There’s a Russian word that I’ve recently become enamored with. It’s called zakuski and it means “small bites” or hors d’oeuvres.
Though I suppose it’s not really the word that I’ve fallen for, so much as the idea of the zakuski table—a table that is completely covered by an array of dishes meant for snacking on during a Russian party. Bright hues of yellow, red, green and orange pop against decadent silver and gold dinnerware. Contrasting foods–some that are rich and some that are lean, some that are hot and some that are cold–decorate the tablescape. Dozens of small plates and bowls are scattered throughout in disarray, made all the more jumbled by the infinite number of accompanying utensils for serving.
Upon entering a host’s home, guests are promptly greeted with a shot of some type of liquor, most likely vodka, designed to provide immediate warming relief from the frigid Siberian cold, which they down quickly, followed by a bite of prepared food. The sequence continues until the bottles are empty and the bellies are full; a rather jovial affair that leaves me with the odd feeling that I’d somehow fit right in in Russia, at least when it comes to the dinner party culture.
Even more fascinating, a host’s status is allegedly judged not by the size of their home, the quality of their cars, or the quantity of their belongings, as it tends to be in the US, but rather by the amount of tablecloth left showing on their zakuski table…
Lots of tablecloth surrounding those petite plates? Poor. Stingy. A failure. (Yikes!)
Not an inch of space left on your jam-packed table surface? Wealthy. Generous. Dinner party perfection.
After packing my belly full with zakuski at Kachka, I felt inspired by this style of eating and partying. And so for this New Years Eve, we’re planning a Russian-themed dinner complete with smoked fish, caviar, blinis, pickled vegetables, steamed lobster (this is probably inauthentic, but I’m going to make it work), rye toast, champagne and vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.
(Cue New Years Day hangover.)
So for this post, I’m offering a recipe for blini, or small yeasty pancakes, to be paired with assorted toppings, in case you have a hankering for a Russian NYE holiday too. The buttery blini batter takes a good bit of time to come together, about three to four hours, as the yeast has to rise. However, I’ve found that it’s possible to prepare the batter a night or two before, and store it covered in the refrigerator with little impact on the final product. If it gets too thick while sitting in the fridge, just thin it out with a little half and half, one tablespoon at a time.
I plan to serve my yeasted blini with an array of toppings, such as smoked salmon, caviar and roe, dairy spreads, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh herbs. And while guests will be free to make their own pairings, my personal favorite combinations include:
- Smoked salmon or lox, crème fraiche, and dill
- Caviar (or roe), crème fraiche, and chives
- Truffle butter, hard boiled eggs, chives, and flaked sea salt
In addition, I wanted to leave you with a few drink ideas since we all know that NYE’s are meant to be boozy. Here’s what we’ll be pouring as we ring in the new year:
- Vodka sippers
- Moscow mules (probably a highly Americanized, pathetically inauthentic drink, but I adore the copper mugs, so it’s happening)
I plan to cover as much of my dining table as humanly possible with small plates and bites, placing these buttery blinis at the very center. But even if my tablecloth to food ratio is, by Russian standards, inadequate, at least I can rest easy knowing there will be an abundance of vodka in my future with which to drown my failed-host sorrows.
Budem zdorovi, y’all! And Happy New Year!
- 2¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast or ¼-ounce packet*
- ½ cup plus 2⅓ cups of all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons plus 3 tablespoons of sugar
- 2 large eggs, whites and yolks separated into two small bowls
- 2 ½ cups of half-and-half
- ¼ cup of unsalted butter, melted in a separate bowl, plus more for cooking
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- Assorted toppings, such as:
- Caviar or roe
- Smoked fish or meats
- Pickled vegetables
- Creme fraiche or sour cream
- Butter (or truffle butter!)
- Fresh herbs, such as dill or chives
- Hard boiled eggs, white and yolks separated and chopped
- Flakey sea salt
- Combine the yeast, ½ cup of flour, 2 teaspoons of sugar, and 1 cup of water in a large mixing bowl. Stir until combined. Cover with a dish towel and let sit in a warm place until the surface is foamy and puffed up, about 30 minutes. (I let mine rest on top of my fireplace stove, which seemed to expedite the process a bit, but anywhere in your house without a draft should work.) If it doesn’t rise and puff up, you probably need to get yourself some new yeast before moving on—see notes below.
- Add egg yolks, half and half, melted butter, salt, the remaining 2⅓ cups of flour, and the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk until incorporated and smooth. Cover batter again with a dishtowel and leave in a warm place to rise. Once the batter has nearly tripled in volume, about 3-4 hours, the blini are finished rising.
- Using a beater or hand whisk, whisk the egg whites until they begin to form soft peaks, about 2-3 minutes in an electric beater. Fold the egg whites into the blini batter gently, by adding the egg whites to the bowl and then using a plastic spatula or wooden spoon to gently scoop up the batter from the bottom and “fold” on top of the egg whites. Do this until fully incorporated into the batter. Fight the urge to just stir, as it will break apart the egg whites.
- Melt ½ tablespoon of butter in a large nonstick skillet (or a large nonstick griddle) over medium heat. Spoon heaping tablespoons of batter onto the skillet and cook for 2-3 minutes until bubbles form on top and the bottoms are golden. Flip blini over and cook for another 2-3 minutes until bottom is golden and blini is cooked through. Adjust the heat as necessary if they seem to be cooking too quickly or not enough.
- When finished cooking, transfer blini to a wire rack to cool.
- Do this until you’re out of batter, adding more butter after each round. It should make around 70-80 3-inch blinis, ready for topping!
Recipe adapted from Kachka, featured in Bon Appétit Magazine. As an aside, if you're in Portland, I highly recommend making an evening out of dinner at Kachka. Just make sure to make a reservation well in advance and come ready to stuff your face.