Let's toss for it

Shrove Tuesday and verger-kissing may be very English customs, but there's nothing insular about pancakes
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Pancake Day has been celebrated on Shrove Tuesday since at least 1454. As everyone knows, housewives in Olney, Bucks, where the annual pancake race originates, run 400 yards, tossing a home-made pancake three times. They are not competing for a lottery prize but for a prayer book and a kiss from the verger.

Pancake Day has been celebrated on Shrove Tuesday since at least 1454. As everyone knows, housewives in Olney, Bucks, where the annual pancake race originates, run 400 yards, tossing a home-made pancake three times. They are not competing for a lottery prize but for a prayer book and a kiss from the verger.

I love this English tradition, not the tossing of the pancakes, not the kissing of the verger, not the family excitement, but eating pancakes hot from the pan, brushed with butter, strewn with sugar, splashed with lemon juice.

Making a pancake is surely one of the most rewarding of kitchen crafts. A child can quickly become skilled. The learning curve represents a short but triumphant upward arc.

The first pancake will be a disgrace, a stodgy, sticky mess to be scraped up and thrown away. It doesn't matter, because the next is immediately twice as good, and so they continue to improve.

By trial and error, questions soon answer themselves. Is the pan too hot or not hot enough? Is there too much fat, or not enough? Is the batter mixture too thin or too thick? Is too much or too little being spooned into the pan?

A good recipe for the batter recipe helps (the flour, egg and milk mixture should stand for a couple of hours before use) but there is not anyone who cannot become a master of pancakes within half an hour, belting them out at the rate of one every few minutes until all the batter is gone.

We British have somehow assumed that pancakes are a peculiarly national tradition. They are duly recorded as such in our folklore. Gervase Markham, a 16th-century celebrity chef, criticised the then current practice of using a milk-based batter, arguing that this produced soft pancakes, while those made with water were crisper and tastier.

But by the 18th century everyone made their pancakes with milk. And the influential Hannah Glasse, the Delia Smith of her day, gave a recipe for a batter made with no fewer than 18 egg yolks, half a pint of cream and half a pint of sack (fortified sweet wine).

In contrast, another classic 18th-century recipe was known as a Quire of Paper. The pancakes were cooked with a runny batter to make them as thin as possible. Then they were layered with sugar, and eaten in sections like a cake.

But now I know, as surely as the earth is not as flat as a pancake, that there is a world of other pancakes out there, for the art of pancake-making reaches deep into the stored memories of all people on earth. Unyeasted flour mixtures, cooked on the hearth, on a griddle, in a flat pan, go back beyond the beginning of recorded history and each country has its ancient traditions, pancakes being made with every sort of local grain.

The European family of pancakes is mostly made with wheat flour but some are made with buckwheat, such as the blinis of Eastern Europe and those lovely savoury ones in Brittany.

Sometimes pancakes are made with potato, such as Swiss rosti and Irish boxty. In Wales there is a dying tradition of cooking barley cakes on the griddle. In Scotland there are still folk who use not inconsiderable skill to craft crumbly oatcakes from uncompromising oatmeal.

Further afield, there are magical pancakes made from rice. What is south India's masala dosai but a pancake? It is delicious, fluffed up and meltingly crisp. The filling will be spiced potato probably, with a sauce on the side: a surprisingly hot vegetable curry called a sambal.

The rice dosai has even more exotic Indian pancake cousins called appam and uttappam. These are made from urad dhal lentils, which have been ground and fermented overnight, and from chickpea flour. They are daily breakfast fare from Kersala to Colombo, where hotel chefs turn them out in rapid succession.

The list goes on and on. The crispy poppadom is a pancake of sorts, a disc of dhal flour with miraculous properties of expansion (due to a dose of baking powder) when microwaved or shallow-fried. And, while we are on the Indian subcontinent, chapattis are basically pancakes too, as are many other unleavened breads such as pitta.

In Mexico, the 7,000-year-old food culture is entirely supported by the pancake. The tortilla, made with masa harina (maize corn treated with slaked lime) is eaten at every meal, as a bread, as a wrap for fillings of beans, or toasted or fried. When stale it is fed into soups, or buried in sauces and baked in the manner of pasta. Some pancake.

Coming back home, it's clear that our own pancake is a modest thing, and once a year might be ample tribute to a pleasant, homely dish. It surely does not merit the importance given to it in France, where crêperies are as common in towns as burger bars are in the UK. It didn't work when tried here, but then we lacked the finesse of the French in producing passable seafood, chicken and vegetable fillings. The worst of such fillings I've tasted have been the tortilla wraps in American so-called Mexican fast-food outlets.

I'd rather put my money on the Italian concept of pancake, crespelle (so named because crespi is Italian for wrinkly, not crisp).

Italians use pancakes rather as they do pasta, either as a layered, lasagne-like dish, or stuffed like cannelloni. Of the latter type, Crespelle Fiorentini is magnificent, pancakes stuffed with ricotta cheese and seasoned cooked spinach.

The recipe given here from Marcelle Hazan is layered in the lasagne style, a speciality of Bolsogna, where she once had her cookery school.

Crespelle pancakes

Makes 16 to 18 crespelle

For the batter

250ml/scant 1?2 pint milk

Generous 100g/31?2oz plain flour

2 eggs

Salt

For cooking the crespelle

15-25g/1?2-1oz butter

Put the milk in a bowl and add the flour gradually, sifting it through a sieve. Beat with a fork or whisk until the flour and milk are evenly blended. Add the eggs and salt. Beat thoroughly. Put half a teaspoon of the butter in a heavy 20cm (8in) frying pan, melting it over medium/low heat. Rotate the pan so that the bottom is evenly coated with butter. When the butter is fully melted but not brown, pour two tablespoons of batter over the centre of the pan. Quickly lift the pan away from the flame and tip it in several directions with a seesaw motion, so that the batter covers the whole bottom. Return the frying pan to the fire. Cook until the pancake has set and turned a pale-brown colour on one side. Turn it with a spatula and brown it very lightly on the other side. Then transfer it to a dish. Coat the bottom of the frying pan with a tiny amount of butter, half what you used the first time, and proceed as above until all the pancake batter is used up. Note: In order to pour the batter into the pan all at once without scooping it up tablespoon by tablespoon, mark off two tablespoons with tape on a small measuring cup or glass and fill it in advance, refilling it while you do the pancakes.Crespelle may be made hours, or even days, in advance, if refrigerated and interleaved with plastic film or waxed paper. They may even be frozen.

Layered crespelle with tomato, prosciutto and cheese

Here thin pancakes are assembled in the form of a pie and layered in the manner of lasagne, with an earthy filling whose robustness benefits from the moderating delicacy of the crespelle.The "pie" should be no more than eight or nine layers thick. If you need to increase the recipe, distribute the additional crespelle among two or more baking pans.

Serves 4-6

For the tomato sauce filling

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

11?2 tablespoons chopped parsley

22cm/9in round cake tin

Butter for smearing the tin

50g/2oz very finely shredded prosciutto

170g/6oz canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice

Salt

4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

8 tablespoons very finely diced mozzarella, preferably imported Italian buffalo-milk mozzarella

8 or 9 crespelle (see recipe above)

Make the pancakes and set aside.Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Put the olive oil and garlic into a small sauté pan, turn on the heat to medium, and cook the garlic, stirring until it turns pale gold, then add the parsley. Cook just long enough to stir once or twice, then add the cut-up tomatoes with their juice and a pinch of salt. Adjust heat to cook at a steady simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time until the tomato liquid has been reduced and has separated from the fat. Turn off the heat. Lightly smear the baking tin with butter. Choose the largest among the crespelle you made and place it on the bottom of the pan. Coat it thinly with tomato sauce, bearing in mind you'll need enough sauce to repeat the procedure eight times. Over the sauce sprinkle some shredded prosciutto, grated Parmesan and diced mozzarella, and cover with another pancake. Proceed thus until you have used up all the crespelle and the filling. Leave just enough sauce with which to dab the topmost pancake, and grated Parmesan to sprinkle over it. Bake on the uppermost shelf of the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, without turning the crespelle "pie" over, but loosening it with a spatula and sliding it out of the pan. Allow to settle a few minutes before serving, or serve at room temperature.

Crespelle alla fiorentina

Pancakes filled with spinach

Serves 4 as a main course

450g/1lb fresh spinach or 300g/101?2oz frozen leaf spinach, thawed

1 small onion, finely chopped

60g/2oz butter

50g/13?4oz chopped prosciutto or mortadella

125g/41?2oz freshly grated Parmesan

1?4 teaspoon nutmeg

250ml/scant 1?2 pint, plus 5 tablespoons béchamel sauce. (Melt 50g/2oz butter. Stir in 50g/2oz flour and a pinch of salt. Gradually beat in 350-500ml/ 3?4-1 pint heated milk until you have a creamy sauce. Simmer on very low heat for 10 minutes.)

Salt

16 crespelle (see recipe above)

Cook, drain, squeeze most of the moisture out of the spinach and chop. Put the chopped onion in a small frying pan with 25g (1oz) of the butter and sauté over medium heat until pale gold. Add the chopped prosciutto, stir, and sauté lightly for less than a minute. Add the chopped spinach and cook for two to three minutes, stirring constantly, until it has completely absorbed all the butter. Transfer the contents of the pan to a mixing bowl, and combine with 100g (31?2oz) of the grated cheese, the nutmeg, the five tablespoons of béchamel, and salt. Mix thoroughly, then taste and check salt. Preheat oven to 450F/230C/Gas 8. Lightly smear the bottom of a flameproof oven dish with butter. Lay one of the crespelle on a flat, clean worktop and spread a scant tablespoon of filling over it, leaving a 1cm (1?2in) border uncovered. Roll up the crespella, keeping it loose and rather flat. Place it in the bottom of the dish, with its folded-over side facing down. Proceed until you have filled and rolled all the crespelle, arranging them in a single layer in the baking dish and keeping them not too tightly packed. Spread the remaining béchamel sauce over the crespelle. Make sure the ends of the crespelle rolls are well covered, and that there is some béchamel in between them. Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese and dot lightly with butter. Place in the uppermost level of the preheated oven for five minutes, then place under the grill for less than a minute, until a light crust has formed. Allow to stand for a minute or so, then serve straight from the dish.

From the 'Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking' (Macmillan, £20)

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