After dinner parties, he would ceremoniously don an apron, wheel in his trolley and, to great applause, flambe a huge stack of pancakes. It still elicits indignation from my mother-in-law, though, that she was the one who used to spend all afternoon making them and then had to sit there silently as he lapped up the inebriated cries of "Bravo."
Sadly, I was never treated to this performance, and, therefore, have to pass credit for the most delicious pancakes I have eaten to another experience, in its own way every bit as spectacular, a chocolate pancake cake. As indulgent as it sounds, this is a warm millefeille of pancakes oozing chocolate sauce, smothered at the final hour by even more chocolate sauce before being flambeed in rum. This was prepared by an Australian chef called Martin Toplizki, who comes from a line of crepe fanatics. His mother, Greta Anna, is an Australian cookery writer who wrote wonderful books, including More Greta Anna Recipes, which is filled with sumptuous suggestions for serving up pancakes. There's a triple spectacular where they are filled with brandied orange caramel sauce, strawberries and cream, and rum-soaked prunes. Another spills out butterscotch, bananas and praline.
But, why is that cooking pancakes instils the same kind of fear into cooks as the rising of a souffle? It has, I suspect, to do with tossing them. This is something that has passed me by. The pancakes in my pan lead a very dull life, being neatly flipped over with a palette knife, though the result is the same. The secret is to include some melted butter in the batter at the very end. This is all-important for texture and flavour and guarantees they slither gracefully out of the pan without sticking. My father-in-law, of course, would have known that.
Chocolate pancake cake, serves 6
Don't worry about making the pancakes the thinnest in the world, they need to have a certain amount of attitude for this pudding.
Pancakes, makes approximately 22
250g plain flour, sifted
1 tbsp caster sugar
pinch of sea salt
3 large eggs and 2 egg yolks
40g unsalted butter, melted
To serve: 1 tbsp dark rum
To prepare the pancake batter, combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl and whisk the eggs, egg yolks and milk in a jug. Gradually whisk the milk-and-egg mixture onto the flour. Leave the batter to stand for at least one hour then stir in the melted butter. In the meantime, make the chocolate sauce.
Ideally, cook the pancakes in two frying pans to speed things up. A well- seasoned pan should not require any oiling, the butter in the batter will do this for you, but expect to have to discard the first pancake. Heat two frying pans with an 18cm base over a medium heat and, using a small ladle, add just enough butter to coat the base. Cook until the top side appears dry, then loosen the edges using a palette knife, slip the knife underneath and flip it over. Cook the remainder likewise, piling the pancakes up on a plate. Having cooked all of them, loosely cover the pile with cooking film and leave to cool.
Assemble the pudding on a shallow heatproof dish or dinner plate. Spread a little chocolate sauce on the base, then layer the pancakes, spreading each one with about a tablespoon of the chocolate sauce. Expect this to ooze out into the bottom of the dish as you get higher. If it starts to overflow, spoon some of the sauce back into the pan. You should have about a third of the sauce left over at the end. Cover the pancake stack with foil. You can prepare the pudding to this point in advance.
To serve, heat the oven to 170C fan oven/180C or 350F electric oven/gas mark 4 and reheat the pudding for 20 to 25 minutes. In the meantime, reheat the remaining chocolate sauce in the double boiler. Remove the foil and coat the surface with the sauce, allowing it to run down the sides. Heat the rum in a small ladle. It should ignite if it is close to a gas flame but, otherwise, take a match to it and pour it over the pudding. Arrive at the table with it flaming if you want any applause.
250g dark chocolate, broken up
50g unsalted butter
50ml double cream
100ml strong black coffee
50g caster sugar
Heat 1cm of water in the bottom half of a double boiler, place the chocolate in the top half and melt it. Alternatively, melt it in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Whisk in the butter, and once it has melted, add the milk, cream, coffee and sugar. Heat together, whisking to a smooth sauce, but avoid boiling. Cover the surface with film and set aside until required.