Potty about Pancakes

I like pancakes. I like their simplicity and their versatility. They are quick, cheap, and endlessly edible, as there really isn’t a limit as to what can be put with them. But we don’t tend to eat pancakes very often, and it’s sad. The association of pancakes with Shrove Tuesday (more usually known, let’s face it, as Pancake Day), is so overwhelming that, for many people, eating pancakes on another day would be as remarkable as eating turkey when it’s not Christmas. But pancakes are lovely! (And turkey is vile). The modern neglect of them in Britain is just weird. Bring back the pancake!

The Shrove Tuesday thing is understandable. Lots of countries have edible rituals associated with the day before the Lenten fast starts, and many of them centre around treat foods, such as waffles or buns and cakes. The usual explanation is that these foods use up the animal products which are in the house before 40 days of fast. Well, yes, except that an organised household would have run these things down anyway, and eggs last weeks, and Sundays were exempt from the animal product prohibition. Lent, if you were practising a medieval style fast, would have been fairly tedious, and it was long. Far longer than the Advent fast, the other biggie in the Catholic calendar at that point. (Though, to be fair, the diet of most people would have been fairly tedious anyway). I suspect the joyous eating of Pancake Day and Fat Tuesday and the like has more to do with a mental hair-letting-down in preparation for a lengthy bout of seriousness, but one which quickly became enshrined in medieval codes of conduct. There’s a fair amount of fun to be had beyond the pancakes themselves: pancake races started in some places by the 15th century, and that’s always a laugh. Most of the modern ones are exactly that, by the way – modern – but still amusing.

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Inter-livery pancake race outside the London Guildhall, 2015

Pancakes are a pretty good food to centre a party around, if you want that party to be open to everyone. They’ve become codified in British culture as a white flour-based batter, enriched with eggs, with milk as the liquid agent. But that’s a conception that really only took firm hold as the number of occasions upon which we ate them dwindled to that one day. You only have to glance across the channel at France to see how wrong-headed we are on this one. The Breton crêperie is an absolute institution, and a reliable standby for cheap, quick fodder, centred around a predictable menu. The Bretons were to France as the Irish were to Britain: viewed as a poverty-stricken, barely educated mass, perfect for supplying labour to factories and mills, and servants to the middle and upper classes. But where the Bretons went, their food came too, and that meant crêpes and their savoury equivalent, the galette. They were food for the poor, made of easy available cereal crops, ground to flour and mixed with any available liquid and and egg if possible. Galettes are normally made of buckwheat flour. But they remain a pancake, really, and pancakes can be made of anything.

The first pancakes were probably prehistoric. Because they can be made of anything, wherever people settled, they could grind something to a powder and add it to liquid. Tapioca, spelt, einkorn, rye…all these newly fashionable ancient grains work in an unleavened batter, to be cooked on a stone or, later, metal griddle. So too do ground cassava, potato, rice, chickpeas etc. Throughout the world, there are pancakes, and the vast majority do not conform to the British norm. And that’s even without widening the definition to include chemically leavened griddled products. Or fried dumplings. Or fritters. Many types, such as American style pancakes, only properly developed only after the mid-19th century and the popularisation of baking powers. The same goes for crumpets, pikelets, and drop scones (although some variants did exist, using yeast and demanding a proper prove).

Pancakes were a universal food, a fairly neutral base to which other ingredients could be added to make a meal – cheese, ham, potatoes were the most obvious savoury additions in most of Europe, while sugar, spice and preserves made for a sweet course. This latter set formed the basis for the upper class pancake, enabling the pancake to hold a fairly rare position in the culinary sphere. With very little tweaking of the basic foodstuff, it was able to be both poverty food and elite food at the same time.

The elite versions had been around forever – the Roman writings of Apicius contain a recipe for a pancake-like thing (the amounts are characteristically vague, so it could also be an omelette, custard, or cake), which uses pepper and honey. By the medieval period they were sufficiently common that writers referred to them with an assumption that the reader knew what they were. Indeed, the thin British form became a metaphor: flat as a pancake. 18th and 19th century cookery authors used them as a universal culinary marker, instructing that batters should be ‘of the consistency of pancake batter’, and that things should be ‘the thinness of a pancake’. Posh pancakes as they developed in the 17th and 18th centuries are delightful. The early ones used brandy, wine or ale as the liquid agent, frequently with sweet spices in the better as well. By the late 18th century, the ubiquitous cream tended to be used instead, though often with a generous glug of brandy or sweet wine as well. A typical recipe comes from Robert May in 1660:

Take three pints of cream, a quart of flour, five eggs, salt, three spoonfuls of ale, a race of ginger, cinnamon as much, strain these materials, then fry and serve them with fine sugar.

However, if you want a historic pancake recipe to really make your senses sing with joy, try this, from Frederick Nutt’s Imperial and Royal Cook (1809):

Pink coloured Pancakes: Boil beat-root till tender, and then beat it fine in a mortar; add the yolks of four eggs, two spoonfuls of flour, and three or four of cream; sweeten it, and grate in half a nutmeg: add a glass of brandy: mix all well together, and fry your pancakes in butter: garnish them with green sweetmeats.

I am organising a crack team of live interpreters, who will be cooking and talking about Georgian food at Kew Palace over some of the Easter weekend. You can rest assured that they will be making that one. Pink pancakes!

Pancakes, therefore, can be anything, to anyone. If you plan to make them this Tuesday, and you see them as a novelty to be cooked once a year, you are doing yourself a disservice. Fillings, flours, liquids…stacks, rolls, wedges….the possibilities are endless. Oh and the Fear Of Tossing? Escoffier tosses. Others flip. Or turn. Or even make them so thin they don’t need cooking on the other side. Toss if you want to (there can be advantages, as it’s quick and if it works, the thing won’t stick, like particularly evil clingfilm, to itself). But don’t feel obliged. And if all else fails, the Austrians do a thing called Kaiserschmarren, which is pancakes chopped up or pulled apart, so that they look like good scrambled eggs, but taste like heaven. There is a solution to every cooking fail.

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Kaiserschmarren. Breakfast of Emperors.

NB: If you do try the above, remember that eggs were smaller then, and use 2/3 of the amounts – and as small as you can get.
Further reading:

Ken Albala (2008) Pancake: A Global History
Harold McGee (2010) Keys to Good Cooking
Darra Goldstein and Sidney Mintz (2015) The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

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