But “How did you learn to cook?” is a question as fundamental and complex as “How did you fall in love?” When people ask me that, I never know where to begin. No one taught me more about French cooking than Julia Child, or about Italian cooking than Marcella Hazan. Traveling all over Mediterranean didn’t hurt either. And if it wasn’t for chef Ruth Anne Adams, who took me in as her intern, my knife skills would still be embarrassing. But if I had to choose one person who made me truly fascinated and later addicted to the kitchen, it would have to be my Mom.
As soon as I got my first teeth, I was itching to sink them into something good like caviar, pelmeni, herring, or my Mom’s amazing roast chicken with prunes. Yes, I loved to eat since the beginning of my existence, but it wasn’t until I saw my Mom flipping blinchiki (Russian crêpes) that the concept of cooking came onto my radar. Blinchiki are a weekend breakfast tradition in our family. I am guessing I was 6-7 years old when I first saw my Mom make them. I found the process so fascinating that I spent weekend after weekend watching her pour the batter into a hot skillet, swirl it in a graceful motion that made a perfect circle, gently slide a butter knife under a barely solidified batter, and swoosh! – it was on the other side. It was like magic! How did she get something so liquidy to become solid and paper thin in a matter of seconds? And how did she make it land back in the skillet without a single wrinkle? I remember holding my breath when my Mom would start loosening blinchik (singular of blinchiki) with her favorite butter knife (she had a special knife reserved just for this task). I was trying very hard not to blink so that I could see exactly how she flipped it, but each time it happened too quickly.
By the time I was 9, I started begging my Mom to teach me how to flip these objects of my fascination. But all she’d say was that one day I’ll learn. By 10, I was beginning to get seriously worries that one day will never come. I was imagining being really old, like 20 years old or something and still not knowing how to do it. “If you are so worried,” my Mom said one day, “why don’t you just mix up a batter when you come home from school and practice.” Doing it all alone seemed both exciting and terrifying, but one day I just did it. My first batch resulted in a pile of scrunched up pieces of batter that were too thick, too thin, torn, wrinkled, and generally mutilated in all sorts of ways. By the second batch I actually managed to flip a few! My flipping average was not very good and only 1 in 5 pancakes actually resembled proper blinchiki. But it was definitely progress.
I remember being mad at my Mom for not being there with me when I was learning something this challenging. But my Mom did not believe in cooking classes, recipes, or cookbooks. She believed in practice. Letting me find my own way in the kitchen was the greatest gift she could have ever given me. She was by the stove with me that day in spirit and is to this day. And that’s the story of how I learned to cook.
Dear Mommy, I know you’ll be reading this post. Happy Mother’s Day and thanks for everything you taught me about blinchiki, cooking, and life.
Helen’s Mom’s Blinchiki
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp table salt)
1 tsp sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup cold milk
1 cup cold water
4 Tbsp oil
Butter for frying
The night before making blinchiki:
- In a large bowl, mix flour, salt, and sugar.
- Beat in eggs and milk into flour using a whisk. Beat until no lumps remain.
- Beat in the water. The mixture should be the consistency of light cream. If too thick, beat in another 1-2 Tbsp of water.
- Beat in the oil, cover, and refrigerate at least for 2 hours or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Take the batter out of the fridge and whisk to even out consistency.
- Set a well seasoned cast-iron or non-stick skillet 6-10" in diameter with flared sides over med-high heat.
- Unwrap the stick of butter to expose about an inch. Hold the stick by the wrapper and quickly glide the expose end over the skillet to butter it. You don't need to cover every inch of the skillet. 3-4 broad strokes will do.
- Pour: Fill the ladle with batter, pour some into the pan and swivel quickly in a smooth round motion. Pour more as needed to fill in the holes. This is a trial blinchik to give you an idea of how much batter you need for your pan. About a minute after you pour your batter, the bottom will be brown and it's time to flip the blinchik. There are two ways to do that.
- Flip Method 1 - Tossing: If your pan is small and light, the best way is just to toss your blinchik in the air and catch it with your pan. This is really much easier than it looks. Just put a potholder on the counter and bang you pan on it to dislodge the blinchik. Once it moves easily in the pan, quickly move your pan in a circular motion starting down and away from you. The blinchik will jump and flip. It sounds scary, but after a couple of them, you'll be an expert.
- Flip Method 2 - Using a butter knife: This method works for any size or type of a pan. Gently move a butter knife around the perimeter of the blinchik to unstick the edges. Then move you knife deeper in couple of spots to dislodge your blinchik. Once it moves easily in the pan, stick the knife under the blinchik along the full diameter, and flip it onto the other side.
- After 30 seconds on the other side, your blinchik is done. Slide it out of the pan and onto a plate. Repleat the whole process (starting with buttering the pan) with the remaining batter. After you are done making blinchiki, cover the plate tightly with foil and place in 350F oven for 7-10 minutes to rewarm.
- Present the whole stack of blinchiki to the table and let everyone dip them in lightly salted melted butter, or fill them with preserves or nutella.