The better bit of batter
Yesterday marked the beginning of Lent, the 40 day countdown to the festival of chocolate and God bringing himself back to life known as Easter. For much of the world this pre-Lent Tuesday is known as Mardi Gras or Carnival, a chance for wild parties and uninhibited gluttonous celebration before the traditional fasting period that follows (although to enjoy Carnival, you don’t even need to bother with the fasting bit). For us here in Britain it is the more cosily small-scale event known as Pancake Day.
While other countries may spend the day partying, for us Shrove Tuesday tends to be a completely ordinary working day that just happens to conclude with a meal in which flat pieces of batter are tossed around with variable degrees of success. As this Tuesday proved a rare occasion on which both Professor Plum and me had a shared day off I decided to make different kinds of pancakes for every meal in order to see which was the best.
Breakfast – American style blueberry pancakes with syrup
In America pancakes are almost exclusively a breakfast food, something that highlights the way in which American breakfast tastes seem to be more focused on the sweet flavours than in other countries. American pancakes are also made differently to the sort we are more familiar with in Europe. They are something much more akin to drop scones, a smaller, thicker, fluffier mix than the sort of batter a European pancake might use.
So, I made a thick batter, heavier on the flour than the milk and eggs, and added baking powder as a raising agent to get that fluffiness our pancakes lack. On top of this I stirred in some blueberries. It was the first time I had made American style pancakes and, to be honest, I didn’t do an entirely brilliant job making a batter that was thick enough to make a stack of American style pancakes. As well as this, I’m still not completely sold on the whole sweet breakfast covered in syrup thing, but the blueberries tasted pretty good.
Lunch – Dutch pannenkoeken with bacon and apple
Probably few countries as as keen on their pancakes as the Dutch. Unlike in America where pancake consumption is purely breakfast focused, in Holland they are happy to eat pancakes throughout the day, at any time, for any meal.
Incidentally, “Dutch baby pancakes” (really more like Yorkshire puddings anyway) are really German, it’s a mistranslation of “Deutsch”, so that is not what I’m referring to here. Instead, when I say Dutch pancakes I am talking about pannenkoeken. Essentially these are similar to the sort of pancakes eaten anywhere in Europe, but with the kinds of fillings that are popular there. These range from fruits like apples and raisins, savoury ingredients like bacon, ham or cheese, to sugar or, in particular, syrup. Probably the most popular type of pancake in Holland comes topped with Dutch syrup, or stroop as they call it (which is a hilarious word to pronounce if you’ve been enjoying some of the other consumables that Amsterdam is known for).
We had already had syrup on our breakfast pancakes, so I decided to forego it for now, focusing instead on a lunchtime savoury pancake. Bacon and apple is a classic example of a pancake filling that is popular in Holland and combines the salty flavour of savoury bacon with sweet apple. Pork and apple has always been a well loved combination, so I felt that this would be a good lunchtime pancake option. The batter itself I was far more comfortable with than the American breakfast pancakes, being a simple mix of fairly equal parts eggs, milk and flour, so the pancake this time turned out more of an appropriate consistency. To top it, I fried pieces of bacon and then added apple slices to cook in the bacon fat remaining in the pan before layering these over the pancakes.
This was a better pancake than breakfast, but I don’t know whether the balance of flavours between sweet and savoury was quite right.
Dinner – Chinese pancakes with stir fried duck in hoisin sauce
Thus far my pancake thinking had been focused on batter based pancakes in the European style, even the American pancakes are just a spin-off of this. But for the main meal of the day I wanted to make use of a different pancake tradition: Asian pancakes. Much like the Mexican flour tortillas I made last year, only without a raising agent, simple Chinese pancakes can be made from a flour and water dough, rolled into flat discs and dry fried on either side. So this is just what I did.
I decided that duck pancakes would be the best kind of filling appropriately to represent this different variety of pancake, so I made a five spice mix by grinding cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise and szechuan pepper corns and used it to cover some slices of duck breast. This I then stir fried before coating it in some hoisin sauce that I made from black bean paste, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil, before serving with matchsticks of cucumber and spring onion.
After the fatty pancakes of the rest of the day, these duck pancakes were a welcome change of pace, with the star anise and szechuan peppers providing a different kind of flavour to the very European tastes of the other pancakes. However, making simple flour pancakes was fine for the Mexican tortillas, which are more of a flatbread and so can have a little thickness, but does not work quite so well for Chinese pancakes, which should ideally be paper thin. While these pancakes were nice, it was too tricky to role them out to a thin enough size. Nevertheless, the duck pancakes were the best of the day so far, with just one kind to go: dessert.
Dessert – French Crêpes Suzette
Finally, then, we were on to dessert and arguably the variety of pancake that everyone else in the country would have been enjoying for their Pancake Day treats: French style crêpes. For these I used a similar batter to the Dutch pannenkoeken earlier on, a broadly equal mix of eggs, milk and flour, although I added a little orange zest to the mix as I was going to make that traditional French favourite Crêpes Suzette. This requires a number of very thin, flat pancakes, so I began by making a large heap of these. Having been making pancakes all day I was now a dab hand at judging the amounts and timings to use. Having been quite timid about pancake tossing earlier in the day, I was now finding it really the easiest way to turn the many pancakes I was churning out, simply flipping them in the air and then returning to preparing the ingredients for my Crêpes Suzette sauce.
To make the sauce, you need to mix caramelised butter and sugar with zest and juice of orange. Finding this classic Delia recipe, I chose to mix orange zest and juice with lemon. The ready made crêpes can then be soaked in this and folded up. The final element that makes Crêpes Suzette more of a grown up treat than your average kids’ Pancake Day is the booze.
An orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau added to the sauce is the real making of the dish. The best thing with it, though, is that it gives you the opportunity to play with fire by flambéing the alcohol before adding it to the crêpes. Having enjoyed using my blowtorch on last week’s Sochi Baked Alaska, this was another opportunity to use a naked flame in the kitchen and one that I wasn’t going to pass up. So, I heated up some Cointreau in a frying pan and, using the blowtorch, set it alight before pouring the flaming alcohol over the crêpes. Visually the flaming liqueur looked pretty cool, but inevitably didn’t burn off all the alcohol, leaving the finished pancakes with a fairly boozy flavour.
At the end of the day, though, the pancakes got better as the day went on and these crêpes were the best of the bunch. Next Pancake Day we might have to see how the French pancakes shape up against Eastern European palacinky, Russian blini, Colombian corn cachapas, or Indian dosa.
Three continents of pancakes! I was very impressed 🙂
The American pancakes didn’t quite work – not thick enough – but the blueberry and maple syrup combo was delicious. The lunch time pancakes were definitely reminiscent of the pancakes I had when I was in Holland. Slightly soggy, but with lots of tasty things. The Chinese pancakes were a bit thick, but probably the most successful of the day. I haven’t had duck pancakes in ages, and this has clearly been a massive oversight. Very tasty.