Perfecting the Art of Blinchiki
“They don’t do this here, Ma.”
I whisked the eggs, sugar, salt, milk, and butter together, the way I’d seen mama do countless times. I stopped only once she approved the result. Scooping some batter onto a heated pan, I spread the mixture into a thin, round layer — I wanted my first attempt to be flawless.
Blinchiki, the Russian version of crepes, is one of my mama’s cooking specialties, and I grew up having them for breakfast every Sunday. Thin and golden-crusted, filled with a sweet and tart mixture of raspberry jam and sour cream or, more indulgently, condensed milk — to me, blinchiki taste of home. Each bite transports me back to my childhood bedroom, where I used to wake up feeling rested, with the ease of a carefree youth. The smell of fried batter in my nostrils would have me run to the kitchen, ready for my mama’s sweet talents.
The first time I tried making my own blinchiki was in Miami. An 18-year-old sophomore in the kitchen of my American boyfriend, I was filled with ambition. With my mama on video for support, I followed her trusty recipe with care, making sure every gram was accounted for. Mixing the batter from scratch seemed straightforward enough, but Seth was still eager to help. We had been going out for a few months, and I thought blinchiki would serve as the perfect culinary introduction to my culture.
“Wait till you try them,” I kept telling him, almost bragging. “They’re one of my favorite things to eat in the world.”
Seth was filled with anticipation, I was determined to make my country proud, and my mama was happy watching her oldest daughter finally follow in her footsteps.
But I knew something was wrong as soon as it was time to flip the first blinchik. Instead of having the familiar golden-brown rim with crispy spots in the middle, my blinchik was entirely off-white. It looked thick and clumsy, an imposter with its stretchy consistency — a disgrace to my childhood memory.
Back home, mama would slide blinchiki from a pan straight onto my plate. Then she would butter the pan with a brush, scoop more batter with a ladle, thin it out, let it sit, then flip, and onto my plate again. Brush, scoop, wait, flip, slide, repeat. My mouth could never keep up with her expert movements built up over years of practice, so mama kept a bigger plate beside her and used it for all the crepes I couldn’t eat. Eventually, a delicious blinchiki tower would form — mama kept it warm by placing another plate on top, trapping the heat. As the blinchiki artist, she would sit down only once the batter was fully gone, and my stomach full and content.
“Don’t worry. The first pancake is always the worst.”
“Mmm, this is good!” exclaimed Seth after the first bite. My eyes widened in disbelief. As a Russian, I knew immediately the flavor was completely off, but his taste buds had nothing to compare this blinchik to. Coming from a different culture, he didn’t know what to expect from this Slavic classic. So as soon as his American tongue registered sugar and melted butter, it automatically defaulted to good.
“I don’t understand what I did wrong,” I turned to my mama confused and upset, barely remembering to switch from English to Russian. By the stove, Seth continued to gobble up what was left of my first blinchik.
Her exact words — Pervyi blin komom — are a Russian proverb that literally translates as “the first pancake is a lump.” A lump, that’s exactly what that blinchik was. Not a breakfast. Not a taste of my native culture or an edible hug from my mother. A lump and nothing more.
To my disappointment, it wasn’t just the first blinchik either — that whole batter produced a mountain of lumps. Although Seth ate them with a buttery smile, I munched on a few out of pity. I tried saving my failed blinchiki with extra sour cream and raspberry preserves, but the sour cream was too watery and the jam more gelatinous than the homemade ones I had grown up with. Nothing tasted good enough that day.
“It’s not your fault,” my mama assured me. I was ready to give up cooking and my Russianness altogether. “The ingredients are just not the same in America.”
And yet, could ingredients as basic as sugar and flour be so different between the two countries? My mama was determined they were to blame for my sad crepes, but I wasn’t so sure.
“You and Seth just have to come to Russia and eat my blinchiki,” she said, and I agreed.
A lump, that’s exactly what that blinchik was. Not a breakfast. Not a taste of my native culture or an edible hug from my mother.
Maybe there are studies out there outlining the differences between the eggs of Russian and American chickens or the milk produced by cows of various nationalities — I haven’t researched this.
What I do know is that my mama’s signature Sunday breakfast tastes of nostalgia, and there’s no recipe for recreating those childhood mornings. Those weekends when time meant nothing, when finding the perfect crepe-folding technique was my only responsibility. And yet, I’ve spent years in a foreign country perfecting the art of blinchiki since that first attempt. I had experimented with ingredients of various brands, pans of different sizes, and recipes from websites both Russian and American — the results fell short every time.
And then one Sunday, I finally managed to get it right. I can’t explain what was different in the air that morning. But as soon as I ladled the batter onto my scalding skillet, I heard it — the sizzle of near perfection, just like the one I grew up hearing. In that sound, I was transported back to St. Petersburg, bridging two continents, connecting my mama and me. In our respective kitchens, we snuck bites of hot blinchiki straight from the pan. I swear I could see her proud smile.
Publab Fellow 2022
Born to a Syrian father and Russian mother in St. Petersburg, Russia, Elina Katrin now resides in Northern Virginia. A baking enthusiast, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, BreakBread Magazine, New World Writing, The Emerson Review, Rappahannock Review, Oyster River Pages, Voices & Visions, Gravel, and Prometheus Dreaming.