Watching the Oscars, like the Super Bowl, has become almost an unofficial holiday, an occasion when tens of millions of us get together for an old-fashioned TV viewing party, complete with abundant food and drink.
But the two events require rather different menus. The noshes on Super Bowl Sunday would be a tad too rustic for the refined experience of the Oscars. An Oscar party calls for slightly more elevated fare, and I can think of no hors d'oeuvres more appropriate than blini topped with caviar.
Back during the early '80s, I worked at a restaurant in New York that served great buckwheat blini (basically, tiny savory pancakes) topped with osetra caviar and creme fraiche. The blini recipe was pretty involved, and not the healthiest choice. The batter called for both yeast (and the time it needed to do its job) and whipped cream.
For my Oscars party, I wanted to develop a simpler, leaner version of that pancake, but I had a hard time finding buckwheat flour. Instead, I came up with a flavourful alternative using whole-wheat flour and buttermilk. All I had to do was adapt one of the zillion recipes for buttermilk pancakes made with white flour.
Happily (if unsurprisingly), the whole-wheat flour made the blini taste subtly like wheat, which I prefer to the blandness of a white flour pancake. I also was happy to swap in buttermilk, which is low in fat, for the heavy cream we used to use. In combination with the baking powder and baking soda, the buttermilk made the little pancakes light and airy.
Be forewarned, though, that this batter is thicker than your usual pancake batter. I managed to lighten it up when I was testing it by adding more buttermilk, but decided finally that doing so masked the taste of the wheat. So I kept it as is. By the way, be careful not to over-mix this batter; it'll turn out tough. Better to take it easy; it's OK if there are a few lumps in there.
As for toppings, I decided more is better. The result is not simply a tasty little pancake, but a tasty little pancake topped with smoked trout (or smoked salmon, if you prefer), plus the caviar of your choice (though I'm partial to the colour and pop of salmon roe), plus yogurt flavoured with horseradish and lemon, and finally, at the summit, sprigs of fresh dill.
You can serve these on a platter, already assembled, or allow your guests to build their own perfect bites by wrapping the blini in a cloth to keep them warm, and serving them alongside little bowls of the toppings. By the end of the night, you might end up with an Oscar of your own.
BLINI WITH SMOKED TROUT, CAVIAR AND HORSERADISH CREAM
Start to finish: 35 minutes
Makes 24 blini
3/4 cup plain non-fat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon bottled horseradish, drained
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted (or vegetable oil)
3/4 cup flaked or chopped smoked trout or salmon
1/4 cup fresh dill sprigs or chopped fresh chives
2 ounces salmon roe (or the caviar of your choice)
Heat the oven to 200 F.
In a small bowl, mix together the yogurt, horseradish, lemon rind and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, the baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. In another medium bowl, combine the buttermilk, egg and butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until barely combined (it is OK to see a few lumps). The batter will be thick.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Coat the skillet with cooking spray and add the batter by level tablespoon amounts. Do not crowd the pan. Let the blini cook until the bottoms are golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the second side until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet and place in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter.
When all of the blini have been cooked and you are ready to serve, arrange them on a serving platter. Top each with some of the smoked trout, horseradish-yogurt blend, a dollop of caviar and fresh dill.
Nutrition information per serving: 50 calories; 20 calories from fat (40 per cent of total calories); 2 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 30 mg cholesterol; 5 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 4 g protein; 140 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."