Flipping marvellous: Why don't we eat pancakes all the time?
It is an irony much relished in this country that while the Latin world marks the start of Lent with the unrestrained orgy of carnival, we eat a pancake or two. In fact, these very different celebrations start from the same point. Carnival derives from the medieval Italian phrase "carne levare", meaning "putting away of meat", while our pancakes were a way of eating up eggs and butter before the 46 days of abstinence leading up to Easter. We may speculate what happened to eggs during this period, since it is unlikely that hens ceased laying.
It is a tribute to the pleasure provided by this simple dish that we continue eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday while rarely abstaining from the ingredients for the following six weeks.
In fact, the pleasure of Pancake Day, with its traditional combination of sensations – hot pancake, cold lemon juice and the crunch of partially-dissolved sugar – is so potent that I don't know why we don't have pancakes more often. Many food professionals apparently feel the same, since these slender discs make a frequent appearance in the latest crop of cookbooks. In his book Bill's Basics, TV chef Bill Granger writes: "I could've written an entire book of pancake recipes."
In fact, he narrowed his enthusiasm down to the "great classic" of the buttermilk pancake. Unfortunately, this is more of an American than a British classic.
Buttermillk (fermented skimmed milk) is a rarity in Britain, but a mixture of pouring yogurt and full milk makes a good substitute. Both the batter and the resulting pancake are somewhat thicker than the standard British pancake. When cooking, you have to wait until bubbles appear on the surface, then you flip. The result had an interesting sour-sweet flavour. "It's got a nice springiness," said my wife. "You can sort of taste the bubbles."
The faux buttermilk pancake worked well with a topping of yogurt, blueberries and maple syrup. Children will love the messy business of assemblage. A topping of marmalade and a smear of crème fraiche also went down well.
The British once-a-year indulgence in pancakes must seem very half-hearted to Americans. Their fondness is exemplified by the 11 pancake recipes in Amanda Hesser's Essential New York Times Cookbook. These range from a "poufy, toasted, utterly delectable-looking" baked pancake from Honolulu (though it actually comes from a German tradition) to Heavenly Hots: light, sweet drop scones that, according to Hesser, overcomes the hefty after-effects of most pancakes: "You always think they're a great idea until about 10 minutes after you've eaten them."
Hesser may have in mind the pancake stack, a great pile laced with maple syrup, that is a breakfast speciality in US diners. This daunting construction may date back to colonial days. An 18th-century English dish consisting of a stack of thin, sugared pancakes went by the charming name A Quire of Paper. British pancakes are traditionally served folded into triangles or rolled up individually, which Dorothy Hartley describes as a symbol "of our insular detachment". But Sam Harrison is determined to bring wider influences to bear on our insular pancake.
At his restaurants, Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick, west London and Harrison's of Balham in south-east London, backed by his former boss Rick Stein, Harrison will be celebrating Pancake Day with some intriguing variations. His crab and chilli pancake reflects Stein's passion for Far Eastern food, while a sweetcorn and smoked salmon pancake is a favourite in Sydney, where Harrison cooked for two years. "You can do so many different things with pancakes and children love them," says Harrison. He will be celebrating Pancake Day with Eton Mess and dairy-free chocolate chip pancakes.
The Bretons lead the world in demonstrating that there is life for this versatile dish beyond Shrove Tuesday. Even their names are more imaginative than the utilitarian "pancake". The sweet crêpe comes from the Old French "crespe", meaning curled, while the savoury galette, usually made from a mixture of wheat and buckwheat flour, rather fancifully derives from "galet", a worn pebble good for skimming. In making these larger, lacy pancakes, I recommend using a non-stick frying pan. For these peasant dishes, I thought that a traditional cast-iron crêpe pan would work a treat. Though it radiated homespun wholesomeness, it was a disaster. The lack of a non-stick finish meant that it was almost impossible to spread the pancakes and they persisted in sticking. A non-stick frying pan does the job admirably well, though the results are inevitably somewhat smaller than the traditional French crêpe. For a full-sized crêpe, you need an electric crêpe maker. Professional models cost from around £250 but a domestic version is available for less than £20 from Lidl and Aldi. I would urge any devotee of the crêpe to make the investment if they can. It works brilliantly and the non-stick coating means you don't need butter.
Traditional accompaniments for sweet crêpes include a drizzle of Grand Marnier, fried, sliced apples with Calvados or sautéed apples with honey and cream. With the buckwheat galette, go for ham, egg and cheese. If you can find some decent Toulouse sausages try galette robiquette, named after La Robiquette, a district of Rennes noted for its bangers. It is simply a galette wrapped around a hot sausage, but the Society for the Preservation of the Breton Sausage Galette insists that the sausage should weigh at least 125g, be consumed without mustard and accompanied only by cider.
Occasionally, members of the plebian pancake put on airs. This applies to the blini, the tiny Russian drop scone cooked with yeast to add oomph. The blini recipe in Michel Roux Jr's book Cooking with the Master Chef concludes with the injunction to "spoon on a generous amount of caviar". Another ritzy recipe involving pancakes is crêpes Suzette. At one time, no evening in a posh restaurant would be complete without an explosion of flaming brandy as a waiter concluded this dramatic dish at the table.
If the ecstatic response to my attempt at crêpes Suzette is anything to by, we could do worse than bring back this Sixties favourite.
You make a dozen small crêpes in advance, roll them up like English pancakes and keep them warm in the oven in a heatproof dish covered in foil. Make tangy orange sauce by melting 25g butter in frying pan. Add 50g sugar and gently cook until golden brown.
Add the juice of two oranges and half a lemon and heat. Remove crêpes from oven. Pour the warm sauce over the crêpes. Gently warm 3-4 tablespoons of Cointreau in a small saucepan and ignite fumes. Pour flaming brandy over crêpes.
Who said Pancake Day was boring?
This recipe will make about 12 small breakfast pancakes that are similar to American buttermilk pancakes. Equal parts of milk and pouring yogurt produces a lively-tasting sour-sweet pancake. You can also use the yogurt in an American diner-style topping with berries and maple syrup.
150ml pouring yogurt
150ml whole milk
200g plain flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 whisked eggs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 pinch salt
Mix the flour and the baking powder and sieve into a bowl. Add the eggs, sugar, melted butter and salt. Stir in the pouring yogurt and milk and whisk until a smooth batter is produced. Melt a small knob of butter in non-stick frying pan over medium heat and swirl until the pan is coated. Ladle 2-3 tablespoons of batter into buttered pan and spread with a spatula to make an even circle. Cook for 2 minutes until the top of pancake is dotted with bubbles, flip over with a spatula and cook for another minute. Remove from the pan and keep warm on a heatproof plate in the oven. Serve with fresh blueberries, yogurt and maple syrup; marmalade and crème fraiche; apple slices fried in butter and drizzled with honey.
This is a brunch recipe adapted from The Balthazar Cookbook. Balthazar is a New York restaurant run by Englishman Keith McNally that cooks French food (a sister operation is shortly to open in London). Though the galette is classically Breton, this filling will transform it into a fine dish that is perfect for an American brunch. It should make six galettes
70g buckwheat flour
70g plain flour
2 whisked eggs
430ml whole milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Teaspoon of salt
Plus six eggs, 12 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, 300g grated Gruyère cheese for filling.
Mix the flours and salt and sieve into a bowl. Whisk together two eggs, the milk and butter to make a smooth batter. Make in the same way as yogurt pancakes but only use 2 tablespoons of batter per crepe (they should be a lot thinner) until you have six buckwheat galettes warming in oven. Scramble six eggs, grill bacon rashers and grate Gruyère cheese. Fill each galette with 2 tablespoons of scrambled egg, two rashers of bacon and a sprinkle of cheese. Roll up and return to a warm oven before serving. The Balthazar Cookbook claims this quantity will feed six, but we found the two galettes per person was not excessive.
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