I was making the blinis (Russian version of crepes) the other day and remembered how my great aunt used to make them.
Baba Lyuba, as we called her lovingly, was my maternal mother's older sister and they lived across the road from each other in our "ancestrial village" in the north of Kyrgyzstan. They were "Irish twins," only 18 months apart, and when I became aware of myself, baba Lyuba was already a "pensioner." Women retired at 55 at that time in the Soviet Union, and my grandma, who was born in 1924, retired at 50 as a mother of 5 children (mother-heroines they were called). So, for as long as I remember myself, they both were retired, and just living their lives off the land and their small pensions (social security payments). Simple, heavenly life.
My great aunt worked all her life as a teacher of Russian in a Kyrgyz-language school. She spoke fluent Kyrgyz, which was quite unusual for a Russian. Both the salaries and pensions of teachers in the Soviet Union were small, hardly enough to survive, especially in the villages where the state apparently thought people could use the fruits of their labor in their gardens and little farms. So my great aunt Lyuba lived a very modest life. My grandmother was luckier, though, as my grandfather was working until he retired at 60, bringing in a good salary. He was also a World War 2 vet, so the state paid him a little more in social security for that and he also got all sorts of perks like buying cars and appliances first in line (lines and waiting lists for everything in the Soviet Unon were huge, sometimes years).
My great aunt's husband, in contrast, was one of those WW2 vets who had been repressed twice. He served in the infamous Vlasov Army headed by Gen.Vlasov who surrendered his entire army of 150,000 soldiers to Nazis in the first days of the war. Most of the soldiers started to fight on the German side, calling themselves "Russian Liberation Army." Those who refused to collaborate like my great aunt's husband were sent to a concentration camp. When the Red Army liberated the camp, he was sent to a GULAG because the Soviet state deemed all "Vlasovtsy" to be traitors. He returned to my great aunt in 1956, after both Stalin and Beriya died. It was a total shock for baba Lyuba because she thought he'd perished in the war. Imagine the cruelty of the state: He was never allowed even to write a letter to let her know he was still alive. He was never amnestied, and his pension was less than the subsistence level.
So my great aunt lived off whatever she could grow in her garden and farm. They had chickens, ducks, pigs, and one cow. She also had a precious little machine her older brother bought for her as a WW2 vet (another perk of getting something in a short supply) years before. The machine was quite simple but extremely effective and virtually unbreakable because it was made of industrial grade aluminum and you needed to crank it up manually. I still remember its steady whirring sound when the engine was working. The machine was even called with the English word - separator - because I think it was invented in the US, but I'm not sure. The only function of the machine was to separate milk from cream. My great aunt's cow was steadily giving a big bucket of fat milk every day, so she never had a shortage of milk. Besides, many people were bringing her their milk to be separated as she had the only machine in the entire village of 12,000. I have the image of baba Lyuba sitting at the machine cranking it up manually seared in my mind.
Because of that wonderful machine, my great aunt always had all sorts of milk products: from the separated cream, she would churn butter (a lot of times that was my job as well), and she also made kefir and cottage cheese. People who brought her milk for separation also left some portion of the milk and other products for her. I don't remember her taking any money for the separation, it was mostly a barter operation. So there was lots of milk and milk products in all sorts of buckets and jars in that house.
Baba Lyuba made the best blinis in the whole world from that separated milk. She did that about once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday, and it took her many hours because she was making blinis for two households. She'd start the batter at 5 am, and start making the blinis at about 6 am. "Po holodochku," she used to say, meaning "while it's still cool outside." She had two stoves in her little outside kitchen detached from the house - one propane-powered and one electric, which meant she could make blinis in four pans at the same time. She felt she needed that because there were nine kids in total shared between the two households - three of her own grandchildren and six of us on my grandmother's side. I was the oldest, and the youngest was about 2 when I was 10.
By the time I'd show up in her tiny kitchen on the blinis day at about 7 am (I was always the first to wake up, to be the first one to try them), she'd be about a quarter done, with the ready tall stack of about 100 of blinis, and about 5-6 in a smaller stack. She called them "ugly blinis" - the ones that tore, burned or just didn't look up to her high standards. That was my stack. I'd eat it up right away, with some home-made berry jam or honey she always kept handy. And then I would just sit there, keeping her company by chatting away with my stories, and waiting for other "ugly blinis" to come out. With the heat of four burners in that little space we'd both be sweating and drinking a lot of water, but it was still fun.
"Is this one ugly?" I'd ask eagerly as she'd turned a blin and it tore or pointing at the one that burned on the edges a little too much.
"I don't know, what do you think?" she'd ask me, with a kind smile in her piercing blue eyes.
"I think it's pretty ugly," I'd say, longing for a blin. I could never have enough. I could eat them until my belly hurt and still ask for me.
"Ok, you can have it," she'd give in with a chuckle. "Don't make yourself sick, though."
So we'd spend a better part of the morning in that little kitchen of hers, hardly fitting a kid and an adult woman. She would give me a very important job, to butter the blinis with a special brush she made of chicken and duck feathers. The butter she'd just made the day before would just melt by itself on the hot stove. Oh, that smell of freshly made buttered blinis! Heaven.
How long do you think the three stacks she made on those mornings would last? - Not even till lunch time. Those kids who liked sleeping in (like my sister) only had 2-3 blinis, and only if I set them aside and guarded them from others. There was never enough blinis because again, those were the best blinis in the whole wide world.
To this day, when I make blinis, I separate the ugly ones from the good ones. In the picture above, the ugly ones are on the right. They are all mine, my son can never have them. And that morning, I had them with the elderberry jam I made just the day before. Another heaven.
If anyone is interested, here's my simple blinis recipe.
You will need:
2 eggs; 1 table spoon sugar; a pinch of salt; 2 table spoons olive oil; 1 cup of all-purpose flour (sometimes I cheat and use the enriched flour like Krusteaz pancake mix, in that case you only need 1 egg) and 2 cups of milk.
Start out by mixing eggs with sugar, oil, and salt until it becomes a uniform mass. Add flour and mix well, the mixture will be very thick. Start adding milk, gradually pouring it and mixing it continuously until all flour lumps dissolve. You can speed this up by dumping everything into the blender but I like mixing it old-school, manually. The mixture will be very thin and runny but that's the way it is supposed to be.
Let the mixture stand for at least 20-30 minutes at room temperature. When you are ready to make blinis, heat up a flatbread frying pan with a little bit of olive oil on it (I use a sprayer) so that the first blin does not stick to the pan. Fry for about 30-45 sec on one side, flip and fry for 10-15 sec less on the other side. If the blin tears when you flip it, it's either too thin and you need to pour more batter for the next one or you need to add a little more flour to the batter. If the batter is too thick, you need to add more milk. I also recommend watching a couple of YouTube videos on how to pour the batter onto the pan - you need to whirl the pan for even distribution, the batter will not spread evenly by itself like it does when you make pancakes.
You can serve them with jams, cream, or stuff them with anything you like just like egg rolls, or make them a little sweeter by adding more sugar in step 1 and have them as a dessert on their own. Enjoy!