Friday, January 30, 2009

Pancake Education

I am a bit addicted to learning. I can't think of a way to say that that doesn't sound incredibly cheesy, but it's true. If I have a free day I most often spend it reading the New York Times, looking things up on Wikipedia and trolling food blogs, not so much for recipes as for new cooking ideas and solutions to cooking problems that have been plaguing me.

One thing that's been bugging me for ages is Mark Bittman's pancake recipe from How to Cook Everything, a book I once adored but found inconsistent as I explored it further. I've used this recipe for every batch of pancakes I've made for the past two years. Sometimes they come out glorious: fluffy, tender, cakey. Other times (most times, in fact), they're thin and sad, nothing but a vehicle for maple syrup.

Tonight I made myself pancakes for dinner. I'm moving in less than four months and I'm starting to get a little anxious about using up all the food I've stored up since I started law school, especially things that can't be stored without refrigeration. Like maple syrup. Honestly, I could have picked something to fix for dinner that would have used more things up, but pancakes sounded good.

And tonight they were transcendent. I think they owe their success to two things. First, I used whole milk, which I almost never have on hand but which I had bought to use in the Steelers cake I'm baking for the Super Bowl on Sunday. And second, after reading a pancake primer on Smitten Kitchen, I decided I had been cooking my pancakes for too short a time in too hot a pan. The same article mentioned the challenges of cooking pancakes in a skillet rather than on a griddle, and as I am similarly griddleless, I decided to ditch my usual two-per-batch method in favor of single-pancake cooking. So I had fewer, bigger pancakes. I don't know whether that made any difference, but it's easier in any case, so I'll probably stick to it.

I won't repeat the recipe, since I've linked to it above, but I will add a few notes. I always make a half batch of these pancakes, and of course I use one egg (which would translate to two eggs for a full batch). I note this because Bittman gives a range. I think whole milk is probably essential, though thinned yogurt would probably work. I'm not making these with skim milk anymore unless I mix it with half-and-half or something. I almost never have to add more than 3/4 cup of milk, but I will add extra if the batter is too thick to pour. Also, I don't think the recipe calls for enough salt. I used salted butter in the batter and added 1/4 tsp of salt (for a half recipe), but I think more salt would have been much better. Finally, I minimize dirty dishes by melting the butter in a Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave (25 seconds on 50% power in my microwave), then letting it cool while I measure the dry ingredients into a bowl. Then I whisk the egg into the cooled butter, note the resulting volume of liquid, and add 3/4 cup of milk to the same measuring cup. I whisk that all together, then add it into the dry ingredients.

I found that these were ready to flip when the tops looked like they wouldn't stick to my finger if I touched them. Not totally dry, but skinned over, like pudding when it sets. They were done cooking on the second side when they puffed up noticeably in the pan.