But as a new dish was served he was silenced. "Incredible!" he told himself. "It is Blinis Demidoff!" He looked round at his fellow-diners. They were all quietly eating their Blinis Demidoff, without any sign of either surprise or approval, as if they had been doing so every day for thirty years.
Babette's Feast, Isak Dinesen
I have been obsessed with Babette's Feast for years. The film first, thanks to repeated Sunday afternoon viewings, and then the tiny, sparsely-written novella. Though small, it is not slight, exploring themes of religion, sacrifice, friendship and pleasure. After fourteen years spent living with two puritanical sisters in a Norwegian village, the titular character, a talented chef and refugee from France, wins 10000 franc in the French lottery. Instead of using the money to return to Paris, she spends it all on a dinner for twelve of the local villagers, who have subsisted on little but fish and soup throughout their lives. The act of feasting together repairs rifts and infuses the small group with love and warmth for each other. It is, in short, a magical meal.
It has long been my plan to do some version of this feast for my 30th birthday, though significant changes would need to be made. The turtle soup that starts the meal would need to become mock turtle soup - and so I would need to get my hands on a calf's head. The main dish involves dispatching twelve small birds, ortolans, in a particularly awful (and, rightfully, now illegal) manner. So an alternative would need to be found. Happily this dish, the blinis, can be served just as it is in the book. At least once, I'd quite like to do the thing properly, and that means proper caviar and vintage Veuve Clicquot - but that would involve more disposable income than I generally have floating around. In the meantime, good herring roe and crisp, dry prosecco make excellent substitutes.
I have only eaten caviar once before in my life. My mum and Granny visited for Christmas in 2014, and were here until just after New Year's Eve. On December 31, after a matinee show, we returned to my little London flat to watch films and sit on my couch, eating an extraordinarily extravagant meal. Granny had scouted London for a pot of good caviar, and served it with soft boiled eggs, tiny boiled potatoes and the best butter she could find. Mum grilled fillet steaks, and made a rich mushroom sauce. We drank champagne, and toasted the beginning of 2015. It was warming, and memorable, and delicious: a magical meal. This year, so much has changed. I've moved out of the flat, left the theatre job, and am now writing about food and books. Sadly, mum and Granny won't be joining me in December. But there is still much to celebrate, and so this year's NYE caviar is going to come with these blinis.
Makes around 30 blinis
60g buckwheat flour
60g strong white bread flour
10g fresh yeast (or 3g easy action yeast)*
75g sour cream
1 egg yolk
2 egg whites
Caviar or fish eggs
50g sour cream
2 mixing bowls
Egg flip or palette knife
*I love the flavour of fresh yeast here, and am lucky enough to be able to buy it at the supermarket. If you can't get your hands on any, easy action yeast will work well too.
1. Whisk the flours, salt and sugar together in the mixing bowl. In the saucepan, warm the milk to blood temperature, then stir in the yeast until it dissolves. Whisk in the sour cream, and the egg yolk.
2. Pour the liquid ingredients into the flour and whisk thoroughly to combine. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and put it in a draught-free place to rise for an hour. It will almost double in size.
3. After an hour, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, and then fold them into the frothy mixture. Cover the bowl with the tea towel again and leave to rise for another hour. It should be very light and full of bubbles - almost like a foam.
4. After it has risen, warm half a tablespoon of the butter in the frying pan. Without stirring the mixture (you want to retain some of those bubbles), drop teaspoons of the batter into the pan. When the top of a blini is covered with bubbles, flip it over. Cook the blinis in batches until all the batter is used up.
Serve each blini warm or at room temperature with a dollop of sour cream and a little spoonful of roe or caviar. They can be warmed through in the oven, but are best fresh, if you can serve them straight away.