Saturday, January 26, 2008

On second thought, maybe pancakes are pretty remarkable

There was a time when I thought pancakes were pretty unremarkable. They were the first "dish" we learned to cook in 7th grade home ec. They are a breakfast standby, a weekend kitchen classic, a simple thing to do with flour and eggs and sugar and buttermilk. Or, an even simpler thing to do with a box of Bisquick or one of those new shake-and-pour pancake mix thingies.

But you know I would never go for a ready-made box of anything.

I prefer to elevate the everyday pancake to the sublime by (1) using a great from-scratch recipe and (2) infusing each morning that I make pancakes with happy and joyful memories. Which is to say, one of my favorite things to do these days is invite my little nephews over on a Saturday morning for some of genius David Rosengarten's pancakes.

My older nephew is about to turn 6, the younger will be 3 next month. They are super-cute and I think they enjoy spending time at their Aunt Di's house, even if they are a little intimidated by the 95-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever who also lives there. We have a great time when they come to visit. They play with their Lincoln Logs, and give treats to the dog, and ask me if I have any candy and/or milk and/or cranberry juice, and color or paint and eat pancakes. We all eat pancakes.

Saturday morning is full of bright, sunny promise -- even if it is cold and dreary outside. The weekend opens up in front of you with all the potential in the world, even as you laze about your cozy kitchen in a robe, gripping a mug of hot coffee. You are just about as far from the work week as you can get, and your mind (well, mine, at least) reels with all the exciting projects to be done, or places to be visited, or rest to be enjoyed. Add homemade pancakes to this mix, and delightful children eager to help measure the flour, and you have yourself a marvelous template for happy weekends and treasured memories -- the kind of memories that are forged in the beauty and simplicity of everyday life.

I like this pancake recipe because it looks and tastes and smells like a laid-back Saturday morning. I love this pancake recipe because it comes from David Rosengarten, the King Midas of culinary endeavors. He has been my Own Personal Cooking Hero since I began watching his excellent show, "Taste," on the Food Network back in the late '90s. (Why the Food Network does not release this show on DVD is beyond me. Come on, Food Network! There is a powerful legion of Rosengarten fans who would give their eye teeth -- and their dollars -- to see those episodes again. Please. Please!!) I was lucky enough to meet David several times, and was part of a very small audience that got to participate in a cooking class with him at our local independent kitchenware store and cooking school. His vast knowledge of dishes, ingredients, techniques, world history and literature is topped only by his extensive travels and compelling storytelling that brings his journeys home to you, the viewer or reader. He's the original Alton Brown -- half epicurean genius, half theater major, all teacher and unadulterated food enthusiast. And as much as I love Alton and daily thank the cable powers that be for his show's inclusion in the Food Network line-up, he and "Good Eats" walk in a long shadow cast by Mr. Rosengarten.

A few years ago, David published a book called It's All American Food, a collection of varying dishes that make up the genuine American food experience. In the introduction he writes that "...the real subject of this book is not the usual cookbook fare, nor is it the idealized fantasy food of a photostylist's imagination. Rather, it is the vital, almost invisible American food that is eaten every day from the bayous to Boston, from east Texas to the shore of Lake Michigan....Most important, this book focuses on what Americans really like to eat -- which isn't often celebrated." Its recipes range from the exotic (sumac onions and saag paneer) to the expected (tuna melt with avocado and, well, apple pie).

These pancakes are just one of the many recipes from this book that have earned an elevated status in my cooking repertoire. They are very cake-y and, if you're not afraid of butter -- and I maintain that you shouldn't be, because it's not like you're making these every day or even every week -- they are mouth-wateringly crisp and sweet. They are almost fried, but not greasy, and have a nice, soft crumb. I didn't know it was possible to have such texture variation within the mere half-inch height of an individual pancake.

When my nephews are here with me, as they invariably are when I make pancakes, they are great kitchen helpers. Most exciting of all: since my stove has a griddle, they delight in watching the pancakes sizzle away on several square feet of cooking surface. Sometimes my dad stops by, and when he asks what they're doing, the boys always respond, "Grandpa, we're making pancakes!" There was a time when my older nephew nicknamed me "Pancake Di." And just a few moments ago, that same nephew asked me, "You know who makes the best pancakes?" I answered, "Is it me?" He said, "Yeah, because all of the food that we eat here is very good." Words that warm my heart as sure as these pancakes warm my belly.


Adapted from It's All American Food, by David Rosengarten

2 1/2 c. cake flour

2 heaping t. baking powder

2 t. baking soda

Big pinch of kosher salt

2 large eggs, beaten

2 1/2 c. buttermilk

1/2 c. sugar

1/4 t. vanilla extract

1/2 c. melted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the griddle

Melt the butter in the microwave; set aside.

Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Whisk together the flour mixture, beaten eggs, buttermilk, sugar, vanilla and melted butter until they are very smooth. Let the batter sit for 5 minutes; it will start to bubble and "rise" right in the bowl.

Heat a large non-stick frying pan or griddle over medium-low heat (or heat an electric griddle to 375 degrees). Just before cooking the pancakes, add a liberal 2 T. of butter -- or more if that's what it takes to coat the pan -- and distribute across the cooking surface with a silicone pastry brush or a turn of the wrist, if you're using a frying pan. Don't be moderate with the butter; it's what gives these pancakes their amazing crunch and nutty bite.

Using a 1/2 c. measure, scoop up batter and pour it into the hot pan/griddle, letting it spread by itself into a circle. Repeat with the remaining batter. Work in batches if necessary -- and I always find it necessary for ease of flipping. If you do work in batches, be sure to add more butter to the pan before adding more batter.

Flip the pancakes when their edges begin to set and you see many small holes on the surface of the pancakes, which should take about 2-3 minutes. Make sure you give them adequate time to cook on the first side before attempting the flip. This is the best way to guarantee an easy flip and a non-messy pancake. I find a wide, flexible spatula works very well for flipping. Cook the pancakes on the other side for 2 more minutes, or until they are golden, brown and delicious. Don't become disgruntled if the first pancake doesn't "take." Sometimes the griddle just needs to find its groove. Like Stella.

Serve immediately with butter and maple syrup. Lately, I've been serving them with maple butter, which is a decadent and rich addition to the whole scenario that I highly recommend. Alternatively, you can keep the cooked pancakes warm by covering them with a damp cloth and placing them in a low oven (about 250 degrees). However, I find that they get eaten long before the oven even comes up to temperature.

Makes about 12 pancakes. This recipe divides in half quite easily, if you're just making pancakes for yourself and one nephew. The batter also freezes well, and trust me, it is tremendously exciting to wake up on a random Saturday morning and realize that there is homemade pancake batter in the freezer. You will think you are dreaming but, no, you are awake.

1 comment:

John said...

I've always used the Joy of Cooking recipe, but those are some fantastic looking pancakes. I'll have to dig out David's book and take a look.

(I'd also love to see Taste on DVD, but it appears TV Food network would rather keep it locked in their vaults until it's so dated that no one is left who remembers David's wonderful show)