One month from now, I’m going on a “big trip” – the kind of major vacation you typically put off until the time is right, or the airfare goes down, or your parents hit a major anniversary (which is eventually what happened). There are lots of plans in the works, for luggage, visas, appropriate clothing … which can all be dealt with later. Right now, I’m busy deciding what to eat.
For a dedicated eater, travel plans are really just food plans in disguise. So you can imagine how disappointed Anton Chekhov was by his trip to Siberia, where after a long grueling journey, he found that the food was only aspiring to edibility. Siberian cuisine “is not for the European stomach,” he wrote in 1890, a situation intensified by the notable lack of health codes. “One old lady wiped a teaspoon on her hindside before handing it to me,” he balked.
Chekhov’s put-downs during his Siberian stay have become legendary (“Tomsk is a very dull town. … The inhabitants are very dull, too”), sparking a long and bitter feud between the playwright and his hosts. But he saved his most cutting remarks for the cuisine. For an all-time gastronomic low, he described a dish of duck stomachs, which “haven’t been entirely cleaned of their contents and so, when you bite into them, cause you to think your mouth and your rectum have changed places.” Suddenly, all my worst kitchen failures are looking positively delicious in comparison.
But there was one bright spot on Chekhov’s trip: the baked goods. The residents of Tomsk baked “the most delicious bread … delicious also are the pies and pancakes, the fritters and dinner rolls.” Blinis are a Siberian specialty, and Chekhov marveled at their remarkable thinness. I imagine him bingeing on entire dinners of fritters and blinis, retreating into the culinary safety of carbs. As someone who regularly asks for bread basket refills, this sounds like a perfectly enjoyable solution.
Chekhov immortalizes his love for blinis in the short story “On Mortality,” which opens with a diner “quivering with impatience, await[ing] the moment the blini would appear.” When a stack emerges from the kitchen, they are ”crisp, lacy, and as plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter.” A whole lot sexier than duck stomachs, in other words, and maybe even worth a trip.
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When Chekhov wrote from Siberia in May 1890, he despaired that “spring hasn’t yet arrived here.” The beginning of spring often coincided with Maslenitsa, the last feast before Lent in the Orthodox tradition. It’s often known as “pancake week,” because that’s what people gorged on the most, with either sweet fillings like honey and cream or savory ones like salmon and caviar.
Winter in New York seemed to stretch to Siberian lengths this year, but this weekend, the first one warm enough for sundresses sans tights, meant it was blini time. These take inspiration from the sweeter side, served up in a towering stack that will satisfy a crowd of revelers, ready for spring.
For the blinis:
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon butter
For the filling:
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 1/4 cups plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup honey, plus more for drizzling
2 tablespoons orange zest, plus more for garnish
1. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and 1 cup water until combined. Whisk in sugar and salt. In a slow stream, add flour until the batter is smooth, with no lumps.
2. In a medium (9-inch) nonstick skillet, warm butter over medium heat until bubbling. Ladle in batter, about 1/3 cup at a time. Working quickly, swirl pan to spread batter in an even circle. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, until underside is lightly browned. Flip, then cook 30 seconds more. Stack onto a plate and let cool.
3. In a medium bowl, combine cream cheese, yogurt, honey and orange zest, stirring until smooth.
4. Place one crepe on a new plate and cover with a thin layer of yogurt mixture. Repeat for remaining crepes, ending with your prettiest one. Drizzle stack with extra honey and garnish with orange zest.