“‘Well, perviy blin komom.’ Calvin had several Russian phrases that he trotted out from time to time. They all sounded the same to me. ‘Uh, never drink vodka on a Moscow balcony in January?’ ‘The first pancake is always a flop.'”
-Ann Mah, Mastering the Art of French Eating
When is Pancake Day?
Shrove Tuesday – aka Pancake day, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday in French), Carnival (most likely from the late Latin ‘carne vale’ – farewell to meat) – always falls 47 days before Easter.
It’s the last day before the traditional fasting days of Lent. Why 47 days? It represents the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and reflecting in the desert before returning to Jerusalem for his arrest and crucifixion, plus Sundays (which in true convenient ecclesiastic style don’t ‘count’ as Lent).
One last feast of excess
Milk, eggs and fat were used up, accommodatingly making pancakes, in one last feast of excess before the privations of the Mondays to Saturdays to follow. Why ‘shrove’? It comes from the English word ‘shrive’ – to gain absolution for one’s sins through confession and penance, a sort of spiritual steam-clean before the six weeks of self-examination and (hopefully) self-discipline beginning the following day on Ash Wednesday.
The tradition of pancake races
One picturesque tradition stems from a harassed and overworked housewife (recognise her?), racing hopelessly against the clock, and, mid-toss, hearing the bells ringing. Realising she was late for church, she rushed off to the service, still with her frying pan and pancake. That was sometime ago, around 1445 in Olney (England). Since then pancake races have been held there – and strict rules apply – contestants, even if male, must wear an apron and scarf, and toss their pancakes at both the beginning and end of the race.
Pancake races are also held in other British villages towns, and cities (see the link at the very bottom of this post for the 2014 Parliamentary pancake races in London – House of Lords v House of Commons v Press)… and in other countries. There is now (well, relatively recently in terms of Olney’s pancake race history – we’re talking 1950) an ‘international’ pancake race between Olney and the town of Liberal in Kansas, USA.
How to make the best pancake batter – two approaches
Enough history. Now onto the practicalities. I make two different pancake batter recipes – uncle and nephew. Uncle pancakes are more traditional (good with savoury fillings), nephew ones are lighter and fluffier (I use these for sweet fillings).
My husband’s uncle who was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable cook (also a relation and friend of Elizabeth David) taught me how to make pancakes. In his kitchen, with his pan, and with him standing behind me I produced perfect pancakes. In my own kitchen, with my own pan it was a different story. I searched and searched for a similar pan to his and could find nothing like it. He generously (and it was generous… he knew this was an end to his own pancake making days) gave me his. Now I also have a painting of his kitchen in mine to inspire me.
For the characteristics of the best pancake pan, go here.
So here’s how to make pancakes from scratch – the best pancake recipe
- 100g/4 oz/1 cup plain flour
- 300 ml/½ pint/1¼ cups
- 1 standard egg
- 1 tbsp oil, or any fat (melted butter) – this helps the pancakes not to stick
- pinch of salt
This makes about 12 small pancakes.
As above but put in 2 tsp baking powder, and separate the egg, whisk the white until stiff, and then stir airily back into the batter with a metal spoon. This method makes your pancakes fluffier.
Method for both:
- Unless the pan is non-stick (these aren’t very good, go here for a better alternative) you should ‘prove’ or ‘season’ it if you haven’t used it for a bit by putting a couple of tablespoons of oil and salt in the pan, heat it until it starts to smoke, don an oven glove, and then (having taken the pan off the heat obviously), using two or three sheets of scrunched up kitchen paper, exfoliate the pan. Clean the pan out using more kitchen paper, but NO WATER OR DETERGENT. If you are using the pan a lot, and only for pancakes you don’t need to go through this procedure every time. If you haven’t used it for ages do it again before you begin.
- In a bowl (with a spout and a handle if you have one) sift the flour and salt and make a well in the centre – hold the sieve high to incorporate more air
- Whisk in the eggs (I use a cappuccino whisk). Don’t overwhisk or the gluten in the flour will start to develop and your pancakes will be tough…
- …and then slowly whisk in the milk – until it is the consistency of single cream with no lumps
- If your bowl doesn’t have a spout, transfer the batter to a jug
- Pour your oil also into a small jug
- Before cooking your first pancake pour about a teaspoon of the oil into the pan and ensure the entire bottom of the pan is covered – this will probably do for about three pancakes, refresh the oil as you need.
- Get the pan thoroughly hot… but don’t overheat! Hmmm – that’s not too helpful… if the fat is just starting to smoke it’s fine… smell of burning it’s not.
- Pour enough batter (a couple of tablespoons will cover a 16cm pan) into the pan to make a thin film – tilt the pan to ensure the bottom is covered entirely
- When bubbles appear and the pancake begins to set loosen it either with a sharp joggle or with a palette knife
- TOSS the pancake – method defies description – watch the video at the bottom of this post!
Things to add to the batter:
- orange zest
- black pepper
- sesame seeds
- vanilla paste
- Parmesan – then fill with wilted, buttery, seasoned spinach
Fillings for pancakes:
- quick pancake starter (or vegetarian main course) – porcini, banana shallots, mozzarella and basil – for full recipe go here
- quick savoury pancake – main course – smoked salmon, mascarpone, dill
- chicken, cream, broad bean and tarragon
- cauliflower and fresh goat’s cheese
- blanched cavolo nero, garlic, Urfa pepper, salt and crème fraîche
- leek fried with turmeric and fennel seeds, mixed with smoked haddock and crème fraîche
Five quick pancake puddings:
- mix some lemon or orange curd (I didn’t know this existed until I was given some for Christmas) with a little Greek yoghurt – if you like add a few chopped dried apricots. Roll up into a kind of roulade. Sprinkle the rolled pancakes with citrus juice and zest and some golden caster sugar. Grill if you have time.
- chocolate sauce with crumbled crunchie
- while the pancake is still in the pan, scatter over some squares of plain chocolate, some chopped hazelnuts and some mini marshmallows. Fold over and serve.
- make a compôte of rhubarb, blood orange, vanilla and sugar and fill your pancakes with this heavenly, fragrant mix
- super-quickest of all…. scatter over some chopped pecans and pour over maple syrup
Three boozy pancakes:
- Crêpes Suzette – with Grand Marnier
- with rum… and orange juice, brown sugar and bananas
- with bourbon…maple syrup and streaky bacon – these go best with the thicker, american type pancake – use Uncle batter above
Things to know about pancakes:
- the first pancake is always a disaster… if yours isn’t you’re a bit of a freak, nothing to brag about!
- pancakes freeze well for up to four months – simply interleave with greaseproof paper and freeze in a freezer bag
- to unfreeze allow several hours or unfreeze overnight. Cover loosely with foil and heat in an oven of about 180°C for about five minutes, or a cooler oven for ten minutes.
- you can keep your pancakes warm by keeping a saucepan of water simmering on your other hob, and a plate on top of that. Put the freshly cooked pancakes on that while you cook the others… or just serve them out immediately.
This post is dedicated to Neil Hogg.
How to toss a pancake
….do we recognise Mary Beard, as the last demonstrator, the silver-haired lady?
Music to listen to as you flip
Joni Mitchell sings On Both Sides Now