Flipping great: Pancake Tuesday with a twist
Bored of traditional lemon and sugar toppings, Meadhbh McGrath heads to a Middle Eastern kitchen to expand her pancake horizons
For most Irish people, a classic pancake is a thin one, and lemon and sugar is always the topping of choice. Traditionally, we made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to use up sugar, butter, flour and eggs before the period of fast and abstinence during Lent began. But pancakes are too good to reserve for a once-a-year feast. For most of us, they have become much more than an annual indulgence, gaining a place as the brunch staple par excellence.
Whether they're served American-style with streaky rashers and maple syrup or frilly, whisper-thin crêpe slathered with Nutella, I'm a self-professed pancake connoisseur. However, I've noticed that recently my love affair with the sumptuous treat has fallen flat.
Looking for a twist on tradition, I signed up for a Middle Eastern cookery class to better my batter and explore the world of pancakes outside of Ireland.
When I arrive at the Silk Road Kitchen in Kimmage, Co Dublin, I am greeted by manager Rikke Sorensen Callaghan, who shows me to the professionally equipped kitchen where I'll be polishing my pancake skills.
Inside the door, there is a giant worktop laden with a mouth-watering spread of the ingredients we'll be using in class: a rainbow of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs, along with all the familiar pancake-making essentials.
Our instructor for the day is chef Abraham Phelan. Originally from Jerusalem, he met his Irish wife while running a restaurant in Crete, and they moved to Ireland together in the early 80s. In an unusual reversal of tradition, he took his wife's surname after they married.
Abraham has been cooking Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food for many years at the Silk Road Cafe in the Chester Beatty Library, and two years ago, he opened this cookery school.
The Silk Road Kitchen offers a range of lessons designed to suit cooks of all skill levels, including the very popular Palestinian Brunch, where attendees prepare a selection of up to 20 tapas-style dishes.
Before the class begins, Abraham offers us a piping hot tea made with fresh mint and a rich, buttery date biscuit that tastes a bit like a premium fig roll. There are six other culinarians-in-training joining me tonight, and for guests who have come on their own, it's a nice way of creating a laid-back atmosphere where we can relax and get to know each other before rolling our sleeves up and getting down to some chopping.
Tea finished and aprons on, we take to our work stations. With over 40 years' experience cooking and working in kitchens, Abraham proves to be a remarkably warm and engaging teacher, and his demonstrations are peppered with anecdotes about his mother's pancakes and plenty of useful tips for the more clumsy chefs like me.
We spend much of the evening wandering from our work stations and milling around Abraham, as he holds out bowls of spices for us to sniff and shares insights on Middle Eastern cooking.
First up on the menu are eaga, light savoury pancakes for which the humble cauliflower is the most vital ingredient.
"Eaga is a Palestinian name, but in reality you will find it in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. There is a lot of similarity in the foods," he explains.
"It might have more onion or more parsley or more this or that, but the cauliflower is always the main ingredient. We eat it in the summer in Palestine, it's a great little snack."
The ingredients for the batter are the same as any pancake: eggs, flour and milk, but we spruce it up by adding a generous pinch of za'atar (a popular Middle Eastern spice blend), deep red sumac, and freshly chopped coriander.
This is a real hands-on experience - although there are spoons laid out on the worktop, Abraham mixes with his hands, and I follow his lead, dunking my heap of chopped veg into the batter. His daughter points out that this is standard practice in Middle Eastern cooking - and dining, where people typically forego utensils in favour of using their hands.
The next step involves deep frying the pancakes by adding a dollop of the mixture into a pan of hot vegetable oil. When I tentatively peer into my saucepan, I'm pleasantly surprised to find my misshapen blobs of batter forming perfect little bite-sized pieces.
After about 10 minutes, they turn a nice golden brown, and I lay them on some kitchen towel to drain off the oil.
As I survey my plate of eaga, I'm pretty pleased with myself. For years, the thought of any kind of savoury pancake made me shudder, but these light, fluffy snacks are delightfully textured, filled with yellow peppers, onions, garlic, parsley and the aforementioned cauliflower in all its unassuming glory.
Throughout the next demonstration, we're all sneaking a few of the tasty treats, while Abraham shows us how to make stuffed semolina pancakes called qatayef.
"Qatayef is for the month of Ramadan," he explains. "Eid al-Fitr is the three-day celebration after the month of Ramadan, and we make sweets like qatayef. You will find each family making two or three trays, and each tray will have 20 or 30 qatayef.
"You put the whole tray in front of everybody, and people can pick as many as they want, because one person could eat five or maybe 10, like myself!"
As they are only made for special occasions, the sweet pancakes are suitably decadent. We fill ours with a blend of walnuts, coconut, cinnamon and sugar, but cream cheese with cashews or pistachio is another popular choice.
As the semolina batter takes an hour to swell, we use a mixture Abraham and Rikke prepared before class.
Furnished with a selection of tiny pastel-coloured frying pans, we cook the pancakes (on one side only), then lay them out on a baking tray, where they are filled with a spoonful of the nutty mixture.
After folding them over into a crescent shape and gently pressing the edges together to seal, we bake them in the oven until lightly golden.
Abraham suggests that if you don't have semolina, a basic pancake batter works well instead, and if you'd prefer not to put them in the oven, fry them in the pan as you would a regular pancake.
When drizzled with rose water syrup and sprinkled with ground pistachios, the rich filling combined with the crisp exterior proves to be irresistible. The textures play off each other to create a dessert you won't soon forget - the perfect alternative to boring old lemon and sugar.
Silk Road Kitchen classes last two hours, cost €65 and are held at weekends and on weekday evenings. For more information, visit silkroadkitchen.ie.
• 750 ml oil
• 1/2 cauliflower, in small pieces
• 1 cup finely chopped parsley
• Bunch of scallions, chopped
• 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
• 1 white onion, finely chopped
• 1 red pepper, finely chopped
For pancake batter
• 1 cup flour
• 3 eggs
• 1/2 tsp chili powder (optional)
• 1 tea spoon chopped fresh coriander
• 1/2 tsp baking powder
• Pinch of salt
• 1 cup milk (if you have a dairy allergy you can easily just use water)
Mix all the ingredients for the pancake batter together in a large bowl. Add the vegetables and make sure the mixture is mixed well.
Heat the oil in a deep frying pan. Using a serving spoon place a dollop of batter into the hot oil. Deep fry for 10-12 minutes, turning the pancake every so often until crispy and golden. Drain on piece of kitchen paper. Serve with hummus and fattoush or tabbouleh.
For pancake batter
• 1 cup fine semolina
• 1 cup flour
• 1 tbsp dried yeast
• 2 1/2 cup warm water
• 1 cup walnuts
• 1/2 cup coconut
• 2 tbsp sugar
• 1 tsp cinnamon powder
• 1 cup caster sugar
• 1 1/2 cup water
• 1 tsp rose or orange blossom water
• 1/2 tsp lemon juice
• 2 cloves
Mix all the dry ingredients for the pancake batter together in a large bowl. Add the warm water. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to stand for 1 hour. To make the filling, add all the ingredients to a blender and blend until fine. For the syrup, add all the ingredients to a pot and bring to the boil. Let it simmer for 30 mins before use. Place a spoon full of batter on a frying pan and fry the pancake on one side only. Remove from heat when bubbles appear on the surface. Grease a baking tray. While the pancakes are warm, place the pancake in the palm of one hand and spoon small amount of stuffing in the center. Flip one side over the other and close the pancake pressing the two edges together using your fingers. The final product should look like a crescent. Place the qatayef on the baking tray and dot each with butter or ghee. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180° for 20 minutes. Pour the syrup over the qatayef when you take them out of the oven.