Pancake: A Global History by Ken Albala, PDF, 1861893922

December 14, 2017

 Pancake: A Global History by Ken Albala, PDF, 1861893922

Pancake: A Global History (Edible) by Ken Albala

  • Print Length: 128 Pages
  • Publisher: Reaktion Books
  • Publication Date: October 15, 2008
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00BPBHW40
  • ISBN-10: 1861893922
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861893925
  • File Format: PDF




Introduction: What is a Pancake? 

1 Comfort Food 

2 Celebration 

3 Street Food 

4 Working-class Food 

5 Fine Dining 

Afterword 

Recipes 

Select Bibliography 

Websites and Associations 

Acknowledgements 

Photo Acknowledgements 

Index 


What is a Pancake?

A pancake is a starch-based comestible, poured as a batter

onto a hot surface and cooked until solid. Normally round

and formed by force of gravity, pancakes can also be cooked

in a mould or drizzled into any number of free-form shapes.

They are usually, and proverbially, flat, though with the right

ingredients an adept hand can create light fluffy specimens

that rise in defiance of the horizon. On the other hand, a

slim figure is consciously sought for many types, as with the

French crêpe. Pancakes can be minuscule, ‘silver dollar’ size

or great heaped behemoths of batter – the sort made for

charity benefits, or by those hoping for a spot in the Guinness

World Records. Pancakes may be made at home, eaten at a

restaurant or bought from a street vendor.

We all know a pancake when we see one, but appearances

can be deceptive. To the untrained eye, a flat pitta bread or

corn tortilla bears close affinity to the pancake. Yet a funda-

mental distinction must be made: all these starchy staples

may have evolved in comparable ways from similar ingredi-

ents, but they are in fact unrelated. They are as remote as

hummingbirds and bumblebees or sharks and dolphins.

Though they can be used in comparable ways, folded or

wrapped around fillings, pancakes are always made from a

Simple fluffy pancakes are a classic breakfast food in the .

poured batter rather than rolled dough. Flat bread is precisely

that – comparatively stiff dough worked manually and then

baked in an oven or on a flat surface. Even though minimally

leavened and looking much like a pancake, it is still a form of

bread. Furthermore, not all items calling themselves pancakes

truly fit the description – the Chinese po-ping that cradles

Peking duck or moo-shu pork is a thin rolled flat bread; South

East Asian rice wrappers used to make spring rolls are more

a kind of noodle, dried and reconstituted with water.

Leavening agents are used in most pancakes, but are not

an essential part of their definition. Pancakes can rise with

the aid of baking powder or soda, or may feature yeast, car-

bonated water, beaten egg white – or no leavening at all.

Though pancakes normally have at least a certain suggestion

of aeration in the finished product, flour and water alone

can be enough. The ancestors of pancakes were leavened

mostly by the incorporation of air into the batter, expanding

when heated. In the  this is still the preferred method. Of

all the remarkable leavening agents, none is as arresting as

snow. In Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook (), it is mixed into

an apple-laden batter at the last minute, and then dropped

into boiling fat – perhaps producing something more like a

fritter, but called a snow pancake.

The range of ingredients used plays no part in the

essential definition of the pancake. Pitta and pancakes can

both be made from the same flour, moistened in varying

degrees. Yet a perfectly respectable pancake can be made

without using any wheat flour at all. Grains in general cannot

claim exclusive dominion over the pancake. While barley, rice

and corn, even buckwheat, have all made their contribution

to pancakes, so too have chestnuts and acorns, leguminous

seeds pounded into flour. Indeed, any form of starch can

and has been used to make pancakes through the annals of

history. Some nineteenth-century American pancakes were

even made with stale breadcrumbs. It is not what goes into

the bowl that defines the pancake, but what comes out of

the pan.

Cooking technology plays a decisive role in separating

pancakes from what are otherwise close relatives. Pancakes

are by definition cooked or, to employ the proper termin –

ology, baked in a pan, though any flat surface will suffice.

Indeed, mass-produced pancakes are almost always cooked

on a broad griddle or professional flat top, to leave the bat-

ter unfettered by the constricting rim of a domestic frying

pan. A flat stone moistened with grease and placed over

burning embers may have held the ur-pancake of our pre-

historic ancestors. Thus a pan does not the pancake make.

And neither can the range of ridged and coffered confec-

tions designed to ravish the devotees of waffledom be justly

inscribed in our paean to pure panned cake. Moreover, for

purposes of clarification, by cooking pancakes we denote

specifically the application of direct heat with a modicum of

grease of animal or vegetable origin, and not deep frying

which produces an entirely different product, though com-

posed of much the same ingredients. Fritters are made of

pancake batter, as are funnel cakes (literally poured through

a funnel into hot fat creating a randomly drizzled pattern),

but they are not pancakes. As we shall see, however, in the

past a crunchy fried fritter was often called a pancake.

Moreover, the exact ingredients used to make pancakes

may, through different cooking procedures, yield products

we would never consider part of the same family. Consider

for a moment the whole range of dumplings: German spaetzle,

potato gnocchi, and the ancestral puddings of Britain – some-

times nothing more than pancake batter boiled in a stomach

bag with suet and raisins. These have a closer affinity to

pancakes than do most flat breads.

Another distinction must be made with the variety of

soufflé known as Yorkshire pudding, or in the , popovers,

which is made with a batter very similar to that of the pan-

cake, but usually with a greater proportion of eggs. This is

always baked in a mould to achieve supreme puffiness rather

than the flatness of a pancake. Yorkshire pudding anointed

by drippings, and the perversely named ‘Dutch Baby’ or

German pancakes (Dutch here meaning Deutsch) must be

set aside. On the other hand, there are many varieties of

pancake with a great proportion of beaten egg whites that

come very close to being popovers. And some ‘pancakes’ are

so overburdened with egg that they are more like omelettes

tousled with flour for effect. Here we mince words, if not


Is the pancake truly a cake? It is not as we envision cake

today – a fluffy confection, baked in an oven and often

slathered with icing. At heart, however, by archaic English


Waffles, despite their eminent popularity, are not pancakes.

usage and even by constituent ingredients, the pancake is

closely related to all other cakes. Ontogeny recapitulates

phylogeny or, more plainly put, the evolution of a species can

be discerned in its developing embryonic state. The pan-

cake might be considered a primitive prototype of all cakes.

Observe the pancake in the process of formation: sifted dry

flour, a drizzle of milk, beaten eggs, a little sugar, perhaps

a leavening. What is the wedding cake but a sublimation

of this simple procedure after it had evolved under the

influence of advanced technology? Behold the towering pan-

cake stack, glimmering with syrup, and it requires little

imagination to recognize that this is truly a kind of cake.

More difficult to define, however, is the group of cakes

formed from neither wet batter nor stiff bread dough:

crumpets, muffins, as well as quick breads, corn breads and

beaten biscuits – these may be comely, but they are not

proper pancakes. The great Scots bannock, oaten farl and

Oban crowdie bear rudiments of common ancestry, but


should never be confounded with the pancake. Distinctively

sweet and tiny, Scots pancakes, known outside their native

highlands as drop scones, are indeed little pancakes. As are

New Zealand pikelets, not teeny fish, but Lilliputian pancakes.

Thus far we have defined the pancake in decidedly

Eurocentric terms as a flat batter-based cake cooked in a pan

or similar vessel, with or without leavening, and made from

any starchy base. The last of these qualifications gives rise to

a troop of relatives we would probably not expect to find in

a standard greasy spoon. Many of us are intimately acquaint-

ed with the potato pancake or latke – a central feature of

Hanukkah festivities. When the potato is grated, formed

into cakes and fried, the result is merely a hash brown, but

there also exists a variety blended into a smooth batter and

poured out precisely as other pancakes, differing only in size

and texture. We must recognize the basic affinity and shared

nomenclature in this case and afford the latke some cover-

age. The same goes for the Swedish raggmunk, a regular pan-

cake bolstered with shredded potatoes. So too must we

include the African bean cake akara and its New World sib-

lings, made with batter and akin to the latke in texture and

character. And then why not welcome into our pancake ranks

the socca, a chickpea cake of southern France, sometimes

baked but often cooked on a special flat griddle regularly

used for crêpes?

There should be no quibble in adding to our taxonomic

list various other well-recognized relatives: crêpes themselves

(though etymologically and originally ‘crisps’) as well as the

buckwheat Breton galette, Russian blini, the rotund Scandi –

n avian aebleskiver and plättar, not to mention the Hungar ian

palacsinta. Nor can we omit more far-flung cousins, the great

teff-based injera of Ethiopia, the resplendent rice and bean

dosa of southern India, the corn cachapa of Venezuela,


Akara are African pancakes made from black-eyed peas.

Japanese okonomiyaki, sweet dorayaki and Thai pak moh.

Pancakes, we must keep in mind, can be sweet or savoury,

adorned or simple, consumed during any meal and in any

setting. Without going out on a limb, it would not be far

fetched to claim that, among the myriad recipes and cooking

techniques on this planet, there are few that can claim such

universality or so noble a pedigree as the pancake.

Despite this enthusiastic and inclusive spirit, there

remains one final difficulty in defining the pancake with pre-

cision. How are we to classify closely related tribes whose

members begin life as pancakes, but are then transformed

into something else entirely? The Egyptian katief, for exam-

ple, is a pancake cooked on one side only, filled with nuts or

pastry cream, sealed and then deep fried. The Italian cannoli

must be considered a relative and so too must the cheese-

filled blintz. On first sight no one would call these pancakes,

though only a brief affair with hot fat separates them from

a rolled crêpe. Thus we confine ourselves only to those foods

which begin and end as recognizable pancakes.

To reiterate, a pancake is here defined as a flat cake made

of any starchy batter, normally cooked in a small amount of

fat on a flat surface, with anything from a hint of leavening

to positive fluffiness, yet retaining a soft pliable interior struc-

ture. Thus close relatives such as crisp fritters, doughnuts

and wafers, rolled and fried confections and even the estim –

able waffle family are excluded.

How should a pancake be made? There are as many

answers to that question as there are able cooks and eager

mouths to feed. Having spent roughly half a decade in grad-

uate school, patiently making a pancake every single morning

without exception, I can offer some hard-won tips. It is pos-

sible to use any combination of starch in any proportion –

cake flour, wholewheat, cornmeal, buckwheat, rye, chestnut


A Native American woman cooking pancakes outdoors.

flour are all delightful. Even soy flour makes an interesting

pancake. For a light texture, avoid using too many eggs. The

ideal proportion of ingredients, in my opinion, is  egg to 

cups/ g of flour and  cups/ ml of milk, with a tea-

spoon of baking soda. This is a standard American pancake,

though you will encounter endless variations of the measures

specified in recipes. The great nineteenth-century chef Alexis

Soyer, for example, used  eggs with a mere  small table-

spoons of flour, two tablespoons of sugar and a pint/ ml

of milk. This would pass as an omelette in most people’s

minds, although it is typical of eighteenth- and nineteenth-

century pancake recipes.

Thickness, on the other hand, is purely a matter of

personal and sometimes national predilection. If you prefer

thinner pancakes, use more milk. If you only need one big

pancake, use just the egg white and  cup / g of flour

with enough milk to make a thick batter. You can also use


Children are mesmerized by bright colours suspended in the pancake batter.

buttermilk or add a little yoghurt to the mix – the acidity

helps the baking powder work. Sour milk was used in the

past but, since the advent of mandatory pasteurization in

many countries, milk only rots; it doesn’t properly sour from

beneficial bacteria. Some pancake recipes include fat in the

batter – normally melted butter – but I contend that it is

much better on top of the hot stack or excluded altogether,


otherwise the pancake runs the risk of becoming cloying. In

place of dairy products one can use water, wine or theoreti-

cally any liquid. Sugar in the batter is also an option, but

tends to make the pancake heavier and more prone to burn-

ing. Flavourings such as vanilla extract or almond are fine;

even rosewater perks up a plaintive pancake. Food colouring

can also be fun: try a couple of drops of various hues once

the batter hits the pan, and then swirl them around with a

toothpick to create a lovely marbling effect.

As for inclusions, anything goes. But rather than dump

ingredients into the batter and then risk their scorching from

direct contact with the pan, it is preferable to pour the batter

first and then drop the berries or chocolate chips, or what-

ever, on top. Then gently submerge them into the molten

batter with the tip of a knife so they are completely covered.

Without this simple step, blueberries explode and stain the

pancake, making a hideous mess. Chocolate chips likewise

Blueberry pancakes are best with berries submerged in the batter. Here

they peer through unscathed.


stick to the pan. For savoury ingredients, this step is less

important. Shredded spring onions or chives benefit from

the direct heat and decorate the finished product. For the

adventurous palate, anything can be thrown in: nuts, leftover

vegetables, grated cheese, smoked salmon or bacon. All these

can be cooked in the batter or sealed in the rolled or folded

pancake after cooking. Just be sure not to load too much into

the batter lest it resist cohesion while cooking.

As for the cooking medium, butter is ideal, but one

should never use more than a smidgen to prevent sticking, or

the pancake comes out greasy. Oil also works, as does lard or

bacon grease. Duck fat yields remarkable results, preferably

with savoury pancakes. Non-stick pans allow you to use less

fat, but are rarely really good conductors of heat. Cast iron is

lovely, but makes flipping nearly impossible. But then, few

pancakes truly benefit from a toss in the air and some will

actually splatter; a gentle turn with a spatula is fine. Some

contend that a pancake should never be turned more than

once, but this must be pure superstition. This next sugges-

tion may sound absurdly fastidious, but it really does improve

practically any pancake. If you are making several pancakes

and need to keep them warm, haphazard stacking causes

the ambient steam of those freshly cooked to seep into the

others, making them all soggy. Try placing the fresh pancakes

on a rack in a warm oven. Even the solitary pancake is better

for spending a brief sojourn on a raised rack so the steam can

dissipate. I have even been seen waving my pancake in the air

for a moment before plopping it on a plate.

Of all the pancakes I have ever made or eaten, there is

one favourite – unconventional admittedly, related to a soufflé

and fairly complicated – that is well worth the effort and which

I humbly encourage readers to try. I have a pathological

aversion to measurements, so one must succumb to inexact-


ness here and allow one’s inner pancake to speak through

the basic procedure. A runnier batter naturally makes thinner

cakes; this batter should be so thick and so inflated that it must

be scooped gently from the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Panned-Cake (Enough for One Person)

Begin with one egg yolk in a capacious bowl and

beat until pale and thickened with a spoonful of

unrefined sugar. Add to the beaten yolk a few drops

of pure vanilla extract. Next, sift over some cake

flour, less than a cupful. Add a scant teaspoon of

baking powder and a tiny pinch of salt into the sieve

as well as a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg. Then,

with a clean whisk beat the egg white in a second

bowl with a minuscule fleck of cream of tartar until

quite stiff. Then add to the yolk and dry ingredients

a good pour of buttermilk (or regular milk) and stir

until it forms a thick batter. Do not over-mix. Then

gently fold in the beaten egg white. Melt a little but-

ter over a high heat in a non-stick frying pan, then

carefully place a good gob of the batter mixture into

the pan. Lower the flame and leave undisturbed

until little craters start forming on the surface.

Allow the cake to rise. Flipping in air is not recom-

mended here as it reduces the aeration and the

batter will definitely splatter; gently turn over with a

wide spatula instead. Serve hot one at a time with

real amber maple syrup on the side in a small dip-

ping bowl. And eat it with your fingers. Or just dust

with powdered sugar, cinnamon, cocoa powder,



A Pancake is Born

We may speculate with the archaeologist regarding the earli-

est culinary technologies available at the dawn of humanity.

Roasting, in a pit or before an open flame, surely came first.

Boiling in baskets holding water heated with stones from the

fire probably followed suit. But among these too must be the

primeval griddle, perhaps a flat rock, daubed with grease and

glistening in anticipation of the first dollop of Promethean

batter. Any primitive grain or tuber, dried, pounded and

moistened, could have given rise to the very first pancake.

With the domestication of wheat in the Fertile Crescent,

corn in the Americas and rice in Asia, not to mention the

countless other starchy staples cultivated around the globe,

the pancake would find expression in countless forms. One

can almost envision the weary Neolithic farmer’s wife, wrack-

ing her brains to introduce variety to her family’s meagre

daily sustenance. In a flash of insight she pours a blob from

the dreary pot of gruel onto a brazen shield resting over the

fire, resulting in a crisp yet pliable disc, fluffy and evanescent,

yet substantial and filling: the prototype of every civilized

pancake in its wake.

Soon it was discovered that these discs could be used to

mop up thick sauces, and thereafter were wrapped around

savoury titbits both to protect the fingers and to convey the

contents to the mouth. These tidy packages also proved

portable, and an early form of rolled crêpe was sold on the

bustling street corners of the most ancient villages and

towns. Furthermore, ingredients could be directly incorpo-

rated into the batter, blueberries being classic, but elsewhere

onions or dried shrimp, pork, indeed anything that could

be encased in batter. Because they were cheap and nourish-

ing, pancakes sustained the labourers who toiled over the


Rembrandt’s famous th-century evocation of pancake cookery.

construction of great monuments; chefs of the rich and

powerful concocted ever-new ways to entice the palate with

elegant pancake concoctions. From the humblest cottage

to the grandest palace, pancakes became one of the premier


comfort foods, beloved by children and relished into adult-

hood as a simply prepared but eminently elegant repast.

Strangely enough though, historic recipes for pancakes

are few and far between. This is probably because for most

of recorded history recipes have only been written down

when ingredients are expensive or procedures complex. The

word pancake did not appear until the late middle ages, and

even then a ‘pancake’ was not always a pancake.

The records of history do not, alas, record the first pan-

cake, or even its earliest forms. Ancient authors meticulously

recorded many flattish cakes, such as libum, used in sacrifice

by the Romans. Even the ancient Hebrews served the Lord

a form of pancake. In Chronicles : the Levites are given

responsibility for the bread offerings, fried pastries and ‘that

which is baked in the pan’. Among their cakes, the Greeks

had a flat cake known as plakous, which actually means flat

and which came to be known in Latin strangely enough as

‘placenta’ (from Greek plakounta in the accusative). The mod-

ern anatomical use of the term derives from its resemblance

to the original pancake form. Some of these cakes were

almost certainly cooked in ways that to our sensibilities must

be types of pancake, but in general they are more closely

related to what we think of as a cheesecake, containing

honey, cheese and flour. The Greeks also had something

called tagênitai among the Athenians, or têganitai among the

Greeks of Asia Minor. Both come from the Greek word

tegano, meaning frying pan, so their literal meaning is pan-

cakes. They are mentioned by the physician Galen in

Alimentorum facultatibus, and appear to be just a flour and

water batter (or perhaps a dough) fried in oil and turned a

few times. Some mix in honey or oil, he adds. Interestingly,

his association is with country folk or very poor townsfolk,

who make flat cakes from whatever is at hand. All these,


Galen insists, restrain the stomach and create thick juice (by

which he means nutritive substance) which converts into

crude humours. In other words, they are fairly indigestible.

Although he provides no recipe, so we cannot be sure, these

appear to be among the earliest of pancakes. That some

were indeed poured from a batter is evident in his calling

some types of cake ‘pour-cakes’.

There was another kind of flat-dough product called

laganum. There is disagreement among modern commenta-

tors over its identity, taken by some to be an ancestor of

lasagne (to which it is related etymologically), though not

boiled. It was probably a kind of dried flat dough, although

in later centuries the word was translated as pancake. What

it was originally, no one is absolutely certain. In the

English–Latin dictionary, Catholicon Anglicum of , pan-

cake is translated as opacum or laganum. The true identity of

the word opacum is also a mystery, though it is somehow

related to the word for shady or opaque. The name and

shape suggests that it may have been something that resem-

bled an umbrella, but that’s only a guess. In any case, only

medieval Europeans, and not the ancients, used these terms

for pancake.

There is a recipe in the oldest Latin cookbook attributed

to Apicius for ova sfongia ex lacte (egg sponge with milk) which

comes close to a modern pancake. It is made with  eggs, a

hemina of milk (½ pint / ml) and an ounce / ml of oil.

This batter is fried in a thin pan with a little heated oil.

When one side is done, it’s flipped and served with pepper

and honey. This contains no flour and is clearly a spongy

omelette as the recipe says, not a pancake. Furthermore,

though some modern authors contend that pancakes were

known in Apicius as ‘alita dolcia’, meaning another sweet,

this recipe is really just fried polenta with honey on top, and


nothing like a pancake. The very first pancake-like recipe is

found in the middle ages, and is none other than the French

crêpe. But this word did not mean what it later came to sig-

nify – a large thin and floppy pancake. Remarkably, the word

itself descends from the word for crisp, and is related to

older forms of crisp fritter which in Latin were known as

crispis (meaning curly, which these first crisps probably were).

In Italian these became known as crispelli or crespelle, the lat-

ter of which still survive, though like crêpes they began as

deep-fried fritters and only later became thin pancakes.

The first crêpe recipe is not recorded in the courtly

cookbooks of medieval France, probably because crêpes

were considered lowly fare for ordinary people, which is also

probably why they show up in the book of advice written by

an ageing city dweller for his young bride in Le Menagier de

Paris. In fact there are two crêpe recipes. The first is merely

a simple mixture of flour, eggs, water, salt and wine. This is

beaten up and then poured from a bowl with a hole in the

bottom, which must have been designed especially for this

recipe, into a pan of hot lard or lard and butter. It is served

with powdered sugar. The technique and the fact that a deep

pan with straight sides is called for suggests that these are

neither pancakes nor modern crêpes, but crispy funnel

cakes. The slightly more complicated recipe for ‘Crespes a la

Guise de Tournay’, which clearly shows a long-perfected

technique, confirms this:

First you must have ready a copper pan holding a

quart, of which the rim must not be wider than the

base, or just a bit, and let it be  or ½ fingers deep.

Take salted butter and melt, skimming and cleaning,

then pour into another pan leaving all the solids

behind, and add the same amount of good fresh


lard. Then crack eggs and remove half the whites,

and the remaining ones beat well with both whites

and yolks. Then take a third or quarter of white

wine and mix all together. Then take the most beau-

tiful wheat flour you can get, and beat together little

by little, as long as will tire one or two people, and

your batter should be neither thin nor thick, but

such as can pour easily through a hole the size of a

little finger. Then put your butter and your lard on

the fire together, as much of one as the other, so

that it boils, then take your batter and fill a bowl or

a big wooden ladle with a hole, and pour into your

grease, first in the middle of the pan, then turning

to the edges of your pan until full. Always beat your

batter without stopping, to make other crêpes. And

this crêpe which is in the pan can be lifted with a

skewer or stick, and turn over to cook, then remove,

put on a plate, and begin with another. Be sure always

to stir and beat the batter without stopping.

Although this recipe can be used to make what we would

recognize as a pancake, it still seems likely that in wealthier

households a few inches of fat would have been used, yield-

ing a fritter. More modest abodes, without the wherewithal

to use large amounts of fat for deep frying, are probably the

origin of true pancakes. Similar confections appear in other

medieval manuscripts, including a kind of wafer, or obelias,

and mistembec, although these were normally made in a kind

of long-handled waffle iron. We must surmise that the

medieval crêpes, being called crisps, were supposed to be

crisp, to some degree. A contemporary Latin manuscript writ-

ten in Italy, the Liber de coquina, for example, offers a simple

recipe (‘De crispis’): Take white flour moistened with hot


Jules Benoit-Levy’s depiction of a traditional Breton tavern where

pancakes were sold.

water and fermented with yeast so that it rises. And cook in

a pan with bubbling oil. And add honey, and eat. Following it

are ‘crispellas’ which include eggs and saffron rather than

yeast. All these are indeed very close relatives to the floppy

pancake, but how and when they were first cooked in a small

amount of oil, not bubbling and no longer becoming crisp,

is anyone’s guess. The development of pancakes probably

did not take place in southern Europe, where deep-frying

fritters in countless forms remained all the rage from the late

Middle Ages to the early modern period.

The first example of the modern crêpe in print might be

the recipe found in the Livre fort excellent of the s in

which ‘crespes faictes en poelle’ are made from a simple

batter of fine flour, white wine and egg whites cooked in

clarified butter. Since this cookbook seems to address a fairly

popular bourgeois audience, it may be the cheap affordable


crêpe alluded to above, though the amount of butter used is

not specified.

Although often cited as the first pancake recipe in

English, the Harleian Ms.  actually contains only the first

use of the word in a cookery book; the recipe itself is for

‘Towres’, made of egg yolk and marrow, spices and perhaps

chopped pork or veal if you like. The white of the egg is

strained and then fried like a pancake: ‘þan putte a litel of þe

Whyte comade in þe panne, & late flete al a-brode as þou

makyst a pancake’. Then the yolk mixture goes on top and

the round edges are folded in to form a square. So it is actu-

ally an omelette variation. The manuscript includes many

pancake-like recipes though, including the medieval ancestor

of the crêpe, here called ‘Cryspe’ – which it is, since it is basi-

cally a pancake batter (egg whites, milk, flour and yeast, sugar

and salt) drizzled by hand (the batter runs through your

fingers) into hot fat and removed with a skimmer, letting the

fat drain off. Not exactly a pancake; again, more like a funnel

cake, or the fritters mentioned above. In conclusion, there are

not really any pancake recipes from the Middle Ages, but that

doesn’t mean that people weren’t cooking and eating them.

It is not until the early modern period that true pancake

recipes begin to abound, in northern Europe in particular. A

Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye has many fritter-like concoc-

tions, but nothing for pancakes, even though in the recipe for

‘vautes’ we are directed to take the eggs and ‘frye them as

thynne as a pancake’ (fo. Bii). On top of this go veal kidney,

egg yolks, dates, raisins and spices. Interestingly, the word

‘vautes’ survives in north-eastern France, where it means

crêpe in Lorraine and Ardenne.

Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen of  has the

first recipe in English for a proper pancake, perhaps the first

in print anywhere. The mere thumb-sized bit of butter and


pan-tilting technique plainly reveal that this is not a deep-

fried fritter. On the other hand, it is extraordinarily rich and

quite unlike any pancake with which modern readers are

likely to be familiar. Unfortunately, if the directions are fol-

lowed precisely, the result is a horrible mess. With the pre-

scribed proportions, rather more than the suggested one

handful of flour is necessary to make a batter that will hold

together. One can only imagine that the author was either

careless or had gargantuan hands. With enough flour to make

a thin batter, this recipe results in a lacy, obscenely rich and

very soft pancake with delightfully crisp edges. But eating

more than one is out of the question:

To make Pancakes

Take new thicke Creame a pinte, foure or five yolks

of Egs, a good handfull of flower, and two or three

spoonfuls of Ale, strain them altogether into a faire

platter, and season it with a good handfull of Sugar,

a spoonful of Synamon, and a litle Ginger: then take

a frying pan, and put in a litle peece of Butter, as big

as your thombe, and when it is molten browne, cast

it out of your pan, and with a ladle put to the fur-

ther saide of your pan some of your stuffe, and hold

your pan aslope, so that your stuffe may run abroad

over all your pan, as thin as may be: then set it to the

fyre, and let the fyre be verie soft, and when the one

side is baked, then turne the other, and bake them as

dry as ye can without burning.

In the seventeenth century, Gervase Markham offers a pan-

cake recipe in The English Housewife which is aesthetically


Pancakes being cooked in a pan with a long handle over a fire, and being

enjoyed by children.

diametrically opposed to the one just cited. The exuberant

and even gaudy Elizabethan recipe above, here becomes

stark, even a bit puritanical. As Markham insists, it does come

out a bit more crisp with just egg and water in the batter,

but it is also remarkably dull and ponderous, despite the

interesting combination of spices. (Strangely, mixing the two


recipes, a culinary via media, yields very pleasant results, much like a modern pancake):

The best Pancake

To make the best Pancake, take two or three eggs,

and breake them into a dish, and beate them well:

Then adde unto them a pretty quantity of faire run-

ning water, and beate all well together: Then put in

cloves, mace, cinnamon, and a nutmegge, and season

it with salt; which done make thicke as you thinke

good with fine wheate flower: Then frie the cakes

as thinne as may bee with sweet butter, or sweete

seame, and make them browne, and so serve them

up with sugar strowed upon them. There be some

which mixe Pancakes with new milke or creame, but

that makes them tough, cloying, and not so crispe,

pleasant and savory as running water.

Appropriately, the royalist Robert May begs to differ on

the matter of cream. In The Accomplisht Cook () in which

most lilies are gilded, pancakes require no less than  pints of

cream, a quart of flour,  eggs and  nutmegs, plus  pounds

of clarified butter right in the batter. The effect was indeed

intended to be unctuous, especially after then being fried and

sprinkled with sugar. It is the epitome of a baroque pancake, if

such a thing can be imagined, hurtling through the clouds, held

aloft by cherubs. To be fair, he also offers variants using water,

or cream and rose water, though all are heavily spiced too.

Perhaps it would be better to search among the Dutch,

indefatigable pancake-eaters, for the earliest recipes. In fact,

the oldest Dutch cookbook, Een Notabel boecxken van cokeryen,


Adriaen Brouwer, The Pancake Baker, mid-s, oil on panel.

printed in about , includes ‘panckoecken’. These are dis-

tinguished from ‘struyven’, which here definitely refers to

fried funnel cakes. The pancakes, suitable for Lent, begin with

fine flour beaten up with yeast. From this is made dough,

rather than a batter, since a lump of it is made as thin as pos-

sible, presumably by rolling, though this is not specified. This

is fried, interestingly enough, in rapeseed oil (rather than

butter or lard, which would have been forbidden during Lent).


An enthusiastic customer at a Breton crêpe stand.

The ‘panckoecken’ can be studded with raisins or bits of

apple. Despite the name, they seem to be flat breads, unless by

a lump the author meant a dollop.

Only in seventeenth-century Netherlands are true pan-

cake recipes to be found, and the Dutch might even lay claim to

the invention of the modern pancake. De Verstandige Kock has

three lovely ones. The simplest is just a pound of wheat flour,

a pint of sweet milk and  eggs with a little sugar. Groeninger

Pancakes are similar but include a pound of currants and some

cinnamon and are fried in butter. But to fry the best kind of

pancakes (Om de beste slagh van Pannekoecken te maken),

 or  eggs should be beaten with running water (again, because

they’re tough made with milk or cream) to which are added

cloves, cinnamon, mace and nutmeg with some salt, and the

best wheat flour. These are cooked and sprinkled with sugar.


They are almost exactly the same as Markham’s dull spiced

pancakes. The author’s first recipe is actually preferable.

To confirm with absolute certainty that these are pan-

cakes rather than crisps, one need only refer to Dutch paint-

ings of the period, especially A Woman Holding Pancakes by

Jan van Bijlert, painted about the same time as these recipes

were written, in the mid-seventeenth century. In it a forlorn

woman stares into the distance, with her right hand lifting a

delicately thin, almost translucent, pancake from a stack on

a pewter plate. Otherwise unadorned, their only accompani –

ment a small glass of thin red wine. Perhaps, as a zealous

art historian would probably point out, the pancake is a

symbol of her virginity because, although flexible, it remains

un broken, and the bloodlike wine is not yet spilled. What

she contemplates is her impending wedding day, and her

Christian duty to be fruitful and multiply. Or maybe it’s just

a pancake.

The Dutch also developed other pancake forms such as

flensje – a thin crêpe-like cake made of unleavened dough.

There are also pancakes, made in a pan with round depres-

sions, called poffertjes or bollebuisjes – relatives of the Scandi –

navian aebleskiver. It is sometimes contended that all these

forms were transported with Dutch settlers to the New

World, in the colony of New Netherlands (now New York)

along with other specialities such as cookies and waffles. The

Dutch may be the origin of the American pancake craze, but

pancakes could just as easily have been imported by the

British who, as we have seen, had a form of pancakes in the

seventeenth century.

By the eighteenth century, pancakes abound in British

cookbooks. E. Smith’s The Compleat Houswife, also the first

cookbook printed in America, includes a recipe using a pint

of cream,  eggs, a whole grated nutmeg, a little salt and an


entire pound of melted butter with a little sack (i.e. sherry).

To this is added a mere  spoonfuls of flour. The result is an

extraordinarily rich and thin omelette sprinkled with sugar,

but scarcely resembling a modern pancake. Her recipe for

rice pancakes is actually a little closer, but it too is mostly

cream and butter thickened with rice and wheat flour.

In an earlier text, Mary Kettilby’s A Collection Above Three

Hundred Receipts in Cookery (), there is the delightful conceit

of stacking thin pancakes so they resemble a stack or ‘quire’ of

paper. But the minuscule proportion of flour once again

results in something quite different from a pancake batter:

Take to a pint of Cream, eight Eggs, leaving out two

whites, three spoonfuls of fine Flower, three spoon-

fuls of Sack, and some spoonful of Orange-flower-

Water, a little Sugar, a grated Nutmeg, and a quarter of

a pound of Butter, melted in the cream; mingle all well

together, mixing the Flower with a little Cream at first,

that it may be smooth: Butter your Pan for the first

Pancake and let them run as thin as you can possibly

to be whole, when one side is colour’d ’tis enough;

take them carefully out of the Pan, and strew some

fine sifted Sugar between each; lay them as even on

each other as you can: This quantity will make Twenty.

The most popular English cookbook of the century on

both sides of the Atlantic, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery

of , has five proper pancake recipes. They are cooked

only with a piece of butter the size of a walnut, and thus not

deep-fried, and the author specifies pouring a ladleful of

batter into the pan ‘which will make a Pancake moving the

Pan round, that the Batter be all over the Pan’. They are then

either tossed or carefully turned over, again positive proof


Netherlandish pancake cookery, replete with a pot of batter.

that these are the genuine article. Some of Glasse’s recipes use

only the typical three spoonfuls of flour, but others instruct

to add flour until a batter ‘of a proper Thickness’ forms, and

this may be the printed recipe with which American

colonists were first familiar. That Charlotte Mason includes a

recipe for ‘New England Pancakes’ among many varieties in

The Lady’s Assistant of  is also a good indication that a


The  encour-

aged citizens to

eat cornmeal

during World War

 so the govern-

ment could send

wheat, which was

considered more

nutritious, to

soldiers on the


separate American pancake tradition was already in place,

though there is nothing in the recipe itself that denotes

any distinction in form or ingredients.

However they arrived, by the time the first truly Ame r –

i can cookbook was printed, Amelia Simmons’s appropriately

named American Cookery (), the pancake is centrally

featured, in several forms and with a much wider variety of

starchy ingredients as well. Using native or alternative

ingredients is typical of American pancake recipes for the

next century or so. Here is her simple Federal Pan Cake

compounded of European and Native stock; Indian meal is

corn (maize):


Take one quart of boulted rye flour, one quart of

boulted Indian meal, mix it well and stir it with a little

salt in three pints of milk, to the proper consistence

of pancakes; fry in lard and serve up warm.

Others are made with buckwheat, beer and molasses;

Indian slapjack is made from milk, cornmeal, flour and eggs.

Simmons’s Johnny Cake or hoe cake is baked, and thus more

closely resembles cornbread. But there are variants elsewhere

that are essentially corn pancakes. The name, it has been

claimed, probably erroneously, is a corruption of ‘Shawnee

Cake’ – presumably having been taught to the colonists by

Native Americans. In fact another name for these is corn pone,

the latter word indeed coming directly from Algonkian.

Others speculate that Johnny is a corruption of the word

Hoecakes were

probably never

cooked on a hoe,

though this image

suggests a shovel

might work.


Cooking buckwheat pancakes on an old-fashioned griddle stovetop in

the s.

jonakin, the meaning of which is unknown, or Journey Cake –

either because it can be carried on long journeys, which seems

unlikely, or because it can be cooked en route, that is if one

brings along a hoe. If this technique was really used, it would

be quite simple, though advisedly one would want to remove

all traces of dirt first. A simple thick batter of fine cornmeal is

mixed up with water in the simplest versions, or with milk,

eggs and baking powder. Then the flat edge of the hoe is


placed on the burning coals. The batter is dropped on and

when ready the long handle makes it easy to pass, steaming

hot, to hungry campers. A shovel works well too and is a little

more useful while camping. No wonder another name for this

is ash cake. Another theory insists that hoe cake is a corruption

of no cake (meaningless in English) or nokehick (meaningful in

Narragansett). Perhaps only an enthusiastic food historian

could come up with the idea that you could cook on a hoe.

Strangely, however, there was still, even in the nine-

teenth century, confusion over proper pancake terminology.

For example, Lydia Marie Child’s The Frugal Housewife of

 includes a recipe for pancakes in which they are ‘boiled

Lurid red pancakes made with beets were a novelty in th-century America.


in fat’ and are really crisp round fritters. What we know as a

pancake, baked on a flat griddle or spider (which comes with

its own legs to stand over hot embers) she calls fritters or

flat-jacks. Both are made with the same batter: a half pint of

milk,  spoonfuls of sugar,  or  eggs, a teaspoon of dis-

solved pearlash (potas sium carbonate, an alkali used as leav-

ening and patented by one Samuel Hopkins in  – actu-

ally the very first  patent ever granted). The batter was

spiced with cinnamon or cloves, salt and rose water or

lemon brandy. In place of eggs, ‘lively emptings’ can be used

(yeast from brewing beer) or, with cornmeal, saleratus is

used (an early name for baking soda). Even more interesting

is the practice of making pancakes out of ‘flip’ which is a

mug of beer with molasses and a glass of rum, heated with

a hot poker until it foams, then thickened with flour (show-

ing a possible connection to flip-jacks or flap-jacks).

Remarkably, the flour she refers to is either corn or rye, and

even leftover rice can be mixed into the batter.

The willingness to use alternative types of flour seems to

have been much greater in the past than today. Sarah Josepha

Hale in the Good Housekeeper () makes cakes with a quart of

buckwheat and a handful of cornmeal leavened with yeast and

cold water, nothing more. Made with cornmeal and a little

wheat flour, milk and eggs, they are called slapjacks, to be eaten

with molasses and butter. But in common with Child, what she

calls pancakes are fried in lard, not ‘baked’ on a griddle.

Eliza Leslie must take the prize for the most original and

arresting American variant. In her Directions for Cookery ()

a recipe for the mysteriously titled ‘Sweetmeat Pancakes’


Take a large red beet-root that has been boiled tender;

cut it up and pound it in a mortar till you have suffi-


cient juice for colouring the pancakes. Then make a

batter . . . and stir into it at the last enough of the beet

juice to give it a fine pink colour. Or instead of the

beet juice, you may use a little cochineal dissolved in a

very small quantity of brandy. Fry the pancakes in a

pan greased with lard or fresh butter; and as fast as

they are done, spread thickly over them raspberry jam

or any sort of marmalade. Then roll them up nicely

and trim off the ends. Lay them, side by side, on a

large dish, and strew powdered sugar over them.

Send them to table hot, and eat them with sweetened


‘Flannel Cake’ is yet another name for pancake; it

appears in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking

() and consists only of flour and yeast mixed into a bat-

ter (the contents of which are not divulged). Soda is also

added before baking on a greased griddle. The name presum-

ably derives from the similarity of the final cake to the fabric,

or maybe to the shirts of those rugged types who normally

eat them.

By the nineteenth century, pancakes were enjoyed by

people of every station in society. No less a personage than the

chef to Queen Victoria served them. One can almost imag-

ine these being fed in the nursery to the royal brood. This

version, however, is meant to edify the lower orders. Charles

Elmé Francatelli’s A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes

offers a splendidly simple recipe, Pancakes for Shrove Tuesday,

worth quoting in full:

Ingredients, twelve ounces of flour, three eggs, one

pint of milk, a teaspoon of salt, a little grated nut-

meg, and chopped lemon-peel. First, put the flour


into a basin, hollow out the centre, add the salt, nut-

meg, lemon-peel and a drop of milk, to dissolve

them; then break in the eggs, work all together with

a spoon, into a smooth soft paste, then add the

remainder of the milk, work the whole vigorously

until it forms a smooth liquid batter. Next set a fry-

ing-pan on the fire, and, as soon as it gets hot, wipe

it out clean with a cloth, then run about a teaspoon-

ful of lard all over the bottom of the hot frying-pan,

pour in half a small teacupful of the batter, place the

pan over the fire, and, in about a minute or so, the

pancake will have become set sufficiently firm to

enable you to turn it over in the frying-pan, in order

that it may be baked on the other side also; the pan-

cake done on both sides, turn it out on its dish, and

sprinkle a little sugar over it: proceed to use up the

remaining batter in the same manner.

By the twentieth century, pancakes were everywhere on

both sides of the Atlantic – and indeed around the world.

The international history of pancakes will be recounted

below. For now, we continue the story by focusing on the

many roles pancakes have played in the culture of food. By

capitalizing on a few basic culinary functions, the pancake

has become beloved for a variety of reasons. Pancakes are

revered as the quintessential comfort food, a dish suitable for

holidays and celebration, a convenient and portable street

food, hearty and nutritious working-class provender and,

most remarkable of all, they have found their way into fine

dining. The following five chapters cover these topics in turn.

There are rich cultural associations with pancakes that

change over time and from place to place. For example, in

Britain Pancake Day immediately conjures images of raucous


celebration and races of pan-wielding runners beckoned by

the pancake bell. In the  the broad grinning face of Aunt

Jemima, though altered over the decades to disassociate her

from the ‘mammy’ of past generations, still draws forth

explicit memories of Sunday morning breakfasts. In the past,

the pancake was more readily associated with outdoorsmen,

pioneers and loggers, for whom breakfast absolutely had

to include a towering stack of buttermilk-laden pancakes

swathed in maple syrup and dotted with butter. As a respite

from work in the fields, the hoe cake, according to legend, was

cooked right on an open fire. Around the globe, different

people have decidedly different associations with pancakes,

and thus this story is as much about the people who make

and consume them as the food itself.



Comfort Food

In the western world, pancakes are among the most cherished

and quintessential of comfort foods, especially when served

for breakfast. This is because they are utterly indulgent and

completely predictable. Pancakes taste best consumed in

periods of sloth on protracted weekend mornings. They

must be savoured without hurry or premeditation, ideally in

dressing gown and slippers, at the kitchen table or maybe

even in bed, and preferably in excess, just to the brink of

nausea. The combination of grease, syrup and flour

should create just the right leaden effect on the stomach so

as to prevent any further activity for several hours. Park the

numb and bloated carcass in a comfortable chair with a news –

paper or in front of the : the only way to deal with the

postprandial stupor. This experience defines comfort.

Such pancakes are supremely comforting when pre-

pared by a loved one. Few foods better epitomize contented

domestication. What other food can nestle berries or choco-

late chips in a smiley face, or better yet be cooked in a Mickey

Mouse mould or poured in the form of the letter ?

Pancakes are normally made from fresh ingredients as

they are so simple to prepare but, increasingly, those pressed

for time or talent use dry mixes, chilled batters in a carton,


Apparently even dogs like pancakes, as this image of Cary Grant shows.

or even frozen varieties that are popped in the toaster. But

for a pancake to be considered homemade, there must be at

least a suggestion of actual mixing and frying. Aunt Jemima

has recently begun marketing a pancake mix in a plastic jug

to which one only adds water, creating an instant batter,

removing the mixing bowl step beloved by Bisquick fans,

yet still lending the impression of making the pancakes from


scratch. That is, it satisfies parents and children that this is

something cooked especially for them, of a higher order and

status than a box of cold cereal.

Aunt Jemima herself is a perplexing image of comfort,

recalling, despite her many makeovers, an antebellum slave

mammy, expert in the kitchen and ready at any time to

satisfy the hunger pangs of her master and children. Under –

standably the company has distanced itself from this associ-

ation, and Jemima now sports a neat coiffure and pearl

earrings, sure signs that she is a middle-class black woman,

perhaps a working grandmother, serving her own family. In

the early twentieth century, however, the association with

slavery was very real and Americans seem to have enjoyed

buying products they could imagine were fixed by expert

black cooks. Blackface minstrels and cakewalks were not yet

seen as degrading, at least by most white consumers. Aunt

Jemima was first used by Chris L. Rutt and Charles Underwood

in St Joseph, Missouri as a vehicle to market their instant pan-

cake mix, which appeared in . Though their Pearl Milling

Company went bankrupt, the pancake recipe and Aunt

Jemima were bought by the R. T. Davis Milling Company.

Davis decided to use a real live woman, one Nancy Green,

born into slavery, to be Aunt Jemima in the company’s adver-

tisements. She cooked pancakes at the Columbian Exposi –

tion at Chicago and drew enormous enthusiastic crowds. She

even entertained the throngs at Disneyland with her pancake

skills. In  Quaker Oats bought the product and its trade-

mark. Green had died a few years earlier in a car accident but

there were replacements for her for many decades.

The history of the advertising image of Aunt Jemima is

fascinating in itself, but the irony of selling a mix as some-

thing homemade seems to have escaped most people, as it

still does. Perhaps the idea was much the same as with instant


Louise Beavers as housekeeper Delilah Johnson in Imitation of Life ().

Loosely modelled on the experience of the woman who portrayed Aunt

Jemima, the film explores how the image of black slave women was

appropriated to sell pancake mix.

cake mixes: after adding eggs to the dry ingredients, the cook

is left with the impression of having actually made some-

thing. With pancakes, it is cooking them from a batter that

seems to constitute an authentic culinary accomplishment.

What is more perplexing is why the Aunt Jemima icon is

still used to sell pancakes. Clearly in the early twentieth cen-

tury she was a character meant to evoke the idyllic Old

South, where the black woman was portrayed as happy to

serve as a slave to the white family and to comfort them in

any number of ways, including going through the labour of

making pancakes so that mother did not have to. The fact

that she was plump and jolly also assuaged any guilt over the

real horrors of slavery. The Slave in a Box, as M. M. Manring

has called Aunt Jemima in a book of the same name, does


precisely the same thing. She (i.e. the company) does all the

work so you can enjoy your leisure and comfort. The box of

pancake mix serves the same function as the black slave.

In the twentieth century this product and many others

were marketed as ‘convenience’ foods. Somehow consumers

were convinced that the effort of mixing flour, eggs and milk

was excessive and that it saved time if you could just pour a

dry mix into a bowl. The combination of comfort and con-

venience reached perhaps the pinnacle of folly in an inven-

tion designed to make pancakes automatically at home. On

 April  Time magazine featured an automatic pancake

baker designed by the Polarad Electronics Corporation on

which ‘a hopper at the top holds the batter, releases enough

for one pancake at a time to an electronically heated griddle’.

The machine then flips it and the ‘finished pancakes thus

drop onto a platter continuously’. The inventor hoped this

would relieve his harried wife from the ongoing effort of

plying their voracious hoard of children with pancakes.

We must wonder how such a simple food could retain

the association with comfort, despite all these modern con-

veniences. The answer must be that pancakes are one of the

first foods given to children after they are weaned from pap

and mush and thus are indelibly associated with childhood

and pleasant memories. Not surprisingly they also feature

prominently in children’s books. Among all the foods men-

tioned by children’s authors, none is more pervasive than

pancakes – green eggs and ham notwithstanding. There is a

very good reason for this: pancakes are among the simplest,

tastiest and most approachable of foods that can be intro-

duced at a young age, hence the deep nostalgia among

grown-ups and reveries of happy pancake-filled youth. The

pancake is the comfort food that no vegetable or breakfast

cereal could ever hope to be. A true comfort food must be


Natalie Wood whips up a pancake breakfast, .

warm and fresh and preferably laboured over by a loved one

especially for you. Remember, this is how the witch in Hansel

and Gretel is able to lure the children into her house: not

only is the roof made of cake and the windows of sugar, but

she feeds them milk and pancakes, and only after gaining their

trust by cooking for them, does she lock up Hansel and reveal

her plan to eat the children.

Knowing full well that children can relate to pancakes, a

spate of books includes them – Curious George makes pan-

cakes, If You Give a Pig a Pancake is a sequel to the popular

mouse and cookie book and there are dozens of lesser-known

titles. This is nothing new: ‘Little Black Sambo’, though now

obscure thanks to illustrations and subject matter deemed

offensive, was hugely popular over a century ago. Set in India,

the story involves a young boy, Sambo, fending off a series of


tigers by giving them each an article from his dashing new

wardrobe. The tigers end up arguing over which is the most

dapper, finally chasing each other around a tree with such

vigour that they melt into ‘ghi’ (clarified butter). The butter is

then used by Sambo’s mother, Mumbo, to make pancakes.

Sambo eats no less than . That’s contentment for you.

The other locus for pancake comfort, interestingly

enough, is outside the home. The passion for pancakes was

satisfied in a sheer deluge of so-called pancake houses that

began to appear in the s. The Original Pancake House

founded in Portland, Oregon in  was among the earliest

of these and is still in business today with  franchises from

coast to coast. But it is minuscule compared to the pancake

house giant: the International House of Pancakes, or ,

founded in Toluca Lake, a suburb of Los Angeles, in .

Numerous national and regional franchises followed, it was

traded publicly by  and then went fairly berserk buying up

businesses over the next decades, including non-food compa-

nies. Today the company appears to have divested these to

refocus on pancakes. Today most  cities have one if not sev-

eral  franchises, with over  outlets thriving nationally.

The appeal of most pancake houses, judging from the

typical decor, appears to derive from nostalgia for the good

old times when people ate simple hearty food in great quan-

tities before they went out to chop firewood or plough the

fields. Red checked gingham, at least at the beginning, was

the sign of traditional home cooking, despite the fact that

most people drove up in cars and allowed strangers to pre-

pare their ‘grand-slam’ breakfasts. s all had a very dis-

tinctive -frame with a blue roof and a colonial-looking

electrified sign. Many shops intentionally capitalized on the

fashion for things colonial in the s, nicely coinciding

with the bicentennial celebrations and a surge of patriotism,


A modern incarnation of the International House of Pancakes in Stockton,


fostered perhaps in the wake of so much political disaffec-

tion during the Vietnam War. In other words, like traditional

family values and traditional American style at the time,

albeit in a highly kitschy s interpretation, the pancake

house became a bastion of comfort with an overtly conser-

vative message. Hippies might be drug-soaked and sexually

liberated, but good Americans take their families out to eat

pancakes. At least this seemed to be the message that came

through in the advertisements of the giant pancake houses.

There have also been loyal patrons of the independent

local greasy spoon, where one would at least know the wait-

ress and perhaps even be able to claim a regular spot with a

cup of joe and a short stack of flapjacks brought without

asking. Smaller independent pancake houses are to be found


everywhere in the . They blend fairly seamlessly into other

generic breakfast joints, such as Denny’s, which is actually

the largest breakfast chain in the , and has roots in

California in the mid-s. Diners are typically places where

one can get breakfast pancakes any time of day, and they are

an older institution than the pancake house. Diners usurped

some of the pancake house’s function, particularly involving

comfort food that can be ordered any time of day, even late

at night after a raucous night on the town.

The pancake craze was not merely a  phenomenon.

The Netherlands is also riddled with cosy pancakes houses,

though there they are more like family restaurants, often not

even open in the morning for breakfast. In Britain, the phe-

nomenon is not quite as widespread, though a few pancake

houses have been around for a long time.

The association of pancakes with comfort and family

values is not a western phenomenon either. In Japan, doraya-

ki have much the same appeal for children and nostalgic

adults, though they are more of a sweet treat than a break-

fast staple. They are normally two small sweet pancakes with

sweet azuki bean paste ( anko) in the middle, though they can

also be filled with chestnut or pastry cream. Dorayaki have a

strange history. Legend says that they were first prepared

when the samurai Benkei accidentally left his gong behind at

a farmer’s house where he was hiding out. The intrepid

farmer used it to cook little ‘gong cakes’ as the word trans-

lates literally. But they also have an interesting connection

to the Portuguese who arrived in the sixteenth century.

Dorayaki are made from a kind of cake batter incorporating

eggs, flour and sugar in much the same way kasutera or

sponge cake is made. Kasutera is in turn a form of the word

castella – meaning Castile in Spain – and thus dorayaki are

related to pão de Castella in Portuguese, or pan di Spagna in


Dorayaki are usually filled with sweet bean paste, but here they are topped

with octopus.

Italian, otherwise known as sponge cake. Today these can be

made at home to fill bento boxes for lunch, but little elegant

and intensely sweet versions are also mass manufactured and

sold in plastic wrappers. They are the favourite food of a

famous cartoon character, Doraemon, a robotic cat. Thus

the association of dorayaki with children is firmly established,

just as it is for the pancake in the West, although in form and

function perhaps the closest comparison would be with the

Twinkie. Dorayaki are similar in their cloying sweetness as

well as their nostalgic appeal, slightly derisive, as it is with all

mass-manufactured junk food. They are enjoyed by adults

precisely because grown-ups should not like them; they are

regressively infantile, and this in itself is comforting.

An entirely different kind of pancake in Japan is a fairly

recent invention called okonomiyaki. These are savoury and

have just about anything mixed in. In fact, the word means ‘as

you like it’. The batter is not dairy based but rather a mixture

of dashi stock (made from dried bonito flakes – a relative of

tuna, and kombu – giant seaweed), flour and eggs. The Kansai

variation originating in the area of Osaka can come with sea-

weed, bonito flakes, cabbage, pickles and a sweet brown

okonomi sauce, or even mayonnaise. Virtually any kind of fish

or meat can be included as well. In the end it looks something

like a pizza with toppings. In Hiroshima the ingredients are

layered instead and served on top of fried noodles.

Special restaurants serve okonomiyaki and some let cus-

tomers cook them on their own little hotplates ( teppan) at

each table, adding whatever they prefer. Others are a kind of

lunch counter where patrons are served right from the hot

griddle a huge pancake, deftly turned with two spatulas and

chopped up before service. They are also served by street

vendors and everywhere are a fairly cheap food. They are

thus a favourite among students, and shops abound most


Okonomiyaki in Japanese means ‘as you like it’.

around university campuses. For many Japanese, okonomiyaki

are a reminder of that happy time of life, before the onset

of professional pressures, family and responsibilities. And

because they come in so many varieties, everyone has their

own particular favourite. Of course any food that can evoke

powerful memories qualifies as a comfort food, but these

hugely versatile pancakes hold the same sort of appeal that

pizza does for students in the West; they are a food to be

shared among close friends. The more ingredients and the

stranger the combinations, the greater the sense of owner-

ship, and of course the greater the comfort when one eats

just the right kind. A friend, expert in Japanese food, says the

mere smell of okonomiyaki can bring tears to the eyes of a

grown man, nostalgic for his student days.

Comfort can also be derived from something one eats

every day and without which a meal seems incomplete. This


Okonomiyaki are also often cooked by diners on their own tabletop grills.

comes in the form of rice for most Asians, bread or pasta for

Italians. The same holds for the staple of Ethiopia, a behe-

moth pancake called injera. Certainly the prize for the largest

and most versatile pancake on earth must go to this dish. It

can measure a full  feet ( cm) across and there is good rea-

son for this – it serves as the base onto which an entire meal

is heaped in neat little piles. The typical – and not a little opu-

lent – Ethiopian meal normally consists of a wat, or stew of

chicken or goat, plus various purees of lentils and vegetables,

all highly seasoned and extraordinarily spicy. The injera can

also be served rolled up for each diner to tear bits off to use

as a utensil to scoop morsels from the communal platter.

When the meal is done the injera platter itself is eaten too.

Injera has a delightfully sour flavour and indescribably delight-

ful spongy texture; one might almost describe it as elastic.

Injera is comforting to Ethiopians precisely because it

is the staple, eaten at almost every meal. The best variety is

made from teff, a grain that grows here and practically

nowhere else. Botanically speaking, teff is Eragrostis tef, a


A simple illustra-

tion of the domes-

tic division of

labour in colonial

Abyssinia –

women making

injera, and men

consuming them.

delightful name meaning love grass, derived from Eros and

grostis (grass). It is a minuscule grain that thrives in the dry

conditions of the Ethiopian mountains and is extremely

labour intensive to cultivate and process. For this reason it

is fairly expensive and only wealthier families eat injera of

pure teff, the lighter coloured varieties being most highly

prized, though less flavoursome than darker types. In

poorer households the flour is made of a mixture of teff with

corn or barley. In Ethiopian restaurants in the  injera are

often made with regular wheat flour, which is not nearly

as interesting. Nor do they last more than a day. In Ethiopia,

injera are cooked every few days and they remain fresh and



The careful procedure of making injera in Ethiopia.

The huge towel-like injera is cooked on a hot flat griddle on one side while

covered with a basket lid.

Making injera takes a deft hand. They are a staple in Ethiopian cuisine.

The injera cooking technique is unique among the pan-

cake tribe. The batter takes a full three days to ferment –

with wild yeast in the air. First a thick mash is made from

teff flour and water. This is left to sour. The next day water

is added to thin it out and this is left another day. On the

third day the water on top is poured off and more hot

water is added until it is a pourable batter. Then a large flat

metal grill without a rim is heated, traditionally over a fire,

set low to the ground. Then in some versions cabbage

seeds, ground into a fine powder, are sprinkled on the sur-

face. Or oil can be used to moisten the metal. The batter is

then poured onto the grill starting from the outside and

working inwards in concentric circles. This is covered with

a reed-basket top. It is cooked quickly on one side only, the

bubbles which appear on the upper surface giving it a

lovely sponge- or towel-like texture. Lastly a round woven

mat is slid underneath to remove the huge pancake, which is

added to a pile.


For Ethiopians, injera is the most comforting of foods

primarily because there is nothing quite like it anywhere on

earth. Only an Ethiopian can distinguish those that are

properly made from poor imitations. It is a kind of connois-

seurship that comes only from daily experience. Eating

authentic injera just like mother or grandmother used to make

is, for Ethiopians, particularly those in exile, comforting

because it conjures up homeland and heritage and confirms


The same is true of the dosa (or dhosa, dosai) of India.

Although less well known in the West than chappati, nan,

roti and various flat breads of Northern India, the dosa is a

mainstay of the southern diet. It is structurally similar to the

injera in that they can both be huge whopping pancakes,

wrapped around food or used as little scoops to convey

mouthfuls. The dosa is also a product naturally soured

through wild yeast and made from the local staples, in this

case rice and black gram beans ( Vigna mungo). The procedure

is quite simple and yields surprisingly delicate results. First

the urad dal (which is the shelled bean whose interior is

white) is soaked overnight, as is anywhere from two to four

times the same quantity of rice, normally in a separate ves-

sel. The next day these are drained and rinsed, then finely

ground, traditionally in a huge stone mortar – a very time-

consuming process. A blender is a modern option. Water is

added to the finely ground paste until it becomes a smooth

batter. This is left overnight until bubbly and fragrant. It

must not be left too long or it begins to smell really funky.

This batter is then used to make a thin crêpe-like disc on a

large skillet or tava, lightly oiled or with a bit of ghee. In

Tamil Nadu the dosa is smaller and thicker. It is normally

served for breakfast with a sambhar (a thin vegetable and

lentil stew) or coconut chutney. A masala dosa is stuffed with

potatoes and fried onions and spices, but the onions can also

be put right in the batter. Ground fenugreek seeds are also a

common addition to the batter.



Round, thin, and made of starchy batter cooked on a flat surface, it is a food that goes by many names: flapjack, crêpe, and okonomiyaki, to name just a few. The pancake is a treasured food the world over, and now Ken Albala unearths the surprisingly rich history of pancakes and their sizzling goodness.
Pancake traverses over centuries and civilizations to examine the culinary and cultural importance of pancakes in human history. From the Russian blini to the Ethiopian injera, Albala reveals how pancakes have been a perennial source of sustenance from Greek and Roman eras to the Middle Ages through to the present day.  He explores how the pancake has gained symbolic currency in diverse societies as a comfort food, a portable victual for travelers, a celebratory dish, and a breakfast meal. The book also features a number of historic and modern recipes—tracing the first official pancake recipe to a sixteenth-century Dutch cook—and is accompanied by a rich selection of illustrations.
Pancake is a witty and erudite history of a well-known favorite and will ensure that the pancake will never be flattened under the shadow of better known foods.


Related posts

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *