PANCAKE SNOBS agree there is only one way to make a perfect pancake -- their way. Anything else, they'll insist, tastes terrible.
"Listen, no one has ever imitated Heinz ketchup, Lea & Perrins or Coca-Cola," said Lester Higatt, co-owner of the Original Pancake House in Portland, Ore. "Well, we're the same way. We haven't had any competition anywhere in 30 years."
"Nobody can make 'em like we do," he said in answer to why this coast-to-coast chain sells "thousands per day." "The technique is a skilled science that requires dexterity. Besides, you can't buy our flour and you need fresh eggs and pure, untreated whipping cream."
But should you ask Todd Davis, assistant manager at the Arlington International House of Pancakes, what it takes to make the world's best pancake, he'll say it takes his restaurant's buttermilk mix. "It's all in our secret flour," he insisted, adding that he wouldn't tell even if he did know the measurements. "It's unique to the pancake world. People have tried to imitate our special blend, but they just can't do it."
And then there are those who swear by Bisquick because the mix gives them "a pretty, golden pancake."
The fact that the best batters are lumpy batters is the only rule of thumb on which all the connoisseurs agree. From there, opinions vary on proper browning, consistency, thickness, fillings and whether they should be made with fresh milk or sour.
The plain fact is, there are piles of pancake tips. All you have to do is pick out those that suit your fancy and design your own perfect pancake.
First, choose your flour. Whole-wheat flour gives you a grainy batter and a nutty flavor. Cornmeal, which also makes a grainy pancake, gives it a crispness as well as a distinctive flavor. Unbleached and all-purpose white flours tend to make softer, more delicate cakes. If you use a combination of cake and all-purpose flours, your cake will rise higher and be less dense than if you used straight all-purpose flour.
Second, the sweetener. Granulated sugar browns less well than the simple sugars inhoney or corn syrup. The lactose (sugar) of milk also enhances browning. Bisquick contains powdered milk and whey, which contribute lactose and therefore aid browning. A similar effect can be achieved by using a sweetener such as corn syrup or honey in your own pancake mix along with fresh milk, says the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kans. Substitute four tablespoons of honey or corn syrup for every three tablespoons of sugar for golden pancakes.
Third, mixing. Mix all of the dry ingredients together before adding the liquids. Remember, though, not to just dump all the liquids at once. Add them slowly so the batter will be the perfect consistency. If you like a high, cakey pancake, the batter should be very thick, so you add less liquid. If you like a thin and crepelike pancake, the batter should be the consistency of a thin paste. Most important, don't worry about lumps; they don't hurt a thing. The baking powder breaks the lumps down while the cakes are frying. Overmixing only leads to rubbery pancakes.
If you like to eat pancakes regularly, mix a large batch of the dry ingredients together and store them in a plastic container. Then on those days when morning arrives much too early for your tired blood, all you have to do is open one eye, add the liquids and heat the pan.
Fourth, liquids. Simply put, if you like neutral, plain cakes, use whole or skim milk. If you like tart cakes, use buttermilk, sour milk or yogurt.
Fifth, the pan. Use a heavy frying pan or, better yet, a griddle. And don't over-grease it. Do use a combination of butter and oil. Butter adds flavor to the pancakes, but without any oil it will burn. Be sure to wipe excess grease with a paper towel (unless you like the crisp-edged pancakes like the Melbourne-Tokyo version below). An even, high heat is very important. Heat the griddle or heavy frying pan to the point where a few drops of water spit off the surface. If the water evaporates without spitting, then the pan is too hot; if the water just sits there, then the pan is too cool.)
Finally, frying the cakes. Drop the batter from a tablespoon onto the hot griddle. Leave the cake alone until it is ready to turn. When tiny bubbles begin to form across the top and the sides begin to brown, it is ready to turn (this takes about four minutes). Turn pancakes only once (they get tough if you keep flipping them) and cook for about two minutes on the second side. Remove from pan and serve at once, or wrap in paper toweling and set in a 200-degree oven to keep warm until serving time.
Once you get the method down pat, begin playing with the batter. Add fruit, nuts (pecans are wonderful), raisins, ham, cooked bacon, sausage or seafood, even chopped romaine lettuce. You can add these to the batter or sprinkle them on each pancake while the first side is cooking. When you flip it, the stuffing will cook inside the cake. Individualize pancakes by dribbling batter into the hot pan to form your initials (be sure to do it backwards, though), animals or other designs. Then fill in and around the holes with additional batter. When you flip the cake, your design will show up darker than the rest of the cake.
And that's all you need to make perfect pancakes. Here are some recipes to help you get started.
THE THICK, PLAIN PANCAKE (Makes about 20 cakes) 3/4 cup cake flour 3/4 cup all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon each baking soda and baking powder (soda for color and texture, powder for leavening) 4 tablespoons corn syrup or honey 1 egg, slightly beaten 3 tablespoons butter, melted 3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
Sift together flours, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Mix in corn syrup or honey, egg and butter. Add buttermilk a little at a time to moisten dry ingredients until batter reaches a thin paste. Do not worry about lumps. Grease skillet with 1 teaspoon butter and 1 teaspoon oil. Test pan for readiness by dropping water on surface; if water sputters, pan is ready. Pour batter by spoonfuls onto surface. When bubbles begin to form on top, turn and brown 2 minutes on other side.
MELBOURNE-TOKYO PANCAKES (A thin, plain pancake) (Makes about 20 cakes) 1 1/2 cups very sour milk 2 cups flour 1 tablespoon sugar 1 heaping teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 eggs 1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter Vegetable oil, for skillet
Let milk stand at room temperature for 4 or 5 days to sour. Whip to a creamy consistency, beating out all curds. Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Blend the flour mixture into the milk to form a smooth batter. Add eggs and melted butter. At this point the batter will probably be a bit too thick, so add water, a little at a time, until it is the consistency of a cream soup. Heat a griddle or heavy skillet and lubricate it freely with vegetable oil. There should be enough oil to swish around on the face of the griddle. Test it with a few drops of batter. When they brown in about 30 seconds, pour in 1 tablespoon batter to form a cake about 4 inches in diameter. Tip the griddle from side to side so the oil washes the sides of the cake to form a crisp, beaded edge. When the upper side of the cake is dry and pitted with burst bubbles turn it over for about 15 seconds. This is a test cake. If it is much thicker than a French crepe, add more water to the batter. Taste the cake to see if is has sufficient sugar and salt. Add about 1 teaspoon oil to the griddle (the surface must always be slightly awash), test it with beads of batter and pour in 3 tablespoons batter to form three 4-inch cakes. Wash the edges with oil, as before, turn them when ready, and serve them as soon as they are done. Reprinted from Gourmet Magazine, May 1969
ORANGE WHOLE-WHEAT PANCAKES (Makes about 16 pancakes) 2 eggs 1/4 cup oil 2 cups sifted whole-wheat flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cups fresh orange juice (substitute reconstituted frozen)
Mix eggs and oil and beat. Mix dry ingredients together and add alternately with orange juice until well blended. Drop by spoonfuls onto hot pan. Turn when bubbles form on top, and cook 2 minutes more.
The subtle orange flavor of this pancake is easily overcome with strong-flavored toppings such as maple syrup. Top with a tablespoon or so of honey or butter. From "The Tassajara Bread Book," by Edward Espe Brown
BANANA PANCAKES (Makes about 12 to 14 cakes) 1 egg 1 tablespoon sugar 3 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 3 ripe bananas, peeled and mashed Butter Sugar for sprinkling
Beat egg with sugar. Add flour, baking powder and bananas. Mix together with fork. Drop a tablespoonful at a time into a hot buttered frying pan. Turn when bubbles appear. These pancakes cook quickly. Be careful not to burn the butter. Add more butter to frying pan as needed. Remove to platter and sprinkle with sugar.
It is better to make two batches of pancake batter than to double the recipe. From "The Southern Junior League Cookbook"
LACY RICE PANCAKES (About 16 cakes) 1 cup cooked rice 1 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 eggs, separated 1 tablespoon butter, melted 3 tablespoons flour
Combine cooked rice, milk and salt, stirring to separate rice grains. Beat egg yolks and add to rice mixture along with butter and flour. Beat egg whites until stiff and add to batter. Drop batter by teaspoonfuls onto a hot, greased griddle. Cook until bubbles begin to form on top. Turn and cook 2 minutes more. Serve with syrup and butter. From "Virginia Cookery Past and Present," by the Woman's Auxiliary of Olivet Episcopal Church, Franconia, Va.
CORN FLAPJACKS (Makes about 36 cakes) 1/2 cake yeast 1/2 cup warm water 2 1/2 cups scalded milk 2 2/3 cups sifted flour 1 1/3 cups cornmeal 4 teaspoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 2 eggs, well beaten
Soften yeast in warm water. Cool milk to lukewarm and add yeast mixture. Mix dry ingredients together and stir in yeast mixture; cover and let stand overnight in a warm place. Add eggs and let stand 10 to 15 minutes before baking. Drop mixture from tip of spoon on hot, lightly greased pan. Cook on one side until puffed, full of bubbles and browned on the edges. Turn and brown other side about 2 minutes more. From "The United States Regional Cook Book"
COTTAGE CHEESE PANCAKES (Makes about 24 cakes) 2 cups cottage cheese 6 eggs, beaten 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup sifted flour
Blend cottage cheese until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and beat until well blended. Drop mixture from tip of spoon onto a hot, lightly greased pan. Cook on one side until puffed, full of bubbles and browned on the edges. Turn and brown on other side. From "Louisiana Entertains" "
LOUISIANA ENTERTAINS" SYRUPS ORANGE SYRUP (3 cups) 1 cup fresh orange juice 2 cups sugar 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Combine juice and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring. Skim off foam with metal spoon, add lemon juice. Store in refrigerator.
CREAM AND HONEY SYRUP (1 1/3 cups) 2/3 cup light honey 1/3 cup heavy cream or evaporated milk 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon Pinch each of cloves, allspice, nutmeg
Bring honey to a hard boil. Remove from heat and add remaining ingredients, blending well. Return to heat and stir until sauce reaches boiling point. Cool and store in refrigerator.
APPLE SYRUP (3 cups) 1 cup apple juice 2 cups sugar Cinnamon stick
Bring ingredients to boil, stirring. Cool and store in refrigerator.
BERRY SYRUP (About 3 cups) 10 ounces fresh or frozen berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries) 2 cups sugar 1/2 cup water
Bring all ingredients to a boil, stirring. Skim off foam with a metal spoon. Cool and serve with pancakes.