Friday, September 03, 2010

Nate the Great (3/30)

Nate the Great,as you may have read yesterday, was more or less the muppet-baby cousin to Sherlock Holmes. Three or four feet tall, with accordingly sized hat and trenchcoat. Somewhere between "Firefighter" and "Astronaut", I went through a period in which my aspirational career was "Detective". I can no longer remember whether this was inspired by watching dubbed episodes of "Les Intrepides" on TVO (and other detective shows of its ilk), or if that was a symptom rather than the cause. In either case, besides his vocation, there was one other talent possessed by Nate the Great to which I aspired: the ability to make onesself pancakes. Nate would, when pondering a particularly difficult case, often return home and make himself a batch. I was always a little jealous that he could just make them himself; it didn't matter that he was ficticious - I wanted to be able to do it, too!

Fast-forward who-knows-how-many years, and I eventually learned from my father (as did he from his father before him) the process by which one concocts Dutch pancakes, or Pannekoeken. Since moving to Nova Scotia, I've run into more than a few people who insist on calling these "crépes", because "pancake" here seems to refer exclusively to the fluffy kind. Weird. What I am going to do today is teach you how to make your Very Own panekoeken!

First, let's talk equipment. You're going to want:

Mixing Bowl and Sturdy Fork

  • A mixing bowl, and a sturdy fork

Cast Iron Skillet

  • A cast iron skillet

Canola Oil

  • Canola Oil

The ingredients you need are simple, ubiquitous, and few. You will need:

Flour, Milk, Eggs

  • Flour
  • Milk
  • Eggs

Ok, and we're on to the process. Follow closely, even if it's kind of stupid obvious:

Measuring out 1 and a half cups of flour

  • I was feeding myself and one other person when I made these, and I used one and a half cups of flour, plus three eggs. The rule of thumb as my dad tells it is about one egg per person, but an extra egg will often serve you well. A double recipe would probably be good for anything from four to six, depending on hunger and how much else there is for breakfast. Ok, the first thing to do is make some space for the eggs (it doesn't really have to be a "well" per se, like you see in cookbooks. Just put them someplace where they'll all stay together), and then beat them. Try not to mix in too much of the flour yet (or beat the eggs in a separate bowl if you like), because that will probably land you with some very lumpy batter.

Eggs in Flour

Beating Eggs

  • The next step is to add the milk. No, I don't have a measurement for you. The consistency you're aiming for is definitely runny, but with some lingering viscosity. If you're doing this for the first time, I think it's better to err on the side of thickness, because if you make this stuff too thin it's going to be hell when you try and work with it in the pan. If you've made the "other" kind of pancake before, try for a noticeably runnier batter than you're used to, and you'll be on the right track. Then, beat it with your fork until there aren't very many lumps left in it. Some lumps is fine; they'll cook out in the pan, by and large.

Adding milk

The finished product

The finished product, close up

  • The next thing to do is put some canola oil into your pan, which you should set to a medium-highish heat. On my electic stove here a 6.5 seems to be about right. On my gas stove in Ottawa I would heat the pan on high and then turn it down to a 7 or 8, which was probably a little hot. This one is really trial-and-error and I can't help you too too much without knowing the vagaries of your unique stove. When you see a pattern like this start to form, it is time to begin making pancakes!

Hot Oil in Pan

  • I was using a 1/3 cup measure, and it took about 2 or 2 and a half loads to get a full pancake. Probably a 2/3 or 3/4 cup measure is preferable

Batter being poured onto hot pan

  • You'll want to spread the batter out. Using an oven mitt (a good one!) pick up the pan and tilt it in a kind of rotating motion such that the batter pours around the pan in a circular motion. If you don't get full coverage, add more batter to complete the pancake and fill in any holes. It goes without saying that since you're waving around a hot block of iron that you should be extremely careful. Tell everyone else in the kitchen to go bugger off if you must, just don't burn anyone!

Pancake in progress

  • Soon, you should find yourself with something resembling the above. It's not really ready to flip until the top is almost entirely dry (it will be changing colour, you will know when), but once the thing starts looking sturdy enough, start unsticking it from the pan. A note here on oil usage: you needn't replenish the oil in the pan after every pancake, but you should add at least a healthy dollop every 3 or 4 and slosh it around. If there's sufficient oil in the pan and you're not cooking at too high a heat, un-sticking the pancake should not be too hard. A spatula is good for this task, but I accidentally stumbled upon the humble kitchen spoon as an alternative. Again, if you're using a short metal stick next to hot iron, be careful! Now you'll want to do this slowly. Come at the edge obliquely, and sort of pry around wherever it yields most easily, and use the leverage to gradually unstick the whole thing. This will take practice, but you will improve. Probably start with the spatula, just make sure it's kinda slim/sharp. If your pancake tears too readily at the edges, consider thickening the batter with flour. About a quarter-cup at a time is the most I'd reccommend: there's a tipping point and you'll reach it quickly

Unsticking the edge of the pancake with a spoon

  • Now, here's the advanced lesson: flipping the pancake. The easy way is to use your spatula. Get it under the centre of the pancake and heave it over cleanly onto the other side. That's boring. Real pros do it like this:

A very attractive man flips a pancake using only the pan

  • If the pancake is unstuck, it should shimmy about when you slide the pan forward and backward. This is sort of step 1: get comfy. Next is to gently, but firmly make a tossing motion that will send the pancake flipping end over end. You'll get a feel for the balance. The lighter-weight your skillet, the easier it will be. Heavier pans with high walls will take 2 hands, and are probably not ideal for beginners. If you don't feel comfortable with this, DON'T TRY IT. Also, even very good pancake chefs have their bad flips. Have a spatula and knife/spoon/fork handy to detangle any screw-ups (and there were many of these when I was learning. Don't get discouraged; they still taste good with syrup!)

The flipside

  • If you've made it this far, you're doing really well! At this point the pancake doesn't need to cook for much longer, usually no more than a minute. Check the underside: once you see little circles of browned pancake, it's time to get this thing on someone's plate!
  • Maple Syrup is an obvious topping, but by no means stop there. A friend of mine once called my pannekoeken "lacking" in comparison to his brand of sweetened, fluffy pancakes. If your Dutch pancake is lacking in flavour, YOU are lacking in imagination. Fresh or frozen fruit, chocolate shavings, cinnamon/sugar, yogurt, fresh vegetables and cheese/cheese sauce/bechamel sauce/hollandaise sauce, etc - anything's a topping!. Since these are unsweetened, they can be paired with sweet and savoury toppings alike.
  • The final step, of course, is to find a grateful, hungry person to feed these to. Enjoy!


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