The pancake—the notion of the pancake as a breakfast food—comes to us from an older time, a slower time, a time before boxed cereal. A time when your breakfast choices included grinding wheat into flour, mixing it with liquid, and cooking it, or else just chewing on some un-ground wheat like an asshole. Nobody complained about the work that went into making a pancake back then—even though it's a lotta fuggin' work, especially for breakfast—both because their concept of "convenience" began and ended at the luxury of not getting the typhus this week, and also because they hadn't invented language yet.
Eventually, though, flour begat the loaf of bread, and the cool thing about the loaf of bread is that it's a multi-tasker: You can make sandwiches with it while it's fresh, but you can also make French toast with it when it gets stale, and French toast pretty well covers all your sweet-bready-breakfast needs, and now you can sorta see why nobody really makes homemade pancakes anymore.
Which is mostly OK! We have lots of perfectly pleasant pancake joints in the world, any of them happy to serve you a horrifying whipped-cream-bedecked chocolate-chip-studded pancake nightmare, its awful banana-slice-eyed face grinning desperately up at you—kill me, kill me please, I am a horror—through its thick patina of vaguely fruit-flavored corn syrup, like a clown drowning in his own blood, a warning to the other clowns, Mister Chuckles sleeps with the clownfish, if that's what you want for breakfast. Also we have many varieties of dry, boxed pancake mix. Those are OK too, I guess.
But it's good to make your own pancakes, at least once. Your own pancakes will be more interesting than the stuff you get out of a box, and less kaleidoscopically terrifying than the offerings at the pancake joint. You'll know what's in your own pancakes. You'll have control over how they taste. You'll swell with the pride of having made them from scratch. And the work and mess and time involved will dissuade you from eating pancakes very often, which, hey, your doctor will like this very much.
Also, they'll taste great! Let's try it and see. Ready? OK.
To begin, preheat your oven to its lowest setting. This is probably 200 degrees or so. You're going to use the oven later, just to keep the cooked pancakes warm as you finish making more of them.
Now, assemble your pancake-batter ingredients. For this you'll need a very large bowl; into that bowl, chuck two cups of regular all-purpose flour, a couple tablespoons of sugar, a big hearty pinch of salt, two beaten eggs, a hunk of unsalted butter that you melted in the microwave, and a splash of vanilla extract. Also, crucially: three cups of some milk product or another, and some quantity of powdery leavening agent to be determined by your choice of milk product. About that.
So, here's the thing. You probably like "buttermilk pancakes." If you are anything like most people, you hear or read the words "buttermilk pancakes," and you go, Mmm, buttermilk pancakes, oh man, I like those. But also, if you are anything like most people, you have never actually made "buttermilk pancakes"—if you are anything like most people, the closest you have come to making "buttermilk pancakes" was when you mixed "buttermilk pancakes"-flavored packaged dry pancake mix with some water or milk in a bowl, and then made pancakes with it, and then ate them, and went, Mmm, oh man, these "buttermilk pancakes" are good.
Truth be told, if you are anything like most people, you have no idea what buttermilk actually is, and secretly wonder if it's just a word for milk with melted butter mixed into it, but are afraid to ask anybody. It's OK. Everybody wonders that.
Buttermilk, it turns out... OK, the term "buttermilk" can mean lots of things. But, when you're buying a carton of the stuff labeled "buttermilk" at the average supermarket, what you're getting is pasteurized, homogenized milk (that is to say, regular milk) that has been cultured with bacteria to produce a higher concentration of lactic acid than that found in regular milk. This higher acidity gives buttermilk a characteristic sour taste that is nothing whatsoever like butter, which is sooooo disappointing the first time you drink buttermilk. Because the truth is, by itself, buttermilk doesn't taste all that good. Actually, it tastes pretty grody.
But! It makes some yummy pancakes, when mixed with the right proportions of other things. The mild sourness gets along wonderfully with salty butter and sweet syrup; your mouth appreciates all of this complexity and harmony and shit. So maybe you will want to use some buttermilk in your pancakes, or maybe you will prefer to use the regular-ass milk you always have in the fridge. This choice will determine what kind of leavening agent (ugh, I know) you use. Explaining this will necessitate a minor science lesson.
So, baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. When it combines with acid and liquid, it produces carbon dioxide bubbles; when these are heated (on a griddle, in some pancakes, for example), they expand, creating pockets of air in the food that contains them; you know these pockets of air as Oh wow, these pancakes are so fluffy and delicious, I would like some more of them. Baking soda is a base, and tastes bitter unless neutralized by an acid; buttermilk is very acidic, as we've established. So if you use buttermilk in your pancakes, a little bit of baking soda (say, maybe one teaspoon per cup of flour, so two teaspoons for the proportions above) will mix with that acid and produce light and fluffy pancakes, and the baking soda and the buttermilk will neutralize each other a little bit, resulting in pancakes that taste like neither oven cleaner nor a different kind of oven cleaner.
Now, baking powder, by comparison, is (usually) one part sodium bicarbonate plus, oh, two parts other stuff. That other stuff includes an acidifying agent, so that you don't need to combine baking powder with an acid to produce carbon dioxide; you just get it wet and it gets to work. Also, because baking powder contains both the basic sodium bicarbonate and the acidic, uh, acidifying agent, it has a more neutral flavor than baking soda, so you don't need to combine it with an acid to neutralize it. The drawback is, a teaspoon of baking powder contains less sodium bicarbonate than a teaspoon of baking soda, so you typically need to use more of it to produce the same leavening effect. So, if you're nervous about the not-good taste of buttermilk (more like buttmilk, amirite?), and you want to use regular milk instead, how's about you use, oh, maybe three teaspoons of baking powder.
The point, here, is don't use baking powder with buttermilk, or you will wind up with sour, dense pancakes—and don't use baking soda with regular milk, or you will wind up with bitter, dense pancakes. OK? Let's move on.
So. All of this stuff, into a bowl. Flour, milk substance, leavening agent, egg, sugar, butter, salt, vanilla. Now, mix your pancake-batter ingredients. You can do this with a hand mixer or a standing mixer or whatever—hell, you can even use the blender, if you really have no time for this nonsense—or, because you do not and will never own a hand mixer or standing mixer and because your blender is and will always be encrusted with a thick concretion of petrified milkshake from 1998, and anyway they cut the electricity off weeks ago, you can use a whisk and a little elbow grease. Beat the shit out of your batter; you don't need to aim for perfect, flawless consistency, but you do want all the ingredients mixed together into one discrete substance: Pancake batter.
(A note, here. You can, at this point, slap a cover on your bowl of pancake batter and sock it in the fridge for up to three days. This is convenient if we are honest with ourselves about the reality that you will never, ever, not ever, never never never rise and caffeinate and organize your faculties early enough to both make pancake batter and transmute that pancake batter into actual pancakes before lunchtime in a single day. The thing to know, though, is that your pancake batter will thicken as it sits in the fridge, and you will need to stir some more of your chosen milk substance into it whenever you do get around to making pancakes with it.)
Now you've got your pancake batter all mixed and ready to go. Set it aside for a second, whip out a small saucepot, and make some syrup in it. That's right, dammit! You're already going to the trouble of making pancakes from scratch; it'd be awfully dumb to then smother those homemade pancakes in sadder-than-hell maple-flavored corn syrup. Make syrup. Yes. Do it.
Now, this does not entail chopping down a maple tree, so please do put away the ax, no seriously you are freaking out the bus driver. Chuck a big double-fistful of your berries of choice into that little pot, along with a single fistful of sugar, however much juice you can squeeze out of an orange, and however much juice you can squeeze out of half of a lemon. Blackberries are splendid for this (the color will be amazing). Strawberries and/or raspberries will be lovely, too; if you use strawberries, remember to cut the stem and leafy crap off the top, and go ahead and slice the berries into quarters to make them cook more quickly. Blueberries, eh, they're OK. I mean I am rolling my eyes at blueberries, but suit yourself. Blueberries. Pfft.
Bring this stuff up to a low simmer, lower the heat so it stays there, and mostly leave it alone for 15 minutes or so, maybe giving it a desultory stir every few minutes to make sure it doesn't feel ignored. As this stuff cooks, the berries will soften and dissolve somewhat; the liquid will reduce and thicken; the sugar will dissolve; after those 15 minutes, you will have a modestly lumpy, sweet, syrupy concoction that will go very nicely over some kind of bready breakfasty object. You can pour this stuff through a strainer or a cheesecloth to get rid of the lumps and seeds, if you like; you can stir in a pinch of cornstarch to make it really sticky and syrupy. Do what you like. In any case, take it off the heat when it's done. But, while it's cooking, let's get back to the pancakes.
Heat up a wide, preferably nonstick skillet or griddle pan over medium heat; when it's hot but not crazily so (when a drop of water on its surface scatters into droplets that disassociate and flee to the edges like the miserable goddamn cowards we all know water-droplets to be), lubricate the cooking surface with some sturdy oil. If the best you can do here is to just pour in a tablespoon of vegetable oil, that's fine; rubbing the surface of the pan with a stick of cold butter is better; the best thing to do, if you can, is to brush the surface of the pan with some vegetable or canola oil. The idea is to get a very thin layer of oil on there, so that your pancakes won't be greasy—but, don't sweat this too much. Just get some oil on there.
Now: Cook a pancake, dammit! Into the center of the pan, pour (or ladle), oh, what, maybe a half-cup of your batter; this will make a pancake roughly six inches in diameter, like what you think of when you think of a classic pancake. If you want a different size of pancake, of course, use a different quantity of batter: a quarter-cup of batter will produce a three-inch pancake; three quarters of a cup of batter will produce a nine-inch monstrosity; a gallon of batter will produce a dangerous fire on your stovetop.
Give the pancake, oh, a minute or so to cook on one side; when you see big bubbles breaking on the top of the pancake, it's probably OK to flip the pancake. About that. On TV they flip pancakes with a nifty little wrist-flip, and this is fun if you're using a skillet or some other pan with sloped sides: You lift the pan, tilt it down so the pancake slides toward the far end of the pan, then do kind of a quick scooping motion with your wrist to propel the pancake up, turn it over in midair, and launch it directly into your own face.
But use a spatula, willya? This isn't Cocktail.
Examine the cooked side of your pancake, once you've got it flipped. Is it golden-brown and lovely? Is it maybe a little too oily, indicating that the heat was too low when it went into the pan? Is it blackened and pitted and nightmarish, indicating that you burned the hell out of it? Is it your hand? Adjust the heat accordingly. The first pancake is almost never the best one; it takes a couple of reps for you to figure out exactly how your pan makes a pancake. It'll still taste good! Unless it is your hand.
Give the other side another minute or so, then get your pancake out of the pan and onto a large plate. Stick the plate in the oven, to keep that pancake warm. Make whatever changes you need to make on the stovetop—to the heat, or to the quantity of oil you use, or maybe you should call a fire truck—and make another pancake. This one will probably look better. That's good, because it's going on top of that ugly one. Stick the newer pancake in the oven with the first one... and repeat.
Eventually you'll have cooked your way through all that batter and will have some number of pancakes staying warm in the oven. Divide the pancakes onto plates, in whatever stack-size you like; top each stack with a pat of butter; scoop some of your sexy, sexy syrup over top of that; and eat this glorious food, now, before the asteroid comes.
Serve your pancakes with orange juice, maybe some fresh fruit, and yes, dammit, bacon (if your diet permits it). Hack off a big pie-slice hunk of pancakes, dredge it through some of that syrup, and fire it down. It's sweet and buttery and salty and, if you used buttermilk anyway, just slightly sour, but familiarly so, like a voice you heard on the phone once before and are now hearing in person: Ohhhh, buttermilk pancakes, I know you, we talked on the phone that one time, so nice to finally meet. Wash that big sticky mouthful of rich, sweet food with a huge gulp of orange juice. Smack your lips and make a grotesque, immodest aaaahhhhhhh sound. This isn't a breakfast for every day—all that work! all that science!—but for today anyway, holy shit, it's really damn good. Good, and not frightening at all.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at email@example.com. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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