Notes on a Pancake
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Pancakes. Though seemingly frivolous in their breakfast-y ubiquitousness, they have come to be quite an important pillar of my life. Other breakfasts come and go out of my own favor. I once ate bacon every day for 21 days. I became obsessed, for a period of time, with the art of huevos rancheros. French toast and I had quite the love affair, and I entertained a runaway romance with scrambled eggs. Eggs and I even brought others into the fold: hot sauces, cheeses, spices, vegetables, a literal smorgasbord of friends and flavors. Eggs and I have whipped each other into quiches, baked one another into frittatas. We have been over easy, sunny side up, poached, removed of our very yolks during the more austere times. I perfected each of these recipes to my own taste, the only proof I need that chefs cook to sate their egos. Along the way, we suffered through rubbery fried eggs, soggy french toast. Nothing on this earth can match the disappointment of a hardened, dry Benedict. As soon as the recipe was perfected, I moved on.
But the pancake. Oh, the sweet, steaming pillow of a pancake, comforting and warm. I couldn't dream of moving on from the pancake if I dared. I am a slave to its savory sweetness.
First, we must address the issue of recipe, ingredients, the very foundation of the cake (of the pan variety). I do not have a favorite recipe - in all likeliness, I have never cooked the same pancake twice in my entire life. Twenty-seven years of pancaking and every time, it changes. How much salt? How much sugar? Whipped with melted butter, or oil? Cooked in the same fat, or a different one? Vanilla, almond extract? Whole wheat or white flour; cane sugar or granulated?
Though the pancake has but few ingredients, the permutations are endless - I am certain that I have experimented with the majority of them. Assuming I have made or eaten pancakes once a month for every year of my life, and we'll say that I started at the age of four because I was a precocious, gifted child - aided, of course, by the gentle presence of my doting father - that is 276 different pancakes. Each subtle change yields a subtly different pancake product. All and none are my favorite. I am content with the pancake as it changes and morphs throughout time - eager to see where it will go next. To attempt perfection in a single recipe would be to admit defeat of a creative kind, to laugh in the face of the beauty of change.
Once the ingredients have been folded together like eternal lovers, never to separate again, we come to the issue of temperature. Cooking a pancake is like seducing a lover - come on too hot and you will scald and burn, the edges of both batter and love become singed with eagerness. Play it too cool and the pancake will wilt and wither, a dehydrated rose on the vine. Sometimes, I want a pancake that is singed, whose heat I can taste like carbon. Sometimes, I want a soft and tender cake whose flesh is only just touched by heat.
Most of the time, I want a little bit of each.
I always eat the very first pancake in the batch - it has been soaked and burned in freshly heated butter or oil from the pan, its edges are wet with melted fat.
I always eat a pancake from the middle of the batch - by now I’ve perfected the heat, the flip, the finish. This pancake is a warm shade of golden brown, it is round and thick, flawless in its execution.
I always eat the final pancake - scraped from the bottom of the bowl like desperation, the runt, the leftover. It is sloppy and malformed, ugly. But it is hot, fresh off the pan after all the other cakes have cooled, eager to please and just big enough to fill you up without overfilling.
I have a secret habit as well, a habit that few know and many share, a dirty little tradition. It is a raw kind of affection, almost dangerous: the batter. I lick it from spoons and spatulas and bowls. I dip half-cooked pancakes into it - pancake cannibalism. My love for batter extends beyond pancakes, crosses in to a variety of doughs and pastries and sweets. There is something deliciously satisfying about fat and flour and sugar and raw egg. It is primal and simple and divine. But the pancake batter was my first, my favorite. I'd sneak finger-dips and spoonfuls as a child when dad wasn't looking.
Finally, we arrive at the issue of arrangement and toppings. This is the constant in my variable pancake equation. I always stack the pancakes largest to smallest, a tiered tower, great and mighty like the pyramids. I soften butter and tuck pats of it between each cake like glue - binding them in fatty, salty flavor. And syrup - real maple only, heated - poured directly on the top in artistic swirls and patterns, a symbol of modern culinary art, inclusive of a small pool on the side for dipping, if I need an extra shot of sweet.
I tuck in and savor every bite and just like that, the stack is gone, like all beauty: impermanent and fleeting.