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In recent years pancakes have demonstrated their versatility well beyond the breakfast table, with cafés, restaurants and brasseries around Britain now serving crepes with both sweet and savoury fillings.

Continental-style crêperies are firmly established in many cities, and certain diners serving the thicker, heavier stacks reminiscent of the classic American breakfast food have achieved cult followings.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that this much-loved breakfast treat is celebrated each year on Pancake Day – but if you aren't familiar with its history, you might be surprised at the origins of the custom. In honour of Pancake Day (celebrated this year on Tuesday, 4th March 2014), we take a look at the tradition, as well as the art of making the perfect pancake...

The history of Pancake Day

Pancake Day is held on Shrove Tuesday, which in the Christian faith is identified as the day before Lent begins. The word "shrove" comes from the verb "to shrive", which means to be absolved for one's sins through the practice of confession and penance. Hence Shrove Tuesday was traditionally the day on which Christians were shrived before the commencement of Lent.

So what does this have to do with pancakes? Well, Lent is a 40-day period of fasting and abstinence that leads up to Easter, during which time many Christians give something up as a form of penance. This often takes the form of more luxurious food and drink, which can include everything from meat and dairy to chocolate, sugar or alcohol.

Whereas nowadays the choice of what to give up tends to be a personal choice for each practitioner, in times past there would be a blanket ban on all such indulgent food during Lent. Hence, it became common to make pancakes on the day before Lent, as they're a good way to use up your stores of eggs, milk, butter, sugar and other ingredients before such foods become frowned upon.

Even though nowadays Lent is neither as strict nor as widely observed as it was in the past, many people in Britain and countries with similar customs (including Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand) still adhere to the custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday – which is now more commonly known as Pancake Day, even among the non-religious.

Over the years a number of beliefs have sprung up surrounding pre-Lenten pancakes, and many communities have even developed the custom further to include pancake races, mass football games, or hiding coins and other trinkets in the pancake batter for cautious eaters to find.

Tips for making the perfect pancake

There are many pancake recipes out there, depending on the style of pancake you intend to make – everything from thick, fluffy buttermilk versions that make for a hearty breakfast, to thin, slightly sweet dessert crepes and savoury French-style galettes. The latter are often made with buckwheat flour, which is naturally wheat and gluten-free, and hence are ideal for people with gluten intolerances. There are also many tasty vegan versions, so that everyone can get in on the pancake fun.

While most of the recipes are themselves fairly simple, you'll need to pay careful attention in order to successfully create the perfect, golden-brown batch of pancakes. Here are some top tips for making the perfect pancake:

  • Be sure to combine your wet and dry ingredients separately before you mix the two together, and once you do combine them, don't over-mix the batter – this can make the gluten start to develop and grow thick and chewy. It's fine if the batter is still lumpy.
  • Take the time to measure out and weigh your ingredients – pancake recipes often require great precision to get the right consistency.
  • Using butter to grease your pan lends the best flavour, but don't add too much or it will go brown at this high a heat – instead, brush on a thin, light layer. Vegetable oil (again, use a small amount distributed evenly all over) or a light cooking spray can also work, but avoid olive oil, which will give a distinctive flavour to your pancakes. Alternately, use a good-quality non-stick pan to cut down on the oil.
  • Make sure the pan is hot enough before you add the batter – a drop of water should skitter across the surface when it's ready.
  • If you're cooking more than one pancake at once, leave enough space for them to spread out – at least an inch or so between each.
  • Don't flip your pancakes too soon, or you could end up with a mess. Wait until the edges look a bit crispy and dry, and the bubbles in the batter have burst – it is then safe to peel up an edge and check that the bottom is golden brown and ready to be flipped.
  • If you're going to try to flip the pancake in the pan, tip the pan to a 45-degree angle and allow the pancake to slide down to the edge in order to get more leverage for your flip. If the idea of flipping makes you nervous, feel free to turn the pancakes over with a spatula instead.
  • Once you do flip over your pancake, resist the urge to press on it to make it cook faster. This won't work, and you risk losing the airy fluffiness the perfect pancake should possess.
The finishing touches

If at all possible, serve your pancakes fresh out of the pan, and be inventive with your toppings. For a savoury snack, think ham, chicken, cheese, roasted vegetables, eggs, or even pulses such as beans or lentils – when coupled with a side salad, this can make for quite a hearty dish.

Alternately, if you're looking for a sweet indulgence for breakfast or an afternoon treat, pile on the sugar, custard, whipped cream, sprinkles, fresh fruit and berries, butter, lemon, ice cream or chocolate. Or try a combination of sweet and savoury – think pure maple syrup with crispy bacon or chopped nuts.

What are your top tips for making the perfect pancake? And what's your favourite topping?


Lockhart Catering on 4 March 2014 4:15 AM

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