The Pancake Defined
Pancakes, surprisingly enough, are one of the oldest foods known to man. So old in fact that the lines of what a pancake actually is are blurred. We find people lumping pancakes into the same category as flatbreads and even waffles. Without rules there is chaos! So let us start by defining the pancake. To the untrained eye, a pancake may share a certain affinity with the flat pita bread, or a corn tortilla, but they are decidedly different things. A fundamental distinction must be made. According to Ken Albala, author of a book devoted to the subject, there is a certain set of criteria that must be met.
Pancakes are proverbially flat. They are made from a batter thin enough to be poured, but never so thick that they must be shaped by either hand or machine. That would be the signifying mark of a flatbread. Shaped by gravity, pancakes are generally round, but are occasionally drizzled into lacey patterns or poured into molds; these are still deemed pancakes.
Most pancakes are leavened. Today the most common way is through the use of chemical leaveners i.e. baking soda, or baking powder. However, the rising agent could be anything: yeast, carbonated water, beaten egg whites, even snow. While the mode of leavening is of no real consequence, the light and tender quality it gives a pancake is what we’re after, and remains one of the stamps of authenticity in a real pancake.
The range of ingredients combined to make a pancake plays no part in defining a pancake. Though wheat flour is common, barley, rice, corn, and buckwheat are all acceptable alternatives. No one grain holds exclusive dominion over the pancake. For it is not what goes into the bowl that makes the pancake but what comes out of the pan.
There was never any “first pancake”, nor was the pancake invented by any one person. Pancakes were a movement that evolved independently of particular societies. The pancake was one of the first cooked foods and as such one of the earliest signs of civilization.
Upon examination, the extremely well preserved archaeological sensation and media star from the Copper Age, Otzi the Iceman, was found to have eaten an einkorn cake along with ibex and red deer for his last meal, potentially dating pancakes back 5300 years. But did Otzi’s pancake meet our criteria? There are some things we will simply never know.
Pancakes Through the Ages
The jury still out on the Otzi cake, we are forced to jump forward in time to 900 AD. Here we find the first written documentation of pancakes in one of the earliest cookbooks ever compiled, Apicius. Named after the wealthy Roman merchant and famed epicure, the book describes something called “honeycakes” made from a batter of eggs, milk, water, and flour then seasoned with honey and pepper. Ancient Greece too had its pancake, very similar to the Roman variety, called tagenites or kreion. The Elizabethans enjoyed pancakes as well. Theirs was a heady concoction traditionally flavored with spices, rosewater, apples, and sherry. In short, pancakes have had no trouble establishing themselves in the hearts and the stomachs of practically every culture in one form or another.
The Pancake Bell
The forty days leading up to Easter are known in the Catholic church as Lent, a time of fasting and reflection to honor the forty days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness. A tradition emerged the day before Lent known as “Shrove Tuesday” or “Fat Tuesday”. In an effort to use up all the ingredients in the house that would become untouchable the next day, practicing Catholics would make massive batches of pancakes. It was thought that on the day when all rejoiced alike in the forgiveness of their sins, all should feast alike as well. A bell was rung on the morning of Fat Tuesday reminding the people to come to the church to be forgiven, and came to be known as the “Pancake Bell”.
A Pancake by Every Other Name
The pancake was well represented in colonial America traveling under a slew of different names. There were Hoe Cakes and Hot Cakes, Johnny Cakes, Journey Cakes or was it Jonukin? Flips, Flaps, and Flop Jacks, Snow Cakes and Griddle Cakes, exhaustion sets in before the list reaches its conclusion. Though there were many names, most of them connoting a slightly different amalgam of ingredients, they were each effectively a pancake in the true sense of the word. In fact, America’s first cookbook: Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, has not one but two different recipes for pancakes, traveling under the names of “Johnny Cakes” and “Indian Slapjack”.
Interested in a poem waxing eloquent on the virtues of our favorite breakfast food? Here’s a link to Henry Pickering’s ten-page masterpiece on just that.
Here’s a recipe for pancakes that travels perhaps rather unexcitingly under the simple name of Pancake. And though it may lack imagination in its title, it lacks for nothing in its taste.
“If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”
The Humble Pancake
Served with Maple Cream and Fresh Fruit
For the Batter
1 ⅔ cups Whole Milk
2 ½ Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
1 ½ cups All-purpose Flour
1 ½ teaspoons Sugar
1 ½ teaspoons Baking Powder
½ teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Salt
½ teaspoon Cinnamon
For the Maple Cream
½ cup Heavy Whipping Cream
¼ teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
For the Cakes
Preheat your skillet on med-high.
In a medium bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and whisk to combine, set aside.
In a second bowl combine all the wet ingredients (this includes the sugar). Using your same whisk mix the wet ingredients together until the egg is evenly dispersed throughout.
Pour the liquid ingredients on top of the dry, and stir together until just incorporated. You pancake batter should still be slightly lumpy.
Your skillet should be appropriately hot by this point. To grease the pan I like to put some vegetable oil on a folded paper towel, rubbing it over the surface. This prevents any sticking without things getting too greasy.
Using a large ladle, pour your pancake batter onto the hot skillet. The pancake is ready to be flipped when tiny bubbles have emerged all over the surface of the cake. Flip the jack, cooking it until both sides are golden brown, then repeat with the rest of the batter.
For the Cream
You can dress your pancakes with whatever you prefer. Most days I just stick to maple syrup, but sometimes, when I’m feeling decadent I add whipped cream and plenty of fresh fruit.
In a medium bowl add your cream, (straight from the fridge) maple syrup, and vanilla. You can use a hand-mixer or even a standing mixer for this but such a small quantity of cream can be whipped by hand quite easily. Whip until the cream holds soft-peaks than dollop at your discretion.