I love the soft earthy colours of flours made from buckwheat (kuttu), bajra, amaranth and ragi. There’s no denying their health benefits—as well as being completely gluten-free, buckwheat, for instance, contains high levels of important minerals like zinc, which helps to boost the immune system and is high in protein and amino acids. It can also slow down the body’s rate of glucose absorption, an important consideration if you suffer from diabetes.
Even if we’re not gluten-intolerant or diabetic we can all benefit from eating more of these nutritionally-complex, healthy and less planet-depleting grains. The problem for bakers is that with most non-wheat grains it’s difficult to achieve a lightness of texture—recipes often call for a whole chemistry set of ingredients to help it on its way—and I’m always scared cakes made from anything but wheat will turn my baking into the kind of indigestible-looking brown lumps on offer in 1970s wholefood shops.
So for the next few weeks, I’m on a mission to conquer my grain fears—if you have any recipe ideas, I’d love to hear from you. I’m starting this week with buckwheat because it is the one flour that I’m a little familiar with as it pops up in dishes all over the world. In Japan, it is made into soba noodles, in France it is used in galettes, the savoury version of crêpes, and of course in India, kuttu is an important fasting food.
Today’s recipe comes from Russia. Blini are like a supercharged, yeasted and healthy version of Scotch pancakes, usually served with sour cream, smoked salmon or caviar and a glass of champagne, and sometimes with sweet toppings like condensed milk. As this was my first attempt at non-wheat baking, I decided to use half kuttu and half maida (refined flour), but you could make them with just kuttu. Although the yeast needs a little time to weave its magic, blini are simple to make and you can certainly wander off and leave the batter until the bubbles start to appear on the surface.
The blini had a wonderfully nutty flavour, the yeast and whisked egg whites made them as light as air. The buckwheat definitely gives these pancakes a welcome structure and complexity that you don’t get from wheat flours. They are also completely addictive—I wolfed down half of the first batch straight from the pan before pausing to top the rest with smoked salmon and sour cream.
It was a good start—we may even have the makings of a convert: Either that or I’m about to go and live on a commune.
80g buckwheat (kuttu) flour
80g plain white flour (maida)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp fast-action dried yeast
2 eggs, yolks and whites separated
Butter or ghee for frying
Sour cream, smoked salmon and a few sprigs of dill, to serve
Heat the milk in a small pan until it is warm but not boiling. Then mix in the two egg yolks. Sift the flours and salt into a large bowl. Stir in the yeast, then whisk in the milk until you have a smooth, thin batter. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for the yeast to get working. Leave until the surface of the batter is covered in holes and slightly puffed up. The length of time will depend on how hot your kitchen is—in an Indian summer, it will bubble up within half an hour, in a Delhi winter it might take up to 2 hours. If it’s more convenient, you could slow the process down and leave the mixture in the fridge overnight, then add the egg whites in the morning.
When there are some definite signs of the yeast doing its job, whisk the egg whites until stiff and gently fold into the buckwheat batter—be careful not to knock the air out of the egg whites as this is what will make the difference between a fluffy mouthful and a chewy, dense one. Cover the bowl again and leave until the surface is bubbling.
Once the yeast is on the move again, melt a little butter or ghee in a non-stick frying pan over a medium flame. Put tablespoons of the puffed-up buckwheat batter into the pan, then fry for a couple of minutes—the blini will rise slightly on contact with the heat—then flip over and fry until both sides are lightly browned. Remove the blini from the pan and wrap in a tea towel to keep warm while you finish frying the rest of the batter.
The blini are delicious piping hot straight from the pan, with the edges slightly crisp from the butter, but they are at their absolute best when (still warm) they are topped with sour cream, smoked salmon and a little dill and served with a glass of champagne.
If you’re not going to serve the blini straight away, once they’re made, cover them in single layers, in foil, and freeze. To reheat, put the foil packages in a warm oven for a few minutes.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com
Also Read | Read Pamela’s previous Lounge columns