With hot cross buns already staling on shelves, and mince pies surely mere months away, plum pudding and pancakes are the only two foods I can think of that unite the nation for but one day a year. While more delicate sorts claim to find Christmas pud too “heavy”, I’ve yet to meet anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, who eschews a Shrove Tuesday treat. Why we don’t dare to bust them out at Easter too, or on fine September mornings, is a mystery to me.
Pancakes are a remarkably versatile foodstuff: French crêpes, Indian dosas, even Ethiopian injera, all fall under the same delightful banner. As Ken Albala, author of a gloriously comprehensive “global history” of the things explains, “any starchy batter … cooked in a small amount of fat on a flat surface” counts. But in Britain, as any schoolchild knows, modern pancakes are descended from those specifically designed to use up fat before the beginning of Lent, which means they tend to be heavier on the eggs and butter than, say, the fluffy American stack, or the squat Russian blini.
Interestingly, the oldest recipe for pancakes as we know them comes from an English cookery book – the Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen (1594 edition) – but it’s even richer than the modern incarnation: a pint of “thicke Creame”, 5 egg yolks, “a good handful of flower” and 2 or 3 tablespoons of ale, seasoned with copious amounts of sugar, cinnamon and ginger.
Albala assures me that “the result is a horrible mess” with these proportions (“one can only imagine the author was either careless or had gargantuan hands”), but once I’ve added enough flour to make it into a more workable consistency, I manage to create a pancake, of sorts, from the mixture. It’s so meltingly rich it’s all but impossible to flip, which is clearly no good at all: tasty, but more of a chaser to some roasted peacock and a goblet of sack than one for the modern kitchen.
The 17th century ushered in more sober tastes – Gervase Markham‘s 1615 recipe uses two eggs, a “pretty quantity of faire running water,” cloves, mace, cinnamon and nutmeg, all beaten together, “which done make thicke as you think food with fine wheate flower”. (No one can accuse these old-school food writers of being prescriptive.) Spice aside, they’re pretty dull things; rubbery and heavy. Cream may be taking things too far, but milk is a must.
Telegraph food writer Xanthe Clay uses melted butter in her batter to compensate for any loss of flavour occasioned by cooking them in vegetable oil. BBC Good Food, meanwhile, adds a tot of vegetable oil. The first gives a better tasting pancake, but because I quite like the nutty flavour of browned butter, and the slight crispness of a plainer batter (all the better a foil for crunchy sugar and lemon juice) I decide to include neither. I do take one tip from Xanthe however, using an extra yolk to give the pancakes a depth of flavour without that slight toughness that egg white imparts.
Stand or deliver?
Resting batter, like soaking rice, or washing mushrooms, is one of those ideas which I’ve always lazily chosen to ignore – after all, what kind of busy thrusting sort of executive has the time to make their pancake mix half an hour before they plan to eat? Gordon Ramsay says there’s “no need”, Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall disagree: and suddenly the idea seems almost attractive (even if Nigel does insist on calling them crêpes).
I make up two batches of batter and allow one to sit for 30 minutes while I make and devour the other. The first lot aren’t a disaster, but the second are distinctly more even in texture – Hugh suggests this is because the starch has had more time to absorb the liquid, and air bubbles to disperse.
Although Hugh and Good Food magazine counsel cooking the pancakes over a moderate heat, I prefer to follow Professor Peter Barham, physicist and adviser to Heston Blumenthal, in getting the pan really hot, because I like mine thin and crisp – you can turn it down before cooking if you prefer a softer finish. Spread the batter as thin as possible for delicately lacy edges – and treat the first pancake as an experiment; it usually goes wrong, which is a good excuse to treat it as a cook’s perk. As Nigel so wisely observes, “you could argue that the perfect crêpe is always the first of the batch … Wolfed hot and hissing from the pan, squirted with lemon and a thick layer of sugar – this is the pancake that pleases the mouth if not the eye.”
Perk aside, these are also good wrapped around a creamy seafood filling, stuffed with spinach and ricotta and gratinated – or, if you must, slathered with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I’ve even heard it whispered that the sky won’t fall in if you make them this evening, as well as next Tuesday …
Makes about 8
125g plain flour
Pinch of salt
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
225ml whole or semi-skimmed milk
Small knob of butter
1. Sift the flour in a large mixing bowl and add a pinch of salt. Make a well in the centre, and pour the egg and the yolk into it. Mix the milk with 2 tbsp water and then pour a little in with the egg and beat together.
2. Whisk the flour into the liquid ingredients, drawing it gradually into the middle until you have a smooth paste the consistency of double cream. Whisk the rest of the milk in until the batter is more like single cream. Cover and refrigerate for at least half an hour.
3. Heat the butter in a frying pan on a medium-high heat – you only need enough fat to just grease the bottom of the pan. It should be hot enough that the batter sizzles when it hits it.
4. Spread a small ladleful of batter across the bottom of the pan, quickly swirling to coat. Tip any excess away. When it begins to set, loosen the edges with a thin spatula or palette knife, and when it begins to colour on the bottom, flip it over with the same instrument and cook for another 30 seconds. (If you’re feeling cocky, you can also toss the pancake after loosening it: grasp the handle firmly with both hands, then jerk the pan up and slightly towards you.)
5. Pancakes are best eaten as soon as possible, before they go rubbery, but if you’re cooking for a crowd, keep them separate until you’re ready to serve by layering them up between pieces of kitchen roll.
Why don’t we eat more pancakes in this country – and which recipes are good enough to change our minds? What are your favourite toppings, and do you have any top tips for foolproof flipping?
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