Of pancakes and elbow grease

One Sunday morning last winter I made pancakes, and then I made them again the next Sunday, and my daughter decided that twice was a tradition. Even the dogs started expecting pancakes. I go out to get the paper, I come back, they’re circling the stove. Ever since I have made pancakes nearly every Sunday morning, a lot of pancakes. Making a lot of something — making it often — is of course the best way to learn to do it well, especially when it comes to baking, which is harder to learn than cooking simply because it’s a black box; there’s no adjustment on the fly, no correcting the seasoning. And I would say that I’ve learned to make mighty good pancakes, but not because I figured out how to tweak the recipe (though I did) or discovered exactly the right turn of the stove’s knob (though I did that too). What I learned was that there aren’t any shortcuts: you have to work. And nobody, but nobody, tells you that in cookbooks anymore.

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Mark Mothersbaugh is ready to bake some pancakes.

I started out making the pancakes from The King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook, because I’ve never had any recipe from that book turn out bad. Many have needed some tweaking, but none has ever failed. This recipe had, specifically, too much baking powder — a full tablespoon for only two cups of flour. A lot of recipes call for too much baking powder. There’s only so much baking powder that can react out of batter in the time it takes to bake a pancake or a muffin, and what’s left can give an off, metallic taste. I replaced a teaspoon of it with half a teaspoon of baking soda and used buttermilk instead of milk, and that helped, but not enough. I tossed out another teaspoon of baking powder and the result was as light as before, but cleaner tasting.

Then I ran across Eliza Leslie’s instructions for beating eggs:

Persons who do not know the right way, complain much of the fatigue of beating eggs, and therefore leave off too soon. There will be no fatigue, if they are beaten with the proper stroke, and with wooden rods, and in a shallow, flat-bottomed earthen pan. The coldness of a tin pan retards the lightness of the eggs. For the same reason do not use a metal egg-beater. In beating them do not move your elbow, but keep it close to your side. Move only your hand at the wrist, and let the stroke be quick, short, and horizontal; putting the egg-beater always down to the bottom of the pan, which should therefore be shallow. Do not leave off as soon as you have got the eggs into a foam; they are then only beginning to be light. But persist till after the foaming has ceased, and the bubbles have all disappeared. Continue till the surface is smooth as a mirror, and the beaten egg as thick as a rich boiled custard; for till then it will not be really light. It is seldom necessary to beat the whites and yolks separately, if they are afterwards to be put together. The article will be quite as light, when cooked, if the whites and yolks are beaten together, and there will then be no danger of their going in streaks when baked. The justly-celebrated Mrs. Goodfellow, of Philadelphia, always taught her pupils to beat the whites and yolks together, even for sponge-cake; and lighter than hers no sponge-cake could possibly be. Eliza Leslie, New Receipts for Cooking (T.B. Peterson, 1854), pp. 193–194.

Nothing will make you feel as much a lazy bastard as reading nineteenth-century descriptions of work. Although, predictably, elders of Leslie’s era thought that kids those days were already a bunch of lazy bastards. Clarissa Packard recalled her own domestic education in the last quarter of the eighteenth century: “When pudding or cake was to be made, [I] rolled up my sleeves and went to beating eggs, with strokes I should half like to see given to lazy modern girls, lolling over new-fangled cookery-books.” Clarissa Packard, Recollections of a Housekeeper (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1834), p. 11. In Packard’s day she hadn’t had wooden rods for beating eggs, either; they used the palms of their hands.

Today, though, just try to find the recipe that calls for actually beating whole eggs. Occasionally I see “lightly beaten,” and there are still cakes that call for separating eggs and beating the whites separately, but no one dares suggest that you beat eggs for something as mundane as pancakes — let alone beat them as thoroughly as Eliza Leslie demanded.

One Sunday morning, while I waited for butter to melt as the skillet heated up, I beat the two eggs that went into the pancakes. Not just enough to mix them up with the buttermilk, but beat them until they frothed and turned buttery yellow and light, about double their original volume. (I admit I didn’t push through the froth to a mirror surface.) With my really good wire whip this took about two minutes of solid beating. Then I whisked in the buttermilk and the melted butter, folded the mixture into the dry ingredients carefully so as not to deflate it, and continued on.

And they were, without question, the lightest pancakes I’d ever made. Probably the lightest I’ve ever eaten.

So if you were ever wondering what might be the secret to great pancakes, the answer is: get off your ass, because your great-grandmother is snickering at you from beyond. I expect a lot of other questions have similar answers.

Above, from left to right: (1) Eggs. Presumably you knew that, or you wouldn’t have read this far. (2) Whisked just to combine. No streaks of yolk or white, but we haven’t beaten any air in yet. (3) Lightly beaten, after about 30 seconds. We’ve beaten a little air in, and they’re noticeably lighter in color. (4) After about 2 minutes, the eggs are buttery yellow and more than doubled in volume. They are not thoroughly beaten as Eliza Leslie demanded for cakes — no mirror surface — but for breakfast, we’ll live with it. We are go for pancakes.

I’m providing a recipe only because I think you ought to go and make pancakes as soon as possible, and quit eating plastic toaster strudels and those weird crumbly crunchy things from the box.

Recipe: Off-your-ass pancakes

Note that there is no sugar in these pancakes. There wouldn’t have been in 1850. You don’t need sugar in your pancakes; you’re going to pour sugar all over them. Also, I make mine with half whole wheat flour, less from health concerns than because white flour doesn’t have any flavor.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • canola or peanut oil for frying

Procedure

  1. Heat the oven to 200°F to keep the pancakes warm, unless the jackals you live with are wont to snatch them off the flipper between griddle and plate.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Break the eggs into a second bowl.
  3. Set a large, heavy skillet or (if you have one) a griddle over medium to medium-high heat. (You may have to experiment a bit with the heat. You want it high enough to puff the pancakes quickly but not so high that they burn before they cook through. On my gas stove, that’s about this much above medium.) Place the butter in the cold pan.
  4. While the butter melts, start beating the eggs with a wire whip. (For crying out loud don’t get out the electric mixer for this.) Don’t stop until the butter is melted; that’s your timer. They should become, as I said above, frothy, light, and buttery yellow, and should at least double in volume. When the butter has melted, whisk in the buttermilk, then the butter. Fold this mixture into the dry ingredients. The batter will be fairly thick if you’ve used good whole-milk buttermilk, somewhat runnier if your buttermilk is thin.
  5. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel (the butter will tend to burn) and return it to the heat. When it’s hot — a few droplets of water should skitter across the surface rather than evaporating instantly — swirl a couple of teaspoons of oil around the pan and ladle in the batter. The ladle I use has about a half-cup volume, and I use the time-honored swoop-and-glop method, which fills it fairly round but leaves some in the ladle, so if you are the sort of person who needs exact measurements, let’s say half a cup of batter per pancake. But you’ll want to experiment: too big and you’ll make a mess trying to flip them, and thinner batter will spread more and rise less. When the edges of the pancakes start to dry and you see bubbles in the middle, it’s time to flip them; they take about half as long on the other side.
  6. Serve with anything but artificially flavored corn syrup. I can’t afford real maple syrup much anymore, but maybe you can manage it. I made a failed, too-runny batch of marmalade last winter that is fantastic pancake syrup. Jam works. Honey is good. My daughter usually prefers molasses, the “full-flavored” Brer Rabbit brand, because we are living in the nineteenth century.
  7. If you screw them up, they’ll still probably be pretty good. Just don’t be lazy about it, or your great-grandmother will think you’re a pansy.

4 thoughts on “Of pancakes and elbow grease”

  1. Once, a woman responded to the fact that I canned something (peaches, maybe) by saying “Oh, I’m not one of those hard labor women.” But despite the fact that I’m apparently gulag-and-hard-labor ready, I’d still break out my immersion blender whisk attachment for this. Because breakfast is too early for me to break a sweat…(unless it’s from stirring grits, which is a whole ‘nother subject). I’m hiding this recipe from pancake-loving members of my household lest they get all requisitionary early in the morning.

  2. Who says pancakes have to be for breakfast? But I always found the whisk attachment to my immersion blender to be a piece of junk, honestly. Maybe yours is newerfangled and better, but with mine I really think I’d be standing there twice as long, and I don’t have the attention span for four minutes’ standing around waiting for some machine. I can knead bread dough for twenty minutes, but I can’t stand there for four waiting for a machine to beat eggs for me. Way of the Walbert.

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