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|This page last updated 23 September 2007|
6 February 2005
It is, as I write, late afternoon on the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. Just a few days until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. On Tuesday evening my parish, like thousands of parishes around the world, will serve a supper of pancakes. In England, where they call the day Pancake Day, there are traditional pancake races in which women run holding a skillet containing a pancake. In North America, Pancake Day would probably be understood as a nickname for Saturday and no one would waste a good pancake by running about in the cold carrying it. There is a cultural divide on the concept of pancakes.
The two styles of pancakes could be called thick and thin, leavened and unleavened, cakelike or crêpelike. In England and Ireland and the antipodes, a pancake is as thin as you can make it, and usually rolled up for serving. In North America and Scotland, a pancake is thick, light, and fluffy, usually served in stacks of 3, and would break in two if you tried to roll it up. In countries where a pancake is thin and rolled for serving, people seem to eat them only once a year, on Shrove Tuesday. In countries where pancakes are thick and cakelike, they are a staple, found on the menu of every restaurant that serves breakfast.
I see no point in writing much about a dish eaten only once a year. If it's really any good, why not eat it more often? I choose to interpret the English/Irish/Australian/NZ custom of eating pancakes but once a year to be a cultural statement that their version of pancakes do not taste very good. Despite protestations from my English friends, I consider an English eaten-yearly pancake to be more or less identical to a French crêpe sucrée, so perhaps the English disdain them most of the year not because they taste bad, but because the French eat them.
If you really must make an English crêpelike pancake (perhaps as a science project), mix 100 grams of flour with 2.5 ml of salt, then add a mixture of 250 ml of milk beaten with one egg. To cook, melt some lard in a hot heavy skillet, ladle in a small amount of pancake batter, cook quickly until brown on the bottom, then turn it over for a few seconds to cook the other side. Serve instantly, rolled with whatever sweets you will. Since the recipe contains no oil, you'll need to use a fresh spot of lard for each pancake that you cook, lest it stick to your skillet and make a mess.
To see what the fuss is about, to understand why so many North Americans consider pancakes to be one of their favorite foods, you need to try North American pancakes. It's very hard to find decent pancakes in a restaurant (more on that in a bit), so you'll need either to make them yourselves, or eat them in some high-end bed-and-breakfast that specializes in pancakes for that breakfast.
Just as most people believe that the Church ought to be as it was when they were a child, they believe that pancakes ought to be as when they were a child. If your mother made you pancakes from a box of Aunt Jemima Complete--Just Add Water pancake mix, you probably think that's what pancakes are supposed to taste like. While it has proven to be very hard to teach people that the church needn't be just as it was, it's easy enough to teach somebody about good pancakes. Just serve them good pancakes. They'll get it on the second or third helping.
The mystique of pancakes suggests that there are secret recipes, one better than another, and that when you find the perfect recipe, you should cling to it and pass it down to your children. Nearly everyone who has ever eaten the pancakes that I make will tell you that they are the best pancakes they have ever eaten, so I claim the authority to state that this is poppycock. The recipe doesn't matter very much. You need flour, leavening, salt, eggs, milk, and fat. Sugar makes them a little crisper but it is not required. And you need a proper surface on which to cook them.
To make really good pancakes, you need to tend to a few details. You should use low-gluten flour. I prefer cake flour. You should not skimp on the salt. If you think you need to watch your sodium intake, then you shouldn't be eating pancakes. If you don't put enough salt in pancakes, they will taste like cardboard. You need to use more fat than is healthy. Fat makes pancakes taste good, and if you skimp on it, they won't taste as good. I use a mixture of melted Irish butter and canola oil, and I'm not willing to tell you the amounts. More is better, though; nobody but your mortician will think your pancakes were too oily if you use half a cup of melted butter for a recipe with two cups (200 g) of flour. You can use pretty much any kind of fat that won't make them taste odd (as would olive oil). Bacon fat, butter, corn oil, and schmaltz all work fine.
The secret of making great pancakes, though, is to separate the eggs. That's eggs, plural. Separate out the egg whites, beat them to stiff peaks as if you were making meringue, and then fold the otherwise-finished pancake batter into those beaten egg whites. If you have used cake flour, put in enough salt and enough fat, and separate your eggs, then the recipe doesn't really matter very much. As long as you mind the flour, salt, and fat, and separate your eggs, the ratios aren't terribly important.
I mentioned earlier that it is hard to find good pancakes in a restaurant. The reason for this is that separating eggs is very labor-intensive, and that health regulations frown on the storage of mixtures containing raw egg. Effectively this means that a restaurant must mix the batter fresh quite frequently, dumping unused batter after an hour. This is wasteful and expensive, so most restaurants don't do it.
Having said that the recipe does not matter, I will now divulge my world-famous recipe for Extreme pancakes. It's best not to know what is in them when you are eating them, so maybe you should stop reading now and have someone else make you these pancakes without revealing the ingredients. Don't say you weren't warned.
Extreme pancakes: mix 3 cups (330g) cake flour, 1.5 tsp (7.5ml) salt, 5 tsp (25ml) baking powder, and 1 Tbsp (15ml) sugar in a bowl. Melt 1 stick of butter (100g), then blend 1/3 cup (80ml) of canola oil into the butter. In a second and third bowl, separate 8 jumbo eggs or 12 large eggs, keeping all of the egg whites but only 3 of the egg yolks. Use a big bowl for the egg whites, since the entire recipe will end up in that bowl. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff (5 minutes with an electric mixer or all morning with a wire whisk). Beat the egg yolks slightly, then add 2 cups (500ml) of buttermilk, blend thoroughly, then blend in the butter and oil. Add this wet mixture to the bowl of dry ingredients, blend ever-so-slightly, and then scoop the slightly-blended mixture onto the beaten egg whites. Make sure you use a rubber spatula to get all of the mixture in there. Now whisk it by hand until it is just barely blended. The less you whisk it the better.
Let this mixture stand for about 5 minutes so that the oils soak into the flour. Then whisk for 2-3 seconds and start cooking them. If you don't already know what temperature the griddle needs to be, then you shouldn't be making Extreme pancakes; go talk to Betty Crocker. During the 5-minute wait, wash the measuring cup in which you measured the butter and oil so that nobody visiting your kitchen will figure out how much oil you used. They won't want to know, and it's your duty to protect them.
This recipe serves 6 teenage boys or 12 adults. Scale up or down as desired. For an interesting variation, use plain yogurt instead of buttermilk.