Friday 21 September 2018

Holy crepe! The perfect pancake

For Shrove Tuesday, Sophie White heroically devoured every incarnation of this often divisive treat in search of the ultimate batter

Sophie White flips the perfect pancake
Sophie White flips the perfect pancake

In debating the definitive pancake, people can get very passionate - as I discovered when I polled my Instagram followers to get a read on just what we even class as the appropriate style of pancake with which to celebrate Shrove Tuesday.

While the thin crepe style did win, the margin was surprisingly narrow and many felt compelled to message me privately to communicate their distress at the recent hijacking of the traditional Pancake Tuesday crepe.

Roz Purcell’s ‘Skinny Crepe’
Roz Purcell’s ‘Skinny Crepe’

Pancakes have been around since Ancient Greece, with the first recorded mention of them made in 600BC by a Greek poet, Cratinus. They've been a hit ever since. From the 1100s on, they've had their very own day known variously as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day and sometimes Fat Tuesday. John Candy made the most memorable movie pancake stack ever in Uncle Buck. In 2014 Jesus himself even appeared on one - who'd have thought the second coming would fall so flat?

Nearly every country has some intriguing variation on the pancake. In New Zealand, where I did my training, they have a national devotion to squat stacks of thick 'pikelets', definitely an Antipodean cousin of the American-style pancakes. In the Philippines, the batter of the 'bibingka' is made with rice flour, eggs and coconut milk and often topped with salted duck. In Russia, the 'blini' is made with buckwheat flour and calls for yeast as a raising agent.

For the purpose of my research, I realised I would have to impose some sort of criteria to narrow the field somewhat. I elected to try a pancake that would fall into the following catagories - the Traditional, the Wild Card, the Puritan and the dreaded American Stack - in a bid to settle on the definitive mode and method.

Pancake aficionados have long quibbled over ratios of the basic components, pan temperature, the addition of melted butter to the batter and whether or not the traditional instruction to rest the batter can be disregarded.

Brother Hubbard’s beghrir
Brother Hubbard’s beghrir

For my initial test, I trialled Mary Berry's perfect pancakes which called for one more egg than I would usually use and resulted in something verging on an omelette. Berry is laissez-faire on the whole resting question, "if you have time" she suggests allowing the batter to stand and eschews the addition of melted butter altogether. Her tip to grease the pan with a wad of kitchen paper dipped in sunflower oil is one to keep.

I topped Berry's pancakes with the traditional lemon and sugar - another Instagram poll revealed that most people are sticking with traditional lemon and sugar this year, with 'notions' toppings losing by 10pc.

The Wild Card I chose comes from the Brother Hubbard Cookbook by chef-proprietor, Garrett Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's recipe for beghrir - a pancake popular in the Middle East - calls for fine semolina in place of flour and uses yeast as a raising agent.

The batter preparation is verging on faff (in pancake terms, at least) as the liquid needs to be heated in order to activate the yeast. Standing is essential with beghrir as the yeast will need to work its magic. After 30 minutes resting, it's time to get flipping, although there's no flipping these as they are slightly thicker than the usual pancake and cooked more slowly over a medium heat.

Mary Berry’s crepe
Mary Berry’s crepe

Despite the thickness, I found these to be surprisingly light in texture. I followed Fitzgerald's recipe for a savoury iteration, topping it with smoked salmon, feta and warm peppers. I would say a winner for lunch or a light supper but not perhaps for the fun pan-flash that is Shrove Tuesday.

Veering further from tradition, is what I dubbed the Puritan - a crepe from Roz Purcell's second book Half Hour Hero. I will admit intense scepticism kicked in on surveying the ingredients: egg white and oats. Would this even resemble a crepe?

To Purcell's credit, I find her recipes are very reliable and her "Skinny Crepes" did indeed look the part. I missed the silky richness that comes with a traditional recipe, but if you wanted to be very sanctimonious indeed, these will scratch an itch and Purcell's suggested toppings of homemade Nutella and chocolate sauce, nicely cut with the grapefruit's tart notes, were delicious.

All this brings me - grudgingly I might add - to the Stack. The stack is everywhere now, which I suppose is why I resent its intrusion on our national holiday - it's completely supplanted the crepe in most Irish bruncheries, but for the 40pc who voted for its inclusion, I gave it a shot.

Anne Willan’s blinis
Anne Willan’s blinis

Anne Willan was a kind of high priestess of food in the later half of the 20th century and her book Cooked to Perfection has a joyfully 90s vibe that you kind of miss now that food styling has become so painfully hipster.

Willan's page on pancakes provides a potted pancake history, troubleshooting for pancake problems and a recipe for the perfect one which, in Willan's opinion, is based on the Russian blini. The flour is buckwheat, the raising agent is yeast and standing time is a whopping two hours.

Willan's recipe is the most laborious - eggs are separated, some of the mixing process is done with your own hand, whites are beaten separately and then folded in, more resting time is required. By the time I was done cooking them, I was so full of resentment, I could barely be bothered eating them. This isn't what Shrove Tuesday is all about.

Pancake Tuesday is not for annoying, exacting instructions and stressing about whether the precious batter is well-rested enough. It's the time for a bit of slap dash, feck the first one in the bin, it'll be a mess anyway, and lash as much of whatever you fancy on top, saving a few for everyone to have a go flipping.

My perfect pancake batter is so simple you don't even need a scales:

Piece of cake: Sophie’s Perfect No-Weigh Batter Pancakes
Piece of cake: Sophie’s Perfect No-Weigh Batter Pancakes

Grab a mug and (using the same mug for each) add one mug of flour, one egg and one mug of milk into a bowl and whisk thoroughly. Melt one tablespoon of butter and whisk that in. Heat a non stick pan over a high heat and grease with a wad of kitchen paper dipped in sunflower oil. Pour in one ladle of batter, tilting the pan to coat the bottom of it. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until it is firm enough to flip. Makes about six crepes.

Irish Independent

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