PINNED up in front of me is a chart I have created that compares 20 different recipes for straightforward, white flour pancakes. Each one has a slightly different balance of the four main ingredients - flour, eggs, milk and butter or oil - each of which has its own distinct function. Pancakes are fundamentally simple things. But the refinements of even the most basic form are endless - and that is before you look at the rest of the world's variations on a theme.
The flour forms the pancake's basic structure. A large proportion of flour will make pancakes thicker and sturdier, not what you want for delicate dessert crepes, but a welcome quality for savoury ones that are to be wrapped round a generous filling and reheated. As soon as the batter is made up the starch in the flour begins to swell, which means you can use it straight away. It is better, though, to let it stand for half an hour or so by which time the starch will be almost completely gelatinised, and the batter will be capable of carrying a greater quantity of liquid. That means you can thin it a little more to make lighter pancakes.
Eggs are there to hold the batter together, bringing a suppleness that flour alone cannot provide. I find a large quantity of eggs gives a less-than-agreeable flabbiness, though too little makes pancakes tricky to handle. Some recipes use yolks alone, giving the pancakes a silky texture but without the resilience that whites impart.
Gauging the right quantity of milk or milk and water is one of the keys to making good pancakes, and this is where practice and experience really count. Milk alone makes a heavier, richer batter. Substituting a third to a half water produces something lighter, but with less flavour. Always take the quantity specified in a recipe as a rough guide. Different batches of flour will soak up different amounts of milk. With most batters the aim is to add enough liquid to give the consistency of single cream. Batters made with a large amount of melted butter should be a thicker, runny-double-cream consistency - the semi-congealed butter will melt on contact with the heat of the pan. If the pancakes are emerging from the pan on the thick side, thin down the rest of the batter with a little extra milk or water.
Melted butter or oil enriches and lubricates the batter. Most recipes call for a tablespoon or so, though some more luxurious versions demand what seems like a veritable slick. The fat in the batter is not what makes a pancake greasy. That is a problem that stems from the fat in the pan. Use only enough to prevent the pancakes sticking. Grease the pan lightly before you heat it up, then re-grease only when you have to - use a brush to paint on a light layer of fat. Oil is fine, but butter gives a better flavour. Best of all is clarified butter, which combines flavour with a purity that will lessen the risk of catching.
And now for the pan. At a pinch, you can get away with any old frying pan, but if it is thin-based with a scuffed surface, then you can bet your bottom dollar the pancakes will cook unevenly, glueing themselves tenaciously to the metal. The only way to compensate is to use more fat and then you will end up with greasy pancakes. The ideal pan has a thick, heavy, smooth base that will conduct heat evenly. I use my trusty, cast-iron frying pan which has built up a semi-non-stick surface over the years.
Last but by no means least, the heat. The pan must be hot enough but not too hot. A medium heat is normally called for, but that is only a rough guide and in the end this is something you have to judge as you work. The pan must be hot enough to cook the pancakes fairly quickly, but not so fast that they burn.
General cooking method: Heat a lightly greased, heavy frying pan over a medium flame. Pour a ladleful of batter into the pan, and quickly tilt and swirl the pan until evenly covered. Pour out any excess. Cook until set, when the edges will part easily from the pan with the help of a thin-bladed knife.
Check that the underneath is browned, then slide a palette knife or fish-slice underneath to loosen and flip over. Brown the second side lightly. Keep warm while you make the remaining pancakes. And remember: the first pancake is nearly always a disaster and the second may not be much better, so do not be discouraged by early failures.
BRETON buckwheat pancakes are by far and away my favourite savoury pancakes. Buckwheat flour, sold by most health food shops, gives a slightly smoky flavour and a dark, speckled granite-like appearance.
For the simplest filling, smear hot pancakes with butter and sprinkle with grated gruyere. I love them with eggs: as soon as you turn the pancake over, break an egg on to the upper side, spreading out the white so that it sets quickly and evenly. Once set, sprinkle with grated cheese, dot with butter and roll up. Add a slice of ham, warmed through in a separate pan in a little butter, and you will have what is known as a 'complet'.
Other possibilities are legion - ratatouille, creamed spinach, fried mushrooms, bacon, grilled sausages and so on.
Galettes de Sarrazin
Ingredients: 5oz/140g buckwheat flour
3oz/85g plain flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 pint/290ml milk
1/2 pint/290ml water
1oz/30g butter, melted and cooled until tepid
butter or oil for greasing
Preparation: Sift the flours with the salt and make a well in the centre. Add the egg and the butter. Mix the milk and water.
Pour half into the flours and mix to a smooth paste. Gradually beat in the rest to make a smooth batter. Heat for half an hour and, if necessary, add more water to thin down to the consistency of single cream. Cook as usual.
LIGHT and thin, these are the perfect dessert crepes. The brandy not only gives flavour but also makes them crisper. The moderately high quantity of fat means the pan should only need re-greasing once or twice.
Ingredients: 4oz/110g flour
large pinch of salt
1 whole egg, lightly beaten
1 egg yolk
2oz/55g unsalted butter, melted and cooled until tepid
3/4 pint/350ml milk
1 1/2 tbs rum or brandy
2tsp orange-flower water (optional but a good idea)
butter for greasing
Preparation: Sift the flour with the salt. Mix in sugar. Make a well in the centre and add the egg and yolk and melted butter. Start stirring, gradually drawing in the flour and adding the milk to give a smooth batter. Stir in the rum or brandy and the orange-flower water if used. Rest the mixture and add a little more milk if necessary. Cook as usual, handling the pancakes carefully as they tear easily.
EASTERN Europeans are particularly hot on making pancakes and these Polish ones are among the best. The egg whites are stiffly whipped before folding in which makes a puffed, light pancake. They can be served with lemon and sugar, but are best with soured cream and jam.
Makes 8-10 pancakes
Ingredients: 6oz/170g flour
1/2 level tsp salt
1 egg, lighly beaten
3 eggs, separated
1/2 pint/240ml milk
1/2 pint/240ml water
1tbs sunflower oil or melted butter
butter or oil for greasing
Preparation: Sift the flour and salt. Make a well in the centre and add the whole egg, 3 egg yolks and the oil or melted butter. Gradually beat in the milk and then the water to make a smooth batter. Let the mixture rest for half an hour. Just before cooking, whisk the 3 egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Grease a heavy frying pan lightly and heat over a medium flame. Pour in enough batter to cover the base of the pan, swirling around and pouring off excess. Fry until batter stops steaming, then turn over and brown the other side.
ANOTHER puffed pancake but very different. These ones are leavened with bicarbonate of soda rather than egg whites. The buttermilk imparts richness and a hint of sourness. Serve them sweet, with lemon and sugar, jam and cream, butter and maple syrup, or savoury with sausages or bacon.
American Buttermilk Pancakes
Serves 4-6 (makes about 20 small
Ingredients: 4oz/110g self-raising flour
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 pint/290ml buttermilk
butter or oil for greasing
Preparation: Sift the flour with the salt and bicarbonate of soda. Stir in the sugar. Make a well in the centre and add the egg and half the buttermilk. Beat, gradually drawing in the flour and the remaining buttermilk, to form a smooth batter. Rest for half an hour.
Grease a heavy frying pan and heat over a medium flame. Pour in puddles of the batter, about 1-1 1/2 tbs for small pancakes, more if you want them larger, tilting the pan to spread the batter. Cook until until the top is just set and pitted with holes. Turn over and brown the other side.
LAST week's column contained a misprint in the preparation for Galettes de Sarrazin. The sentence 'Heat for half an hour and, if necessary, add more water to thin down to the consistency of single cream' should have read: 'Rest for half an hour and, if necessary, add more water to thin down . . .' etc. We apologise profusely for any scalded batters and inconvenience caused.