I have to confess that I do love pancakes, which is fortunate because Shrove Tuesday, with us on the 17th, is the day when we are supposed to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness – although I’m not sure eating pancakes is a real sin!
The reason behind pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is that they contain eggs, butter and fat which were forbidden during Lent, the 40-day period of fasting before Easter. These days, chocolate and alcohol are more often the foods we give up.
But back to pancakes; savoury and sweet, so good when eaten freshly made, they bring back many happy memories. As a child my mum used pancakes as an alternative to potatoes and she made what she called a ‘pancake stew stack’. Succulent pieces of slow-cooked meat, bags of vegetables and a good rich sauce were piled between layers of four or five pancakes. I still make this today for my lovely grandchildren when they have been on their best behaviour.
There appear to be many kinds of pancakes round the world, some resembling flatbreads like those in Scandinavian countries; some are smaller yet plumper like the Scotch, Welsh and American; and then there are the famous Chinese pancakes used for that wonderful dish, Peking duck. But the one that most resembles our style of pancake is, of course, the French crepe – sold from street stalls and made in front of you using a large round heated plate and a T-shaped stick.
My first experience of making pancakes in any number was in the early 1960s at Simpsons-In-The-Strand in London. The night before Shrove Tuesday, apprentice chefs had to clear out the oldest oven in the kitchens and prepare it with wood for lighting early the next day. Come the day, as I recall, about six of us were detailed to keep making pancakes for the three dining rooms for approximately 1,200 people. I am not sure if all 1,200 people ate pancakes but to us it felt like 12,000 as, by 10pm that night, we looked and felt like a cross between a grease monkey and a chimney sweep.
The secret to good pancakes, I believe, is a good pan – one that is kept for just that purpose. I have always used a cast iron pan but nowadays a good non-stick seems to work just as well. A good tip is when finished with the pan, do not wash. Wipe out with kitchen paper instead and store separately. This should ensure that pancakes don’t stick. In my experience the first one always does; don’t worry, use it as a taster to make sure the pancakes are properly seasoned.
In days gone by pancake pans had to have a long handle to prevent the hands of the cook getting burnt on the open wood fire. Later on, the art of tossing pancakes became great fun and one to be shared by the whole family.
Although originally a peasant dish, one of my preferred pancakes is quite sophisticated: a thin pancake filled with orange and lemon soufflé mix, baked in the oven then doused with a splash of orange liqueur. A great finish to a meal and a great start to Lent.