The earliest settlers to what was to become America were mainly Protestants and they did not bring the tradition of Pancake Tuesday with them over to the new land. Instead, a mingling of traditions evolved, with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Carnival (Farewell to meat) all carrying vestiges of the ancient pre-Lent requirements, to use up food stores before the ordained fasting.
Shrove Tuesday, a tradition embraced by many of the Christian denominations, derives from the word “shrive” which meant “confess.” It was a day of reflecting on wrongdoings, before Ash Wednesday, which was for repentance. Then in Lent came the trial of giving something up to prove the seriousness of the penance. Mardi Gras, which is the same day, also serves to use up all the fatty, rich foods in the house, before fasting for Lent.
Polish people have Paczki Day instead of Pancake Tuesday, and this is on the Thursday that comes before Ash Wednesday. Paczki are doughnuts and they feature in eating competitions. The more enthusiastic of the British pancake tossers also like to compete, by running in races to see who can flip the most and the highest. Everyone gets in on the act, even the royal family.
In the UK, Pancake Tuesday, traditionally known as Shrove Tuesday, is upon us, and the task of not just mixing the perfect batter, but successfully flipping it up and over in the air is a daunting one for many. Supposed to use up all the perishables in the house before the Lenten famine that precedes Easter, pancakes are the designated items to break all the eggs, and polish off the stores of flour and sugar. For reasons unknown to science or culinary history, the pancakes chosen to be feasted upon on Pancake Day are not the fat, puffy ones adorned at breakfast with bacon and maple syrup. They are the notoriously difficult thin French crepe style. Delicious, but tricky.
So what is the trick to making the perfect pancake, and is it possible to master it in one easy lesson? Getting up on a ladder to scrape the half-cooked mixture off the ceiling is not the desired outcome. It is a well-known fact that the first pancake never works, more usually resembling a soggy dishcloth. But if the second, third and fourth do not start to work, then there is obviously a problem. One basic thing a lot of people overlook is to actually follow a recipe. A batter is something often rustled up from memory, not bothering to use measurements. The mathematical quantities however, are better if they are exact. For four ounces of flour it is best to use two eggs and seven fluid ounces of milk. The consistency has to be like pouring cream. Resting the mixture is said to help.
The second most important trick is to use a good pan, and to get it hot enough. A cheap pan with a non-stick finish is just not going to be any flipping use. A solid pan with a rounded lip is the ideal and these are always better if they are never washed up in soapy water. A decent pan will retain the heat, so it is necessary to watch out for it getting too hot and turn it down a notch throughout the batch.
Now, to the butter. The cook is ready for this when the pan is so hot that a few drops of water sprinkled on jump and skittle about on the surface. It is essential to use some butter but too much or too little can be fatal. The pancakes will either be greasy or stuck. For the quantities above, about two ounces (unsalted) should be ample. If is starts to brown and burn, it will affect the taste of the pancakes. The aim is for a fine and sizzling layer, which will allow the pancake to slip and fly from the pan with ease.
Adding the batter to the pan is a matter of judgment, but the aim is for as thin a layer as possible, and moving the pan around helps to spread it out. The technique of the flip depends on certain factors, and these can be expressed as an equation. Frank Smith, professor of mathematics at University College London has gone to the trouble of working this out. It goes like this: L = 4xH/pi – D/2.
This is where L represents the distance from the center of the pancake by hand, H is the height of the intended flip and D is the diameter of the entire pancake. By following this equation, the hand can be placed at precisely the right point on the handle of the pan, so as to ensure the finest flip. Holding the handle at the wrong point ruins many a masterful effort. Households with dogs enjoy these ones when they hit the floor.
Like many sports, it is good to get “into the zone” and relax into the activity so that natural confidence takes over. The natural high that comes from a run of precision flips and the appreciation from an admiring audience, is a great boost to the ego. One thing that can be disappointing for the chef, however, is the inability to keep up with demand, as the pancakes are often consumed as soon as ready, and this can mean a scarcity of any leftovers. Then again, that is the ultimate aim of Pancake Tuesday.
One British hotel in Manchester clearly has more expensive ingredients than most in their pantry. In 2009, they sought to create the world’s most luxurious pancake by using jelly made from Dom Perignon champagne, organic strawberries, gold leaf and Madagascan vanilla. That was a snip at $200 a serving. This year they have gone a lot further by inventing a new dish. This “pancake” has layers of Beluga caviar, lobster, mussels and langoustines, with Hulle Verge truffles and a sauce made with Dom Perignon again, this time the rose. It costs £800 ($1,335) a slice. They say it is “the finest pancake you could ever taste” and at that price, it would have to be.
Tuesday March 4, whether acknowledged as Pancake Tuesday, Mardi Gras or Carnival is a day for some culinary fun and a good excuse for all cultures to have a mid-week feast.
By Kate Henderson