Recipe Box: Recipe Perfection and the Question of Pancakes (with a Passover Option, Too)

I’m not the sort of cook who needs a hundred recipes for every dish. I’ve never understood the appeal of books like 365 Brownie Recipes or 1,001 Hamburgers You Can’t Live Without. This is especially true of staple items, such as chocolate chip cookies, fried chicken, waffles, pancakes, and such. When I find a perfect recipe, I’m happy to accept it into my repertoire categorically. Then, when I’m craving that one particular thing, I know what I’m going to make. In time, the craving becomes tied to the recipe.

The combination of heat, cast iron, and butter produces pancakes with crisp, buttery edges.

In fact, whenever I try a recipe, I’m hoping it’s going to be “the one,” whether it’s lentil soup, meatballs, or shortbread. I’m sure I’m not alone in this pursuit, since it’s the basis of the appeal of recipes on the backs of packages and of the success Cook’s Illustrated. Mind you, I won’t go to absurd lengths to get a certain crispness or a particular flavor, the way the folks in America’s Test Kitchen will. For me, the perfect recipe doesn’t require you to divide an egg into three parts or assemble a makeshift dehydrator using a hair dryer and a pastry tube.

Which brings me to buttermilk pancakes. About a dozen or so years ago Cook’s Illustrated published a recipe for perfect buttermilk pancakes. Looking for the pancake recipe I could call my own, I tried it. And it was very good, indeed. But in typical test kitchen fashion, they created a few problems just so they could solve them with an unnecessarily clumsy technique. To prevent the melted butter from congealing when it hit the cold milk you were supposed to take everything out of the refrigerator an hour before you made the pancakes and then stir the melted butter into the egg yolk, while you beat the egg white into the milk. Whatever. Unnecessary.

The way I make them, these buttermilk pancakes are hands down my favorite. Nate’s too. And we don’t have to set our alarm an hour earlier on a Sunday morning to make them. They never disappoint. If I don’t have buttermilk on hand, I substitute plain or vanilla yogurt or sour cream thinned down with milk, or sour milk, or whatever I’ve got. When it comes to pancakes, I prefer mine fried in butter in a cast-iron pan rather than cooked on a lightly greased griddle. My favorite part of the pancake is the crisp, brown edge that forms when they are made this way. Nate always takes a bite before adding maple syrup just to taste their buttery goodness pure.

Of course, you can add blueberries or chocolate chips or what have you, as you wish. But then, why mess with perfection?

Buttermilk Pancakes
Adapted from Kitchen Sense by Mitchell Davis

Makes eight 3-inch pancakes

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup buttermilk, or a combination of plain or vanilla yogurt or sour cream thinned down with milk

1/4 cup whole or partially skimmed milk

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda and stir with a whisk or fork to combine. In a 2-cup liquid measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, milk, egg and vanilla, and beat until the egg is blended.

In a large cast-iron pan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Pour the buttermilk mixture and the melted butter into the flour mixture and using a fork, mix just until blended. Be careful not to overmix. A lump or two in the batter is fine.

Return the pan to the heat and add another tablespoons of butter. Heat until sizzling. Using a large tablespoons or small ladle, make four pancakes in four quadrants of the pan. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface of the pancakes and the edges appear brown, about 4 to 6 minutes. I find it helps to rotate the pan over the flame to ensure event cooking. When bubbled, flip the pancakes and cook the second side, another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove to a serving platter or plates to keep warm.

Take the pan off the heat for a minute or two to cool. Return it to the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Swirl it around the pan. Repeat with the remaining batter.

To make blueberry or chocolate pancakes, add a few blueberries or chips to the individual pancakes once they are in the pan. Press them down with your fingertips to settle into the batter before flipping.

And now for the Passover part. It seems wrong to be posting a recipe for pancakes during Passover without providing an acceptable alternative for observant Jews. Here it is, a delicious Passover pancake—aka cheese latke—that will satisfy even the most flour-starved among us.

Passover Pancakes
Adapted from The Mensch Chef by Mitchell Davis

Makes sixteen 3-inch pancakes

1 1/4 cups ricotta, or 1 cup farmer cheese mixed with 1/4 cup cream cheese (at room temperature)

3 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 cup matzo meal

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

Cinnamon sugar, for dusting

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, milk, matzo meal, salt, sugar, and vanilla. Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large, preferably cask-iron, frying pan over medium heat. When the butter is sizzling, drop 1/4-cupfuls of the batter into the pan to form pancakes, being careful not to overcrowd them. When the pancakes have browned on the bottom and begun to bubble slightly, about 4 minutes, carefully flip them over to cook the second side. They should take an additional 2 or 3 minutes. Remove them to a cookie sheet to keep warm. Continue frying the pancakes, adding more butter as necessary, and being sure not to let the pan get so hot that the pancakes burn before they cook through. (I take the pan off the heat for a minute or two between batches.) The batter will thicken as it sits and the matzo meal swells, so you may have to spread the last few out in the pan with the back of the spoon. Dust with cinnamon sugar and serve with maple syrup.

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1 Comment

Filed under Food for Thought, Recipe Box, Taste Tidbits

One response to “Recipe Box: Recipe Perfection and the Question of Pancakes (with a Passover Option, Too)

  1. Allison

    Your makeshift dehydrator comment just elicited an inappropriately loud guffaw.

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