Friday, 8 February 2013

Pancakes for the poor, Pancakes for the rich

Pancakes with sugar and lemon

I've never looked up a recipe for pancake batter before.  It's one of those things, once made, never forgotten.  Take four ingredients - flour, milk, egg, pinch of salt - mix briefly until you have a smooth batter, add a wrist-flick of melted butter and you have it.  With Shrove Tuesday almost upon us, I thought this year I might celebrate 'Pancake Day' a little differently.  I had no idea such a simple dish could have so many permutations and be fraught with so many class connotations.

Jane Grigson in her book English Food mentions some of these.  The 18th century recipe 'Harvest Pancakes for the Poor' is not too far from the one which resurfaces in my memory bank each February.  Using a minimal amount of egg in the mix, milk or mild ale (inter-changeable), and calling for lard to grease the pan all strike me as perfectly acceptable.  The addition of powdered ginger seems a little exotic but in the 1700's the English had a love affair with spices and a little pimping-up is understandable.  The resultant pancake needed to be heavy enough to act as an edible container for farm workers' meals as they had little time to stop when harvesting was under way.

Whilst there was clearly a practical aspect to the poor man's version of pancakes, Grigson felt the recipe 'Pancakes for the Rich' pointed up the different attitudes to food between the English and the French.  The working Frenchman, she felt, wouldn't see this version as "not for them" but would eat it on feast days rather than every day.  The English, she opined, "cling masochistically to the poor man's recipe", denying themselves the added delights of cream, butter and sherry.

Pancakes with England Preserves
Seville Orange Curd
Then, of course, there are Crêpes Suzette.  I'd personally be happy to see the 70's dining-out favourite resurrected from its unfair burial. This got me thinking. With half a jar of England Preserves Seville Orange Curd needing a suitable use, I tried it on a batch of pancakes.  It was a huge success.  The sharp, buttery curd was a revelation wrapped in the warm, crisply fried batter. The far richer buttermilk pancakes, capable of soaking up a topping, definitely have a place in my kitchen, too.  Somehow, though, they don't seem right for Pancake Day.

So, which pancake batter will I be mixing next Tuesday?  It will be the one I always mix, of course.  Somewhere between pancakes for the poor and pancakes for the rich with a simple sprinkling of sugar and squeeze of lemon. Then again I have to confess to a weakness for a spoonful of golden syrup along with the lemon.  Oh dear, I fear Jane Grigson would be disappointed in me.

My Shrove Tuesday Pancakes
(Makes: lots if you use sparingly, as you should)

125g (41/2oz)  plain flour
1 large egg
250ml milk
Pinch of salt
20g (3/4oz) butter
A little oil, such as groundnut, for frying

Add the flour to a bowl and form a well.  Break the egg into the well, add the pinch of salt and about 1/3 of the milk.  Mix, gradually incorporating the flour and adding the rest of the milk slowly as you do so.  When you have a smooth batter (don't mix too much - sieve it if stubbornly lumpy), melt the butter until it just starts to brown lightly then quickly mix it into the batter.  Pour the batter into a jug and refrigerate for about 45 minutes.

Add just a little oil to the pan and heat until very hot before turning the heat down to between medium and high.  Stir the batter and pour a little into the hot pan to form a coating and cook until browned.  This is a sacrificial one as the first pancake is always poor so discard it.  Pour about 2-3 tablespoons of batter into the pan and quickly swirl it around the pan to coat it thinly.  Brown lightly and turn the pancake to lightly brown the other side.  Re-oil the pan (it needs very little between each pancake).  Repeat the process and when each pancake is light browned on both sides add it to a plate and keep warm in a low oven until the job is done.

For more on the history of Pancakes, the author Kate Colquhoun covers a lot of historical ground in a short time with this 2007 Telegraph article.