On a random Tuesday during my first year in the UK I walked into a grocery store CHOCK FULL of panicked dads cleaning the place out of Nutella and yelling into their phones about “which KIND of flour, Helen?!” Apparently, here, Mardi Gras is Pancake Day. This is one of the essentially useless but culturally vital aspects of British life my mother failed to introduce me to, along with The Wombles and Eurovision. There’s an entire day here devoted to pancakes, and it’s this coming Tuesday, and also pancakes are crepes, and, at least in my experience, the dads have to make them.
British people are now trying to make American-style fluffy pancakes happen, which is cute, but they’re running into the same problem that’s plagued America for years: pancakes are deceptively tricky to do well.
Most American restaurant pancakes are deeply tragic: insipidly sweet, gummy, and/or dry. Because pancakes are simple in principle, people think they’re simple to make, which means most people eat and make mediocre pancakes as a matter of course. And listen, Bisquik is fine, if you are camping or otherwise deprived of the trappings of civilization. Otherwise, give pancakes a try from scratch. I promise you can do better than Bisquik.
This recipe for pancakes was my first ever recipe, period. I’ve been helping my dad make these pancakes every Saturday since before I can remember. I genuinely believed pancakes were called “mancakes”, because they were the only food Dad could cook, and I assumed this was a gender-wide issue. Also, he always used to flip the pancakes from the pan into his free hand to check they were done on the second side, which is very badass and the breakfast equivalent of pinching a candle flame out with your fingers.
Pancakes, done well, are impressive. Stacked into lofty towers and drizzled with maple syrup, they’re the essence of warm, fluffy, luxurious comfort. They should be light, soft, and gently nutty, like a monologue by Fozzy Bear. Pancakes are a meal that transitions pretty much seamlessly into naptime, which is fortunate because they’re also one of the only foods you can realistically imagine using as a blanket if you were made tiny in some kind of Honey-I-Shrunk-The-Kids escapade.
You should not be eating thin, dry, flavorless pancakes. Real pancakes might be tricky, but they’re not difficult. And they’re so worth it. I would say they’re only slightly harder than chocolate chip cookies, just because you have to flip them, but easier because they only take 20 minutes. The mixing of batter is simple. It’s the cooking that requires finesse. Here are the crucial things to remember:
Crucial Pancake Facts:
Use the batter as soon as you make it, don’t let it sit as you would a crepe batter. The reaction between the baking powder and the acid of the buttermilk is what makes them fluffy, and if you wait, it’ll de-fluff.
The thinner the batter, the hotter the pan should be. Thin pancakes cook faster, but they’re flatter (again, crepes.) For a thicker batter like this one, make sure it’s a low heat, because:
You want the pan to be hot, not the flame. This is why cast iron works so well for pancakes, but any frying pan will work. Leave it on a medium-low heat while you make the batter, and then crank it a little lower as you cook the cakes. You know the pan’s hot enough when you can flick a drop of cold water on it and it sizzles. If it jumps, turn the heat down.
How to flip: make your pancakes small, and use your wrist, not your hand. By which I mean, you don’t want to make a big arc with your hand holding the spatula, that gives your cake far too much time to slip-slide away from you and land where it pleases. Keep the circle small, imagine the spatula is an extension of your hand, and use your wrist to make a tight twist and snap the pancake neatly off the flippy part of the spatula. It’s all in the wrist.
How to know when to flip: People always say it’s “when you can see bubbles coming through”, but I find it’s better to look at the edges of the pancake and see when they’re getting matte. When the whole surface doesn’t look so shiny/liquidy, they should be good. You can also just lift the edges up with your spatula and take a peek. If you’re prodding the edges and they don’t want to move as a single piece, it’s too early.
How long to cook them for: This one is tricky. The nightmare scenario is leaving the heat too high so the outsides get nice and golden before the insides are all the way done. I have done this countless times. Just keep the heat gentle, and give the pancakes their time. It should take about 3 minutes a side, or even a little longer. Take a sip of coffee. Listen to your podcast. Worst case scenario, just cut it in half to check and put the halves back on the griddle if they need more time.
The Law of the Bad First Pancake: Your first pancake, maybe even your first panful of cakes, will be bad. It will look busted to heck. It might even come apart. The heat might be wrong, you might not have your Flippin’ Wrist fully tuned in yet, whatever. It’s fine. Every first pancake is bad. The best advice I can give you comes straight from my dad, who got it straight from his boss at the diner where he worked in college: put the ugly ones on the bottom of the pile, and if all else fails, Eat Your Mistakes.
These are birthday pancakes because they have chocolate chips in them. Chocolate chip pancakes are the party version of pancakes, which my sisters and I only got 3 times a year on each of our birthdays. It’s Valentine’s Day, which is a holiday, and it’s also Frederick Douglass’s birthday, and therefore we’re having chocolate chips.
You can also add in whatever else you want: banana slices, chopped walnuts, blueberries, whatever. Some people pour their batter on the griddle and then add things in – I find this makes for an uneven distribution, but I admit it’s a neat solution if different people want different things. Additions will make your cakes brown faster, for whatever reason, so keep an eye out.
Makes like 12-14 cakes, or enough for 2-3 people. Scale up as necessary.
¼ tsp salt
4 tbsp sugar
¼ c wheat germ (my dad swears by this, and it does give them a nice nutty flavor, but if you don’t have it don’t worry about it)
1 ¼ c all-purpose flour
1 tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
¼ c – ½ c semisweet chocolate chips, if you want
- Make your buttermilk and set it aside
- Put your pan on low. Don’t add any grease yet, just let it heat up.
- Add all your ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk until smooth-ish. It’s fine if it’s a little lumpy. It should pour slowly from the whisk when you raise it up from the bowl, like a ribbon. If it’s too thin, add another spoonful of flour. If it’s too thick, add some milk (plain milk is fine, you don’t have to make more buttermilk.)
- Add your add-ins, if you’re doing that.
- Check that your pan is hot, and turn the heat down to low.
- Butter the pan lightly, or use a nonstick cooking spray.
- Drop batter into pan in generous ¼ cups. I can usually get about 3 into my 12-inch frying pan.
- Let ‘em hang out. Sip your coffee. Listen to whatever Peter Sagal’s saying.
- When they seem ready, flip them. Hang out some more
- When you’ve made all your cakes, serve hot with maple syrup and, if you’re lucky, bacon. For the chocolate chip ones, I like to eat them plain with my hands before my sisters have the chance to, but you do you.