“Have you ever thought of what it might be like to be squashed flat by a pancake?” the copy on the back cover of Judi and Ron Barrett’s 1978 storybook, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” asks. As a matter of fact, I have.
The book is about a town where giant food falls out of the sky, and it includes an illustration of helicopters trying to pull a giant syrup-slicked flapjack off of the roof of the school. I can relate to that picture, because In my experience, eating a tall stack of buttermilk pancakes is a lot like sending an angry email: It always seems like a good idea at the time, but often leads to crises, both existential and gastric.
Traditional pancakes are simply too big, too heavy, too sugary. They promise comfort, but deliver two hours of feeling like a sway-backed old mule hauling a 100-lb sack of flour, followed by an hour of incredulously saying, “Could I possibly be hungry again?”
The good news is that making truly light, crispy-edged stick-to-your ribs pancakes is only slightly more work than making leaden gut-bombs. The better news is these pancakes need bubbles, and that means that you now have a perfectly valid excuse to give your children beer for breakfast.
In pursuit of the perfect pancake
I owe the Flapjack of the Future partly to my Cousin Ed, a retired tractor salesman in rural Minnesota. When my great uncle turned 100 several years ago, I was part of a big group of west coast relations who to Minnesota to celebrate.
One morning, I watched as Ed casually poured a can of cheap lager into a bowl of pancake mix.
“Beer?” I asked, trying not to make a face. Minnesotans are after all, a people who firmly believe canned cream-of-mushroom soup concentrate is an essential food staple.
“Of course!” he said. And he was right. His pancakes were light, and delicious; far better than the ones you get by following the directions on the box. I promptly forgot all about it.
I’d been on a quest to develop a more perfect pancake ever since I became a “Bonus Mom”; a deal that came with a couple of very willing test-kitchen subjects. We all agreed on several things: The lighter the pancake, the better. They needed to have custardy centers and crispy edges, and they couldn’t require any planning.
I didn’t hit on the right formula until the Saturday morning a couple of months ago, when I remembered Ed’s beer trick. I decided to combine it with the other changes I’d made. They were exactly what I wanted. The kiddo inhaled them and pronounced them my best effort yet. My Beloved marched around the kitchen crying, “We can rebuild it! We have the technology to build a better pancake!” And then he explained the cultural reference to me. And then he ate some more pancakes.
The best way to make something with a bit more of a slow burn — an extended release pancake, if you will — is by adding protein, and therefore more egg. This makes the centers custardy, rather cakey. It also makes them lower in carbohydrates, and higher in protein, a change that stops them from expanding in your stomach like a can of Fix-A-Flat.
How much could I push it without turning my pancakes into quiche? A lot, as it turns out. By adding in one extra step, which also makes far loftier, faster-cooking cakes, I realized I could triple the amount of protein with no ill effects.
Less fear, more air
In this recipe, the egg whites are like those Hell’s Angels who keep demonstrators away from veteran’s funerals. They are strong, so the other ingredients don’t have to be. Pancakes usually rely on baking powder to give them loft. It makes bubbles, which fluff the pancakes up. But there is an upper limit to how much you can add, unless you like salty, metallic pancakes.
If you are willing to face down a couple of common culinary fears, this trick will make your pancakes dramatically more light and foofy.
You can separate eggs, I promise. Crack the egg and gently pop it open. Hold the two halves over the bowl where you want your whites, and tip the contents of one half into the other half. The whites will spill over into the bowl. Do it a couple more times, until the yolk is more or less alone. Tip it into a different bowl.
Whipping egg whites is easy, but you need either superhuman endurance, or an electric mixer. Put the cold whites in the mixing bowl with a pinch of salt and a pinch of cream of tartar, if you have some. Turn the mixer on high. Check back in a minute.
They should be starting to form wispy peaks at that point, but we don’t want wispy. Keep mixing. They’re done when you can swipe your finger through them and leave a trough.
“Folding” egg whites into batter isn’t as scary as it sounds either. Dump them into the batter. Use a rubber spatula to gently scoop the batter up from the bottom, and sort of flip the scoop of whites and goop over. Rotate the bowl a few degrees and repeat until it’s all swirled together. Use a light touch. It’s not going to be uniformly mixed, and it’s not going to look like any pancake batter you’ve ever seen, and that’s OK.
Not only are Aunt Jemima products racist, they’re also bad for you. A third-cup of mix, which produces roughly four very small pancakes, contains 25 percent of your daily allowance of cholesterol, 33 percent of your sodium allowance. The other brands aren’t better. The first two ingredients in most mixes are flour and sugar, usually followed by unpronounceable additives, and often, environmentally catastrophic palm oil. You can do better.
Flour contains gluten, the protein that gives good bread its chewy quality. But you don’t want chewy pancakes, do you?
That’s why my pancakes borrow a trick from Chinese cooks, who often use cornstarch, which doesn’t form gluten, to make a very light, crispy breading for things like sweet n’ sour pork. By substituting cornstarch for part of the flour, you can make a considerably lighter, more tender pancake. It also absorbs some of the extra liquid from the eggs, and helps the edges get crunchy.
Beer: The quicker pancake picker-upper
Most pancake recipes call for milk or buttermilk, but that can make pancakes heavier. What if there were something you could add that would be just as tangy, while also making the batter even lighter? Cousin Ed to the rescue!
Listen though. This is not the time to impress your friends with a $9 bottle of undrinkable quadruple-hopped stout. What you want is a lawn-mowin’ beer. A wheat beer would be fine, but not necessary. A simple, cheap macro-brewed American lager with no agenda or personality will shine here. Put your chocolate-mesquite IPA down and go steal a can of Bud from your dad’s garage mini-fridge.
The alcohol will cook off while they’re in the pan, but there’s no need to tell your family that. Announce, as they’re eating, that you spiked their breakfast, and enjoy, as the placebo effect provides the entertainment.
‘Buttyrup’ is key
It took me nearly four decades of pancake consumption to realize I was never going to get a pat of butter to melt on the pancakes the way it does on the commercials. On the day I made peace with that harsh reality, I stuck about one part butter to three parts real maple syrup in a measuring cup, stuck it in the microwave, and “buttyrup” was born. Life is difficult. Getting your pancakes just right doesn’t have to be.
1 c. flour
¼ c. cornstarch
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt.
3 large eggs
Pinch of cream of tartar
1 c. beer
3 tbs sugar
2 tbs melted butter
1 tsp vanilla
Mix the cornstarch, flour, salt and baking powder in a big bowl. Make a well in the center.
Separate the eggs, putting the whites in one mixing bowl, the yolks in another.
Add the beer, sugar, butter and vanilla to the yolks and whisk to blend it.
Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of cream of tartar, if you have it, to the egg whites. Whip them until stiff peaks form.
Pour the yolk mixture into the flour mixture, and whisk just until it is blended. It’s ok if there are a few little lumps.
Add the egg whites and gently fold them in with a rubber scraper, making sure to incorporate the batter at the bottom of the bowl. It’s more important to keep the whites fluffy than it is to blend it perfectly.
Heat a pan to medium high (or about 350 for an electric skillet). When it’s hot, but not smoking, add oil. Vegetable oil is fine, grapeseed oil is better.
Use a ladle or big spoon to make puddles of batter into the pan. You can do three or four at a time, but try not to let the edges touch. After a minute or two, gently lift one up. It should be golden in the center, with dark brown crispy edges. Flip, and cook until that side is done.
Put them in a warm (200 degree) oven, directly on the rack if possible, to keep them from getting soggy while you cook the rest.
• “Just how racist was Aunt Jemima?”
Racist ads from the past.
• “Can we please finally get rid of Aunt Jemima?”