One of the annual class projects at the Midwestern boarding school where I grew up was making maple syrup. After collecting sap from the local stand of sugar maples, we’d stay up all night, boiling the stuff into syrup in a wood-burning contraption we’d set up near the decrepit tennis courts. Then we’d celebrate the season’s haul with a pancake social. It was a party we looked forward to all year — an excuse to pull an all-nighter outside when normally we’d be under curfew in the dorms, followed by the reward of towers of pancakes as night turned into morning.
Now that I’m not a teenager but a parent to one, my pancake socials are more modest: They started as breakfasts I made when the kids were little and had sleepover guests to feed; now they’re an excuse for the family and the occasional friend or two to get together on the weekend without the imperative that anyone change out of their pajamas.
My weekend plan for pancakes usually involves hitting the market on Saturday — to load up on fruit, jam, honey, flowers, maybe a wreath for the door — and stay home on Sunday — to read the paper, watch the early NFL game, and engineer the first wave of caffeine while I wait for folks to arrive.
The guests might be my daughter and her friends, taking a break from homework or college applications; or my friends, gathering for a few hours of cooking and conversation. Because one of the myriad joys of pancakes is that they can be eaten for any meal of the day — or sometimes all of them, as my older daughter, now with a college kitchen of her own, points out.
Batter up. I cook pancakes in a cast iron pan that likely predates my mother’s griddling, with quite a lot of butter over medium-high heat. The trick is to calibrate the heat, butter and batter so that the interior cooks through while the edges pan-fry into a crispy, bronze filigree. Ladle the batter into shapes — snowmen are the easiest — or coordinate the diameters to stack or pyramid. I’ve made pancakes as big as omelets and used cookie cutters; squirt bottles also work, though not with blueberries. The first pancake or two might be imperfect (I eat those) then I pile up the rest on a plate kept warm in a very low oven. Depending on the size and of your crowd, you can start early and have the whole batch cooked before folks sit down; or you can griddle and serve, handing them off hot from the stove.
Although you can use white flour or even a mix if you really need to (see: camping, survivalism), these days I only make whole grain pancakes. Not too long ago, America’s Test Kitchen tested pancake recipes and found that those made with 100% whole wheat stacked up — literally — a lot better than expected against those made with white flour. The bran cuts through the gluten, it seems. This geeky stuff is relevant because many pancake recipes caution against over-mixing, as if the batter is as delicate as a pastry chef’s génoise. So not only does using whole grain flour give your pancakes more flavor, make them a bit more nutritious and give you a good reason to source local or well-regarded flours, but it also means that you can take a break from flipping, make yourself another cortado, and then whisk the bowl without worry.
Fruitify the menu
The easiest thing is just to dump your market berries into the batter, or dot them into pancakes to order if you’ve got a picky crowd. But for me, hearkening back to those Ohio pancake piles, apples are always part of the mix: There was an apple orchard at the boarding school too, so we added cut apples to the batter. I like to sauté them now — same pan, more butter — and put them on top of the stacks rather than in them. You don’t need a recipe: Core and thinly slice as many as will comfortably fit into the pan, leaving the pretty skins on. (Choose a tart, firm apple variety, which holds up better in the pan, such as Pink Lady or Arkansas Black.) Add a big nub of butter and a pinch of salt, and cook the apples on medium-high heat until they’re caramelized, flipping as you go.
To drink with all this: a pitcher of orange juice. Hot spiced cider (add dashes of cinnamon, ginger, cayenne and taste as you go) is a great pairing; if your party is late in the day and your guests are inclined, Calvados is a nice addition. But pancakes want to be served with coffee. Get a sampling of favorite beans — I like Portola in Costa Mesa, Jones Coffee Roasters in Pasadena, and Go Get Em Tiger — and set up a coffee station. I put out all the mugs I’ve sourced from coffee shops, bookstores and Lambeau Field and make a first round from one bag of beans in a French press and another in a Chemex. Meanwhile, depending on how many folks are drinking, I also make a batch in the bright red Bialetti espresso-maker my daughter takes with her on trips; or the cezve, or Turkish coffee pot, that I got once in Istanbul. A cheap battery-powered milk frother enables cappuccinos on demand. Take orders and yell if you have to. Under-caffeinated people can be sluggish.
I make brown sugar syrup because my mother did: Not having the budget for real maple syrup, she boiled down brown sugar and water. For the Canadians among us: Rogers Golden Syrup, a thick sugar syrup the color of French copper pots. Butter makes things better. Look for Beurre de Baratte or Le Beurre Bordier or serve up butter that you make yourself by shaking a Mason jar of good cream until it is transformed. Syrup is fine, but locally made and sourced jams are easier to find than syrups from Canada or Vermont; pair jams that match or complement your grains and fresh fruit, depending on what’s in season and available. Stuff I like: Sqirl’s Persian mulberry jam, Red Bread’s blueberry jam, Jam’s apricot-almond jam, Smucker’s boysenberry syrup.
If you don’t use all the pancake batter — say, you’ve doubled or tripled the recipes, as I mostly do, for fear of under-feeding folks — just put the extra batter in the fridge, where it will keep for one or a few days. The great thing about using whole grain flour is that the batter is resilient, even benefiting from a bit of a longer rest. If your kids get up for breakfast before school, make more pancakes: Just add more milk to make the cold batter pourable. Add any leftover sautéed apples to the batter; or if you have extra apples but no more pancake batter, put them on toast or stir them into porridge.
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