Porous, golden, and springy, real Russian blini are both ethereal and substantial, and utterly unforgettable. In the West, buckwheat blini are perceived as authentic. That much is true, but during Soviet times buckwheat flour completely disappeared from stores. I've never had buckwheat blini in Russia and when I tasted them in the West, I've found them dry and odd - a flavor anachronism.
Russian blini are the diameter of a saucer, never cocktail size (that's not blini, but oladyi). They are best fried in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet (though some Russian émigrés swear by Teflon). "The first blin is always lumpy" the Russian saying goes, but you'll get the knack after three or four. (Blin, by the way, is the singular of blini.)
1. Make the sponge: In a large mixing bowl, stir together the yeast, water, and sugar and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Place the sponge, covered, in a warm place until bubbly and almost doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
2. Make the blini batter: Beat the milk, butter, 2-1/4 cups of the flour, egg yolks, sugar, and salt into the sponge. Whisk the batter until completely smooth and set to rise, covered loosely with plastic, until bubbly and doubled in bulk, about 1-1/2 hours.
3. Stir the batter well, and let rise, once more in a warm place, covered, for 45 minutes.
4. Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into the batter. Let the batter stand for another 10 minutes.
5. Pour some oil into a small, shallow bowl and have it ready by the stove. Skewer a potato half on a fork and dip it into the oil. Rub the bottom of a 7-inch cast-iron skillet, or a heavy nonstick pan with a long handle, liberally with the oil. Heat the pan over medium heat for 1-1/2 minutes. Using a potholder, grip the skillet by the handle, lift it slightly off the heat, and tilt it toward you at a 45-degree angle. Using a ladle, pour enough batter into the skillet to cover the bottom in one thin layer (about 1/4 cup). Let the batter run down the skillet, quickly tilting and rotating it until the batter covers the entire surface. Put the skillet back on the burner and cook until the top of the blin is bubbly and the underside is golden, about 1 minute. Turn the blin and cook for 30 seconds more, brushing the cooked side with a little melted butter. If the skillet looks dry when you are turning the blin, rub with some more oil. The first blin will probably be a flop.
6. Make another blin in the same fashion, turn off the heat and taste it. Adjust the amount of salt or sugar, if necessary. The texture of the blin should be light, spongy, and a touch chewy; it should be very thin but a little puffy. If the blin breaks easily when baked, the consistency is too thin; whisk in 1/4 cup more flour into the batter. If the blin is too thick, add a little milk.
7. Repeat with the rest of the batter, greasing the pan before making each blin. Slide the blini into a deep bowl, keeping them covered with a lid or foil. Serve the blini hot, with the suggested garnishes. (Blini should really be made fresh. If making them slightly ahead of time, keep them warm in a 275°F. oven. If you must reheat them, place them, covered with foil, in a bain-marie in the oven.) To eat, brush the blin with butter and/or sour cream, place one or more garnishes on top, roll it up, and plop in your mouth.
From The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes by Anya Von Bremzen (HarperCollins Publishers, 2004). © 2004 by Anya Von Bremzen. All rights reserved.