Pancakes: There's a lot more to Shrove Tuesday than sugar and lemon

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Pan in hand, and batter at the ready, Amy Oliver takes a world tour in search of inspiration

Who would guess that the combination of milk, water, flour, eggs, salt and butter could make something quite so sumptuously delicious? We gorge ourselves on pancakes annually for Shrove Tuesday, which this year falls on 24 February, but the question is, why doesn’t this incomparably delicious – and fabulously quick to make – comfort food feature on the menu more often?

According to Rowley Leigh, chief-proprietor of the London restaurant Le Café Anglais, the original way of dressing pancakes is best, that is, with lashings of freshly-squeezed lemon and a dusting of sugar. “It’s a childhood thing – and they’ve got to be straight out of the pan,” says Leigh. On the menu at his restaurant, though, are delectable buttermilk pancakes with bacon and maple syrup.

Although the ingredients are simple and inexpensive, pancakes can be quite difficult to get right, and horror stories of batter-stained ceilings after an overzealous flip are commonplace. Also disappointing is the undercooked cake – or one that’s too thick. The perfect pancake needs the perfect batter and, according to Leigh, this should be of a thin consistency; the trick is to use a mixture of both milk and water. And what about the perfect flip? “It just takes a flick of the wrist,” says Leigh. “The lighter and dryer the pancake, the less likely it is to end up around the gas ring.”

But so versatile is the pancake that it would be remiss to stick to a single annual lemon-and-sugar binge. “It’s crazy,” agrees Nick Willoughby, owner of the funky London crêperie Crème de la Crêpe, “and in France, they’re a staple. The pancake is the perfect blank canvas, and here we do banoffee-pie and apple-crumble fillings. I don’t think you need to stop at chocolate or sugar.” Almost every nation has their own version; for a world of inspiration, here’s our guide to pancake perfection.

Pancake perfection: The batter

By Nick Willoughby

(Makes approximately 8)

125g flour
2 large eggs
120ml milk
120 ml water
pinch of salt
40g melted unsalted butter

Whisk all ingredients until smooth. Heat a non-stick frying pan and melt in a knob of butter. Once the pan is sizzling-hot, pour in a ladle of batter and tilt the pan to allow batter to coat its surface. Cook until golden on the underside. Flip the pancake – then pick it up off the floor and serve!

Scotland: Drop scones

Scotch pancakes, or drop scones, are smaller, thicker pancakes usually eaten for breakfast with a drizzle of honey or homemade jam. The Scottish chef Tom Kitchin, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Edinburgh restaurant The Kitchin, says: “It’s the kind of thing my granny used to make. They’re lovely and moist inside, a bit like a crumpet.” Drop scones can be savoury, too, and Kitchin suggests layering mushrooms, lardons and even a fried egg on top for a hearty breakfast. The Scots also celebrate Shrove Tuesday with crêpe-style pancakes and Kitchin has fond memories of the annual treat. “We would start with savoury ones with mushrooms, ham and sautéed onions, and then end with sweeter crêpes with honey and Nutella. When you’re a kid they’re always a favourite.” Kitchin also suggests pimping your pancake by adding a soufflé mix to the middle. “Cook off your crêpe and put a soufflé mix – whisked egg whites and something like Grand Marnier for a lovely orange flavour – in the middle. Fold the edges of your crêpe over and cook it in the oven. Serve with a nice syrup or vanilla ice-cream.”

Italy: Crespelle

“The pancake is used in so many ways in Italy. It’s very versatile,” says the godfather of Italian gastronomy, Antonio Carluccio. The rather grand-sounding crespelle is a basic batter of egg, flour, milk and a pinch of salt and, like the French crêpe, should be quite thin. Crespelle can be rolled, stuffed, stacked or folded; regional varieties abound, and they may also be used in lasagne or cannelloni. For a savoury dish, Carluccio suggests filling the crespella with ricotta and finely-chopped spinach, and for sweet, spreading a bit of mascarpone cheese and Nutella inside. “My mother used to do them as a dessert,” says Carluccio. “She made some crespelle and put a squeeze of lemon and sugar on them.” Interestingly, crespelle are also used in a soup similar to the Austrian dish frittaten suppe. “Make the crespelle, roll it and then cut it into very thin strips,” says Carluccio. “Put the strips into a chicken broth and add a little Parmesan. It’s just fantastic.”

Russia: Blini

A staple food all over Eastern Europe, blini are regarded in the UK as a luxury item to be covered in caviar and washed down with good Russian vodka. For the Michelin-starred celebrity chef Martin Blunos, whose Latvian parents fed him blini when he was growing up, they’re similar to crumpets. “People will eat them as a snack, almost like a tortilla in Mexico. They’re like a substitute for bread,” he explains. As with British pancakes, eggs, flour and butter are the main ingredients of blini, but theirs are with a fundamental difference: the addition of yeast. Buckwheat flour is also traditionally used, but white and rye flour are regularly substituted. “The blini have to be light,” says Blunos. “You need a crispy outside, and light and airy centre. If you don’t give the yeast enough time to work you can end up with a very heavy batter.” Blunos says 45 minutes should be enough time to let the batter stand, and when you come to cook them the pan shouldn’t be too hot. Savoury blini are eaten with gherkins, sour cream and pulses but, according to Blunos, blini as a dessert is delicious; he recommends a topping of sour cream and brown sugar.

Sweden: Plättars

“Pancakes are an absolute staple in Sweden,” says Anna Mosesson, a Swedish cookery writer. “We eat them all year round, but also every Thursday with a pea soup.” Swedish pancakes, called plättar, use the same ingredients as British pancakes, but are smaller and fried several at a time in a specially-designed plättlagg pan – a heavy iron griddle with circular indents into which the mixture is poured. Mosesson suggests adding fried bacon into the batter mix and then frying it as you would a French crêpe to make a snack that’s eaten every day in Sweden; for sweet plättar, lingonberry jam is a favourite filling. An ideal warming dish for a cold Scandinavian day is raggmunk – a pancake with shredded or grated potato and saffron originating from Gotland. Shaped into small patties, raggmunk are traditionally eaten with fried pork and lingonberries. “We have different names for each of our pancakes, so it’s a big thing,” says Mosesson. Pancakes are not eaten on “Fat Tuesday”, the Swedish Pancake Day. Instead they eat a cardamom bun filled to bursting with marzipan or almond paste and eaten in a bowl full of warm milk.

India: Dosas

Hailing from southern India, the dosa, a crispy pancake made from rice and black lentils, is mainly eaten for breakfast but, according to Atul Kochhar, chef of the Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant Benares, they can be eaten at any mealtime. Says Kochar: “Dosa are mainly savoury and eaten with coconut chutney, which is light and refreshing. You can experiment, though: I do a sweet version where I flavour the batter with coconut sugar.” To create dosa mixture, three parts of rice to one part of black lentils (or urad daal) should be soaked in water overnight; blend with fenugreek seeds to create a smooth yet slightly grainy paste. In India, the paste is cooked on a flat griddle called a tawa, but a large pan would do. “There’s no secret in getting dosa right, but they must be very thin,” he says. “Also, you don’t have to use basmati rice, long grain will do.” In northern India, chillas, pancakes made with chickpea flour and semolina, are also eaten for breakfast. “I’ve never seen these with a stuffing. Instead, the batter is flavoured with things like coriander and toasted cumin seeds.”

France: Crepes

What’s more French than a perfectly thin, lacy-textured crêpe? Eaten mainly for breakfast and lunch, what you put in your crêpe really depends on where you come from in France. Jason Atherton, the executive chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and Maze Grill restaurants, lived for a time in Alsace while he was training. “They put cheese and bacon in their crêpes and then cover them with a béchamel sauce, but places like Brittany traditionally put apples, cinnamon and sugar in theirs. Down south, because of all the lovely sunshine, they use crème fresh and strawberries.” But, think of crêpes and you can’t help but think of crêpes Suzette, the Seventies classic which was extravagantly flambéd at the table but often ended up as a soggy, overly alcoholic disappointment. “The dish was bastardised quite badly by English seaside hotels,” says Atherton. “And I hope a restaurant can bring it back and do something sexy with it because ... it could be retro-cool.”

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