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These pancakes are Russian, and were (it's no longer officially recognized) eaten at the revelrous pre-Lenten feast known as Maslenitsa, or "butter week," from the Russian word maslo, butter. Along with eating blini, the Russians threw themselves into this festival with great exuberance. Many of the traditions associated with this time date back to pre-Christian revelry when they were, as we say in New England, trying to "break the back of winter." They'd build great ice hills upon which they'd haul effigies of winter, which were then sent crashing down the slopes. Huge bonfires were built to drive winter away. They even wrapped themselves in animal skins and made fearful noises to scare away evil spirits.
Although all of this can be traced back to superstition about the sun and the passing seasons, most of it became an excuse to break up the long, dark winter days with some fun. What the Russians loved best during Maslenitsa was eating blini, which they did with great abandon before the beginning of the Lenten fast. No meat was allowed during this week, thus the relish with which they consumed dairy products and fish.
1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) whole buckwheat flour
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) warm water
2 tablespoons non-instant dry milk or 1/3 cup instant dry milk
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 eggs, separated
1/2 cup (4 ounces) milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons, 2 ounces) melted butter
For the sponge: Mix these ingredients together in a medium-sized mixing bowl, cover, and set aside to rest for 30 to 60 minutes.
For the batter: Beat the egg yolks until light, then beat in the milk, sugar and salt. Blend this mixture into the sponge, and let it rest for 30 to 45 minutes. Set aside the egg whites and let them warm to room temperature. While you're waiting, you can get together the things you want to serve with the blini. We suggest any (or all!) of the following: melted butter, sour cream, caviar, thinly sliced smoked salmon, pickled herring, kippers, chopped onion or scallions, chopped hard-boiled egg, capers or, for something sweet, jam!
Just before you're ready to cook the blini, beat the egg whites until they form peaks, and fold them into the remaining batter. Whisk in the melted butter.
Use a heavy, well-seasoned cast-iron griddle, if you have one. If not, use any heavy frying pan or griddle. Heat the pan over low to medium heat and wipe it with butter. (You shouldn't need to grease the pan again once you start cooking.)
Pour 2 to 3 tablespoons batter onto the griddle for each blini. They should be about 4 inches in diameter. Cook them as you would pancakes, until bubbles appear that break and don't fill in. Flip over and cook until lightly browned. These can be stacked on a warm plate in a warm oven until serving. Yield: about 2 dozen 4-inch blini.
Nutrition information per serving (1 blini, ungarnished, 38g): 66 cal, 2.7g fat, 3g protein, 8g complex carbohydrates, 1g dietary fiber, 29mg cholesterol, 86mg sodium, 80mg potassium, 37RE vitamin A, 34mg calcium, 65mg phosphorus.