Flip Those Flapjacks! All About Pancakes

Pancakes, you say?

Of course you know what a pancake is: it’s a thin, flat, round cake made from a runny batter and cooked in a skillet or on a griddle.  We have a good basic recipe for good, basic pancakes right here.

What you might not know is that the pancake, in its many guises, is one of the most geographically widespread foods in all the world. And it’s one of the oldest, too – archaeological evidence indicates that pancakes were one of the earliest and most widespread cereal-based foods.

Regular “English” pancakes have three key ingredients: plain flour, eggs, and milk. The batter is viscous and spreads to form a thin layer on the bottom of the frying pan when the pan is tilted.

American pancakes are similar to their English cousins, but are a little fluffier and sometimes have a bit of baking powder or buttermilk in place of the plain milk. They also sometimes have funny names, like griddlecakes, flapjacks, or hotcakes. [The equally goofily-named johnnycake is like a pancake, but technically is a cornmeal flatbread and not a true pancake.]

But if you think all pancakes are alike, think again. Our familiar, everyday pancakes, served with butter and maple syrup, are related to, but totally different from, these European variations:

  • The crepe, native to France and Belgium, which is broader, thinner, and more lacy than a humble pancake. Is rolled up and filled with savory meat-veg-cheese combos, or with sweet ingredients for dessert. Crepes with bananas and Nutella are [one of] my [numerous] weaknesses.
  • The galette, from Normandy and Brittany in NW France, is a big thin pancake made from buckwheat flour. It is sometimes wrapped around a sausage and eaten like a “pig in a blanket.”
  • German pancakes are called Pfannkuchen (Pfanne = pan, and Kuchen = cake). It may be different in Germany, but my mother made Pfannkuchen by rolling them up with jam in the middle.
  • The Dutch sound-alike is called pannenkoeken; it is thicker than a crepe, and the diameter of a dinner plate. These are eaten at suppertime, traditionally filled with ham and molasses [or stroop].
  • Sweden has many varieties of pancake, from the thin pankakkor, to the diminutive plättar and the raggmunk potato pancake. There is even a fancy Swedish pancake made with saffron and rice. Elsewhere in Scandanavia, Norwegians eat their pancakes for dinner; people in Finland eat pancakes primarily for dessert. Icelandic pancakes, pönnukaka, are cooked on a special Icelandic pancake pan, which is supposed to never, ever be washed.
  • In Eastern Europe, in Hungary and in the former Yugoslavia, the pancake is called palačinka or palacsinta [both derived from the Latin placenta. Before you say, “ew,” know that word actually means…. cake]. Hungarians put sweet wine in the batter and fill the pancake with cinnamon, jam and nuts [yum].  Slovenian pancakes are filled with jam or Nutella [also yum].

And the list goes on and on, with even more pancake variations as we work our way east to Poland and the former Soviet republics [blintzes and blini], and down to Greece and Cyprus [tiganites].

And don’t get me started on Asian pancakes! [That’s a tasty tale for another day.]

In addition to being a quick year-round breakfast, dessert, or dinner, pancakes play a prominent part in pre-Lenten celebrations in Europe. Since medieval times, especially in Britain, pancakes were made to use up ingredients forbidden during the fasting and penitential season of Lent [the 40 days leading up to Easter].

On Shrovetide, or Shrove Tuesday [aka Mardi Gras], the day before Lent begins [on Ash Wednesday], observant congregations and families use up stores of eggs, milk and sugar, whipping up a big batch of pancakes.

In the UK, this Pancake Day business is a pretty big deal. The Grantham Journal [a real place, not just a made-up Downton Abbey name!] reports that just this week [Feb. 15, 2012], 890 people broke the world record for flipping pancakes simultaneously in the town of Sheffield. An official from the Guiness World Record organization confirms this flapjack feat.