which falls at the same time on the holy calendar as cheese week, the last week before Lent when you can eat butter, eggs, sour cream,' he said. Coincidentally, bliny are made of milk and eggs and are generally smeared liberally with sour cream.
THE FIRST BLIN IS ALWAYS A MESS
Russian popular culture owes a lot to the blin and its sidekick, butter. 'You cannot spoil porridge with butter,' a Russian cook might say, meaning one cannot have too much of a good thing, while she slapped butter between layers of a stack of bliny.
'Akh, blin!' another might cry, using a popular euphemism for a strong and similar sounding curse, as she took a turn at the frying pan and watched a lovely pancake degenerate into a half-cooked ball of dough. 'The first blin is always a mess,' the cook might respond, as would any Russian urging another who did not succeed at first to try, try again.
But the secret to a delicious blin is widely held to be beyond technique as befits its cultural role. 'Babushkas probably make better ones because they put their souls into it. Contemporary chefs are more, well, superficial,' said Tatyana Kalashnikova, the 45-year-old cook at St Petersburg's Literaturnoe Kafe (Literary Cafe) Alexander Pushkin, Russia's national poet, reportedly made his last stop at the cafe before going to a fatal duel in 1837.
Kalashnikova's bliny have the slightly chewy texture and satisfying heft one might want for a last meal, though at the time Russia's Western-oriented capital, St Petersburg, and the cafe itself, probably snubbed the humble Russian blin.
Real old fashioned bliny are made with buckwheat flour, which gives the pancakes a zip, Kalashnikova said. 'Blini from buckwheat flour are darker -- wheat and buckwheat are completely different cereals. A blin from buckwheat is a more expressive blin, more piquant.' She uses buckwheat during Maslenitsa but admits to using, and preferring, regular flour the rest of the year.
Here is how she prepares for the crowds:
'The process -- we take warm milk, then sift some flour. We dissolve sugar and salt to taste in the warm milk, add an egg, yeast, then mix in the flour and put aside to rise about 30 minutes. When it has risen, we start making bliny.' A half litre of milk (two cups), 350 grams of flour (12 ounces or 1-3/4 cups) and one egg make 20 bliny, enough for a hungry family. There should be about 1/2 teaspoon each of sugar and salt. Some cooks separate the eggs and fold beaten egg whites in at the end.
'Cook in a very hot pan -- we have a special frying pan for bliny and nothing else, so that the bliny are easy to take out of the pan,' Kalashnikova says. Oil the pan before pouring in batter, swirling it a bit to get a round shape six to eight inches across. Babushkas oil the pan by dipping half a peeled potato, stuck on the end of a fork, into some oil and then rubbing it in the pan. Flip the blin when bubbles rise through the batter, as it turns light brown and becomes easy to separate from the pan.
Stack on a plate and with butter between layers so they do not stick together. 'On the side we serve (smoked) fish, caviar, honey, sour cream, jam, butter -- whatever you want,' Kalashnikova said.