When Butter Week strikes, be ready with stacks of blini.
Travel through many a Russian town during February or March, and everywhere you look, you’re likely to see posters depicting stacks of delicious blini, the Russian version of crepes. For 2017, the festival runs February 20–26.
Sounds like some kind of pancake paradise. But more likely, it’s Butter Week, or Maslenitsa, a blini-filled festival celebrated just before the start of the Orthodox Lent. Topped with caviar, jam, or sour cream, blini are central to the celebration.
“Eating blini cooked in butter became a way to ease off meat for the upcoming Lent,” says Pavel Syutkin, a food historian and one of the authors ofCCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine (2015).
We’ll pick up the fascinating history of Blini below. But for now…it’s pancake time!
The Secret to Making Blini
In Russia, blini are big throughout the year, not just during Maslenitsa. They’re served plain with a side of sour cream or jam or stuffed with either sweet or savory fillings like sauteed mushrooms or smoked salmon.
“I make them the way my grandmother made them — with milk and as thin as lace,” says Olga Syutkina, Pavel’s co-author and wife. “But there is a secret. When making your batter, add milk to flour instead of the other way around. That helps avoid small lumps and make your batter smoother.”
Butter Week may come but once a year. But these blini recipes are forever. These three versions take you from basic blini to buckwheat blini to yam-based blini.
Blini (Russian Pancakes)
Rave Review: “I live in Russia, and I’ve tried many blini recipes from Russian websites. None of those recipes turned out as good as this one! I used a tiny bit of vinegar instead of the citric acid. Russian boyfriend approves! We’re ready for Maslenitsa tomorrow!” — sweetandsavory
Rave Review: “Perfect. Made them as an appetizer with creme fraiche and smoked salmon and they were heavenly.” — Mlsteffy
Yam Blinis with Brown Sugar-Ginger Sauce
Rave Review: “These blinis represent my Russian heritage. They were inspired by buckwheat blinis which are so traditional in Russian cuisine. These blinis are a great alternative to pancakes.” — Kristina S.
How It All Began
While today’s carnival of Maslenitsa is firmly under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church, the roots of the holiday go way back to pagan times and the days of sun worship. Tied in the past to the spring equinox, Maslenitsa marked the end of the dark days of winter and celebrated the arrival of warmth and light. For the agrarian-dependent Russian society, this meant the awakening of the soil and, thus, new beginnings.
Because of their round shape, blini represented the sun — a perfect symbol for the arrival of the spring. People also believed they helped ensure a good harvest, happy marriages, healthy children, and support from their ancestors.
When the Orthodox Church took the festival over in the late 15th century, the Church changed the dates, shortened the festival’s duration, and turned it into all things dairy.
“While attempting to defeat paganism the Church actually saved the tradition of serving all kinds of milk-based dishes, blini among them, at feasts during the week,” says Pavel Syutkin.