American Indian tribes were enjoying a form of fried cakes long before English and other Western European settlers brought their affection for the pancake with them to the New World. The colonists took particular pleasure in pancakes on the day before the start of Lent, an exercise in clearing their pantries of eggs, butter, sugar and other luxuries, all in the name of Lenten sacrifice.
"Eating such a rich, buttered cake on this day was the last gasp of gourmandism before 40 days of self-denial," writes John Mariani in "The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink."
Flat, griddled cakes went by a flurry of names over the centuries: "No cake" was the early translation of nokchick, a native Narragansett word for a soft-battered cake.
Other monikers included "batter cakes," "flannel cakes," "hoe cakes," "slapjacks," "Johnnycakes" and "flapjacks," and it wasn't until the 1840s that the word "pancake" became the generally accepted term.
Naturally, American entrepreneurship jumped on the pancake bandwagon. "Self-Rising Pancake Flour," the nation's first ready-mix pancake product, debuted in 1889 in Missouri. It was later renamed "Aunt Jemima," borrowing the title of a minstrel show song.
The country's first pancake restaurant chain, the International House of Pancakes, or IHOP, opened in suburban Los Angeles in 1958; the company now has more than 1,400 outlets.
But why go out when preparing delicious pancakes is so easy, and so satisfying?
One of my happiest childhood memories is watching my father make pancakes.
I'm fairly certain that he relied upon Bisquick or some other convenience mix (like most men of his generation, he wasn't much of a cook, outside of Saturday morning pancakes and steaks on the grill), and it was the only instance that I can recall seeing our heavy, rectangular cast-iron griddle -- so big that it straddled two burners -- being put to use.
With my siblings and I seated at the table -- and Mom, too, taking a rare break from kitchen duty -- we'd watch Dad at the stove, easing batter onto that hot, spattering cooktop, and deftly wielding a spatula as he stacked thin, golden pancakes on a platter. They would disappear as quickly as he could make them.
During the intervening decades, I found myself following Dad's pancake example (OK, minus the prepackaged mix), at least in the batter department, where the operative words were thin, semi-lumpy and pourable.
That is until two years ago, when I encountered "The New Comfort Food" and a different kind of pancake recipe.
Adapted from a classic New Hampshire diner, this time-tested formula has a crazy amount of leavening, which quickly turns the batter into a doughy, sticky, air bubble-filled mass.
Pourable, it's not, but this batter yields a high-rising, incredibly tender pancake.
Handling this batter requires some finesse. I quickly discovered that a heaping and semi-messy scoop of batter didn't spread as it hit the center of the pan, and who wants a too-small, too-tall pancake?
Not me. Using a narrow, flat-blade spatula, I nudged the batter outward -- from its highest point in the center to the pancake's outer edge -- creating a larger, and slightly slimmer pancake. Perfect.
Another difference: The vast majority of pancake recipes that I've encountered call for greasing the griddle or pan with cooking oil. That comes as no surprise; vegetable and canola oils have a higher smoke point than butter, and pancakes require a hot pan.
But this recipe requires butter, and plenty of it; let's face it, there's no such thing as a low-calorie pancake. However, using butter is tricky. A too-hot pan or griddle will burn the butter, and a not-hot-enough-cooking surface will make for a lousy pancake.
That's why monitoring the heat level is essential. I've found that ever-so-slightly reducing the heat after each batch seems to work, although, in the end, so what if the butter turns a little brown? The trade-off is beautifully browned pancakes with a delicately crisp, almost lacy exterior.
Dad would have loved them.
8 tips for perfect pancakes
Give it a rest. After mixing batter, loosely cover and let it sit on the counter for about five minutes before cooking.
Keep it hot. A well-made pancake requires a hot but not scorching pan. Here's a reliable test: Drop roughly 1 tablespoon batter into the pan. After a minute, if the cooked side is pale and beige, the pan isn't hot enough, and if it's golden brown, the temperature is correct. For electric griddle users, set the temperature in the 350- to 375-degree range.
Flipping out. It's time to turn pancakes when the face-up surface is a sea of small, un-popped bubbles.
Key ingredient. Buttermilk is the path to pancake enlightenment. It's not exactly a staple in most American refrigerators, so substitute by using this ratio: add 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice for every 2 cups milk.
Worth the fuss. For a truly tender pancake, separate eggs (adding yolks according to instructions), whip whites into stiff peaks and, using a rubber spatula, carefully fold whites into the batter just before cooking.
Fresh and frozen. Rather than folding blueberries into the batter, sprinkle them over pancakes as they begin to set on the griddle. Use fresh berries when they're in season, and frozen during the rest of the year. For frozen berries: Thaw, place in a mesh strainer, rinse under cool water until water runs clear, then transfer berries to a paper towel-lined plate to dry. Accentuate the berry's flavor by gently tossing 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest into each cup of blueberries.
Serve immediately. Pancakes are best enjoyed straight off the stove. If making a large batch, store in a 200-degree oven. For single layers, use a wire rack on top of a baking sheet, and for multiple layers, place between folds of a kitchen towel set on a baking sheet.
Finishing touch. Toppings, including butter and maple syrup, are best served at room temperature.
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
12 tablespoon (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, divided, plus more
2 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Maple syrup, for serving
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Melt 4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter. In a medium bowl, whisk together melted butter, buttermilk, vanilla extract and eggs. Whisk buttermilk mixture into flour mixture, mixing as little as possible to make a thick (and lumpy) batter. Do not overmix; too much stirring will result in tough pancakes.
Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon butter and heat until butter's foam subsides.
Ladle in about ½ cup of batter and cook, turning once, until pancake is deep golden brown on both sides, about 4 to 5 minutes total. Repeat process with additional butter and remaining batter. Serve hot, topped with butter and maple syrup.
Makes 8 pancakes. Per pancake: calories: 325; fat: g; sodium: 776 mg; carbohydrates: 31 g; saturated fat: 12 g; calcium: 223 mg; protein: 7 g; cholesterol: 95 mg; dietary fiber: 1 g.
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