April 3 was National Blintz Day, which may not mean much if you didn’t grow up with an Eastern European heritage. Still, the appeal of the blintz goes far beyond the former Iron Curtain countries. Who can deny the charms of blini with caviar, or the sweet and savory crêpes sold throughout France?
You may have eaten pancakes as a child, but the blintz/blini/crêpe is a totally different animal. They are much thinner than pancakes and burn quickly—so quickly that even an experienced practitioner will trash nearly one dozen per day. In all cases the pan is very hot, and cooking time is less than 60 seconds. Assuming you don’t burn the first side, you face the challenge of flipping them over, which is similar in difficulty to juggling while riding a unicycle.
True French crêpes hail from Brittany and come in two variations: savory (made from unsweetened buckwheat flour and hence gluten-free) or sweet (made from sweetened wheat flour). Fillings span a range from cheese, eggs, meat and vegetables to jam, maple syrup or Nutella. Pancakes throughout Europe and most of the world are universally thin, with the only exception being here in the U.S. No one seems to know exactly why American pancakes are so thick, but speculation usually traces the practice back to the flapjack born in the California gold rush.
The Russian blini, like the savory crêpe, is made from buckwheat flour with no added sugar. Most people associate them with caviar, although they may be stuffed with an assortment of savory fillings as well as butter, sour cream, jam or honey. The traditional version has yeast in the batter, which makes them fluffier than most other varieties. Most of the blinis served with caviar are miniature, on the theory that most people aren’t in a position to slather a full-sized blini with fish eggs (if you are, feel free to message me privately with your address).
Another Eastern European variation is the palatschinke, a variation on the crêpe made from a batter containing eggs, wheat flour and milk. The main distinction is that the pancakes can be made right away, whereas crêpe batter is best when allowed to sit for several hours. With either version, you’re a long way from IHOP.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.