Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Shrove Tuesday is the last day before the beginning of Lent, the Christian fasting season, so it was traditionally a time when the richness in the larder was emptied in preparation for the fast. Over the years this has become pancake day in the UK: a day in which rich little omeletty waffles of eggs, flour, butter and milk are fried up and served with a squeeze of lemon and frosted with scatterings of sugar.

Amazingly, in the Levant, Christian families still take Lent seriously. I’m talking really, truly, Ramadan style seriously. None of this giving up something convenient like chocolate or prawn cracker flavour crisps for Lent stuff: we’re talking no meat, no richness, no booze, no nothing nice kind of fasting. Because, of course, that is the true intention of the fast of Lent.

The English Pancake is a close (if sniffy) cousin to the French crêpe: it’s poured into a hot pan of buttered fat to bubble up in a thin, albeit slightly less obsessively thin than the French, layer of richness. The Americans prefer to create something wodgy, thick and all too much like a crumpet for us ‘old world’ folk.

The trick to this is a decent batter, a rightly warm pan (crisply hot, but not over-sizzly: you’re looking to cook the batter smoothly and briskly and yet not have it bubble up or blacken beyond redemption: brown around the edges and marbled with brownness is good) and a measure of fat in the pan that supports a brisk slide and toss, because pancakes have to be tossed. The higher up in the air the better. For no particular culinary reason: it's just more fun that way.

  • 125g plain flour
  • 300ml gold top milk
  • 50ml water
  • 15g caster sugar
  • A good pinch of sea salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 50g butter
  • A bottle of decent oil: groundnut is good

Sift the flour into a roomy bowl, adding the sugar and salt. Slide the beaten eggs into the middle and then whisk the eggs, salt, sugar and flour together. Add the milk and water slowly to form a dough and then, as more liquid joins the floury concoction, a batter, beating out any lurking lumps or other unscheduled irregularities as you wield your whisk of choice. Add the vanilla and leave it to stand, the longer the better: an hour is great if you give it a quick stir up before you use it again.

A good quality, small non-stick saucepan is best for this. Melt a small knob of butter together with a splash of groundnut oil in the pan. Now ladle a spoon of mixture into the centre, twisting the pan to spread the mixture around. You’re looking to create a thin layer of cooking batter on the base of the pan and it’ll take a couple of tries to get the quantity right as you acclimatise to the cooking temperature and amount of oil. A great pancake is created from a uniformly thin spread of batter on the pan. Let it cook, don’t be hasty, and give it the occasional nudge to see if the pancake is moveable: even lift the edges a little with a silicon or wooden spatula. You’re looking at a minute or two at the absolute most for a reasonably thin pancake over a lively medium heat. When the time is right, the pancake will move in the pan when you nudge it. Now you go for the mad spin into the unknown that excites the hot blooded, insane spirit inside you. You toss the pancake.

This is a forward movement performed together with an upward flick that sends the pancake flying into the air in a glorious back-flip trajectory. Time it right, move the pan to meet the descending confection and you’ve got yourself a perfect pancake cooking on the other side like a cooking pancake thing. Get it wrong and you’ve got a mess in a pan, a mess on the cooker or, even worse, a mess on the wall, ceiling or even cook.

Keep trying, it’s worth it.

Once the whole tossing thing is mastered (and yes, I did master being a tosser many years ago, thank you), you can cook the other side of the pancake for a minute or so. Slide it onto a plate and use greaseproof to divide the pancakes and you can freeze them, keep them, reheat them or whatever. But there’s nothing in the world quite so nice as sliding that freshly cooked pancake onto a warm plate with a spoon of caster sugar and a squeeze of lemon and then cooking the next as the last pancake disappears!

Do what you want with them. Serve them plain with sugar and lemon, add chocolate, cream, strawberries or mango. Add all three if you like. Whoosh a squoosh of brandy into the pan and set fire to it or just layer them with cream and banana cooked in rum and vanilla, orange segments and cointreau (in which case you can call 'em Crêpes Suzette and be all posh like) or cherries steeped in kirsch. Suit yourself, in short.

But do have a great, laughing, stupid time of it – ideally with family and friends joining in!


Diane Oliver said...

Gold top? Good grief man you are showing your age...

Thanks for reminding me how very yummy pancakes are. I'm looking forward to tomorrow now.

alexander... said...

No I'm not, Di!

Milk comes in four colours in the Emirates:

Light Blue Top
No fun skimmed

Red Top
Low fat

Dark Blue Top

Full fat heart attack

And then there's also:



So there!