PANCAKE DAY

The U.K. alternative to the Mardi Gras celebration

 

Pictured above are English-style pancakes with American maple syrup. (Katherine Larson photo)

 

At The Table by Katherine Larson

Mardi Gras gets all the publicity. There are the parades and the beads, the floats and the bands, the general jollification that in many places marks the Tuesday before the Christian liturgical calendar sends believers on to a 40-day journey of fasting through Lent.
But in Great Britain and the Commonwealth (countries that were formerly part of the Empire and retain ties to Britain), Mardi Gras—literally, “Fat Tuesday”—is known as Shrove Tuesday, referring to the Christian call for shriving as one approaches Lent. And the other name for Shrove Tuesday is Pancake Day.
Pancake Day! Now there’s a day that, whatever our religion and national origin, promises to engage the sympathies of us all. This year, it falls on March 5.
Like Mardi Gras, Pancake Day is a great equalizer. As an English poet named Pasquil wrote in 1634,

It [is] the daye whereon both rich and poore
Are chiefly feasted with the selfsame dish,
When every paunch, till it can hold no more,
Is fritter-filled, as well as heart can wish.

The basic idea of making a batter out of some sort of flour and frying it on a flat surface stretches way back into prehistory. Otzi the Iceman, an unlucky Neolithic individual whose frozen remains were found in the Italian Alps some 5,300 years after his last meal, enjoyed just such a dish as part of that meal. The ancient Greeks, ancient Romans, and ancient Paleo-Indians all ate a variety of pancake.
Today, pancakes can be found across the globe in a wide variety of food traditions. From the Ethiopian injera to the Japanese okonomiyaki, we humans like our food flat and fried.
For Pancake Day, however, I want to concentrate on two versions: the English (whose day it is, after all) and the American (which closely resembles the Scottish, and thus returns us to British roots).
The classic English pancake is very flat indeed, containing no leavening agent. A basic recipe calls for whisking together flour, eggs, milk, and a pinch of salt. After letting the batter sit, you heat a little butter in a frying pan and pour some batter in. Half a minute later, with a vigorous flick of the wrist you toss the pan and flip the cake.

That’s the theory, and has been, they say, for centuries. Per Pasquil:
… every man and maide do take their turne
And toss their Pancakes up for feare they burne

Nowadays, spatulas have been invented. But my duty to you, dear reader, compelled me to give the old-fashioned method a try. First, at the earnest request of my family, I made enough pancakes via spatula to ensure that people would be adequately fed if my flipping efforts proved disastrous. After all, Pasquil continued,

And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound
To see the pancakes fall upon the ground.

Nevertheless, summoning my inner Julia Child, I persisted: I seized the pan and flicked my wrist.
It worked! All three times! If you like to live life with a soupçon of danger, go for it! If you prefer to stick with a spatula, I promise the pancake police won’t go after you.
Whichever way you flip your pancakes, they’ll be tasty. The English like them sprinkled with sugar and a squirt of fresh lemon.
The English also like to have fun with them. In towns and hamlets all over England, Pancake Day is celebrated with pancake races, contestants garbed in aprons and scarves dashing down the street tossing pancakes as they go. The most famous such event is in Olney, which boasts that its women have been racing pancakes yearly since 1445.
About 500 years afterwards, the town of Liberal, Kansas, decided to join the fun, and now there is an annual international pancake race, with the winner being the woman—whether from Liberal or from Olney—who posts the best time without losing her pancake. In both towns, the race culminates in a church service; in both towns, a church dignitary is served the pancakes that survived the race, which seems to me a dubious honor.
While the school attached to Westminster Abbey claims a history far more venerable than the Olney race, its annual “Pancake Greaze” is a relative youngster, with the first recorded occurrence in 1753. This event requires a heroic effort on the part of the school’s chef, who must first make an enormous pancake. School dignitaries then ceremonially parade him into the school hall and stand back while he hurls the pancake over an iron rod suspended five meters, more than 15 feet, off the ground.
Excited schoolboys leap and clamber about in a vigorous scrum, attempting to grab a piece of the pancake. The lad who manages the largest chunk receives a golden sovereign (which he must promptly return) and the headmaster formally asks the dean if the students may have a half day off; sometimes, but only sometimes, the answer is yes. I had thought that at least the boys would get to munch what they nabbed, but no. It seems that the chef reinforces the pancake with horsehair so that it will survive its aerial journey. Ah, England…
None of this foofaraw would be possible with a Scottish style pancake, which—like most American pancakes—is smaller and thicker and, if properly made, nowhere near as floppy.
Nor, perhaps surprisingly, does it need eggs. To the contrary, this recipe produces buttermilk pancakes that are as light and fluffy and satisfying as can be with no eggs in sight. They’re much better that way: eggs would weigh these pancakes down.

When strawberries come into season, try rolling some English-style pancakes around fresh local strawberries tossed with a little sugar. (Katherine Larson photo)

This is the pancake recipe with which my husband wooed me. This is the pancake recipe with which he won over three skeptical stepdaughters. This is the best pancake recipe I’ve ever tasted.
The recipe itself appears to the right. Here, I will focus on pointers toward pancake perfection that apply no matter what recipe you choose.
First and always: use the best ingredients you can muster. If you use eggs, choose fresh and local and healthy. If you use baking powder, stay away from that stuff with aluminum in it. For your flour, indulge in King Arthur. (A frugal daughter was convinced that King Arthur was an unnecessary extravagance until she did test bakes, side by side. The difference was noticeable; she’s a convert. Luckily, we can buy small quantities in bulk at the local bulk store.)
Second: don’t over-mix the batter. Use a gentle folding motion, and don’t worry about a few lumps here and there. Vigorous stirring, let alone beating, will develop gluten to the point where the pancake risks becoming distressingly tough.
Third: be patient. And again, be patient. Be patient while your batter rests; this is especially and absolutely essential for English pancakes, to let the gluten relax. And again, be patient while your pan or griddle preheats; if you try to start your cakes on a too-cool pan, they’ll end up greasy and soggy. To test the surface, splash a few droplets of water on it. If they dance around briefly before evaporating, it’s is just right. Trying things out with a small test pancake is always a good idea.
Fourth: watch the heat. Too hot is as bad as too cool; English pancakes will simply burn, while the others will burn on the outside but remain gooey on the inside. Medium heat is a good place to start, but you might find yourself twitching the stovetop dial a millimeter up or down as you cook.
Fifth: flip once, only once. Really truly, once. If you flip pancakes more than once, they deflate like a pricked balloon.
Finally: eat immediately. This is no time to hold back politely till everyone is served. A cold pancake might be a special treat for the family dog, but the humans at the table deserve better. Have your toppings—maple syrup or blueberries or lemon juice and sugar or (in our family) lingonberry preserves—ready ahead of time. When that first pancake or batch of pancakes is cooked, decant it or them onto a plate and encourage the lucky eater to dig in.
Another batch is coming soon.

A Recipe for English pancakes

Ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons melted butter
2-1/2 cups milk

Method:
Mix together the flour, salt, eggs, and butter. Then fold in the milk as well as possible without beating the batter; use a gentle motion, and be prepared to end up with some lumps. They’ll be fine.
Curb your impatience while letting the batter rest for at least half an hour, to relax the gluten. Preheat a saute pan over medium heat, then add just a small tad more butter for the first pancake. When it’s melted, pour about a third of a cup of rested batter into the pan. Let it cook undisturbed 20 to 30 seconds. Flip and let it cook another 10 to 15 seconds.
Eat immediately—if you’re feeling Anglophile, with a sprinkle of fresh lemon juice and a bit of sugar. Repeat till sated.

Scottish pancakes a la Yooper

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
about 1/2 cup wild blueberries, fresh or frozen, optional
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups buttermilk

Method:
Whisk together all dry ingredients. If using blueberries, fresh or frozen, add them to the dry ingredients, tossing them gently so that each one is coated with the flour mixture.
Stir together the melted butter and the buttermilk. Fold the liquid gently into the flour mixture until everything is just moistened. Do not beat, and do not worry about lumps. Let batter rest about five minutes.
Preheat a griddle to medium heat—if you’re using an electric griddle, about 350 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s nonstick, don’t add butter or grease; if it isn’t, add just a very thin layer, and only for the first batch of pancakes. Use a ladle to place dollops of batter, maybe three inches in diameter, far enough apart to give you plenty of room to flip them.
Let them cook undisturbed until bubbles in the center on the uncooked side start to burst. Using a spatula, flip and let them cook until only a little steam rises from the cakes.
Eat immediately—if you’re feeling Yooper pride, with locally-made real maple syrup and/or more wild blueberries. Repeat till sated.

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