The other week on MR’s Thoughtline, I suggested that if you’re co-working at home, you might consider rebranding the kitchen as “the corporate cafeteria” during work hours. From the looks of social media, it appears that the kitchen has taken on an entirely different identity instead: namely, the International House of Pancakes.
After the first wave of bread-baking, sourdough-starting, and yeast-hoarding crested, I saw a flapjack-flipping surf rise in its wake. I have a few theories why. In some cases, pancake recipes operate at the nexus of comfort food and health food (the kind that borders on being baby food), requiring only a few ingredients to make something satisfying (a desirable row on the quarantine bingo card). Once you start researching pancake recipes, there’s no pumping the brakes: You may start small with the classic buttermilk mixture, and next thing you know, you’re broadening your horizons and experimenting with:
— this two-ingredient hack (for the uninitiated, you can make a pancake with just a banana and two eggs),
— Happy Menocal’s secret kale-laced recipe that deceives her (adorable) children into eating greens,
— or a savory winter squash variation.
Pancakes fill a void for someone like me, who has been known to lack some… exactitude in the kitchen. The pancake’s most winning quality is that there are no hard and fast rules to batter. Batter ingredients can be modified on a per-pancake scale. Batter can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it maintains the kind of consistency that slides out of a bowl and lands in a pan, coherently shaped. Batter is a state of mind.
Last weekend, I eased back into the pancake game after a lengthy hiatus with the banana/egg get-pancakes-quick scheme. I modified the batter slightly per person and per disc, adding rolled oats, various spices and even sunflower seed butter to the mixture as I worked my way to the bottom of the bowl. This week, I delved into unfamiliar terrain, modifying Smitten Kitchen’s winter squash pancake recipe for an indulgent, working brunch.
Seeking confirmation for my hunch that pancakes are having a moment, I interviewed a few key sources, including my younger brother. He theorized that “pancakes were always a way to celebrate the weekend, but now you can make them every frickin’ day.” (His pioneering preference for pancake preparation: griddle cake mix from our favorite San Francisco bakery, The Mill, topped with MGT Foods cold brew coffee ice cream, granola, sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.)
I also touched base with Fanny Singer, author of the newly-released book of recipes with the prescient title Always Home, who often makes her own recipe (“Fanny’s Pancakes”) with her mother, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Fanny, an inventive and longtime pancake practitioner, corroborates my theory: “Yes, the pancake is definitely back!”
Fanny prefers making pancakes that have a mix of flours and grains, rather than just white flour. “If I make brown rice for dinner, for instance, I’ll throw leftovers into a pancake mix the next day,” she tells me. “It gives them a wonderful texture that reminds me of the legendary pancakes at the now-closed Axe in Venice, CA.” Fanny and I gravitate toward the pancake process for similar reasons, too: “Pancakes are very forgiving, since the egg does a lot of muscular work in binding the mixture—so even though my tendency to play it fast and loose in the kitchen doesn’t serve me in baking generally, pancakes never seem to suffer from my spirit of improvisation.” She informs me of a cross-over between the bread-baking frenzy and the pancake’s popularity: Along with the uptick of people experimenting with baking their own sourdough bread, she’s also noticed a lot of people using sourdough starter to make pancakes. Music to my ears.
In terms of toppings, Fanny recommends a quick-cooked compote, if you have fresh or frozen raspberries or blueberries, with a bit of honey and water on the stovetop. “Does anything taste (or smell!) better than simmered blueberries? Nothing!”
For another perspective, I talked to Summer Dawn, who had “never flipped a pancake before in her life,” but whose sumptuous stacks I’d seen on Instagram. Summer reports that she’s made a dozen or more pancakes since being quarantined, though she may stop soon as she’s starting to get pimples from all the sugar. “I never order them at a restaurant either, as I don’t really have a taste for sweets at breakfast,” Summer says. “But currently, I’ll have a pancake for breakfast, after lunch, or as a little snack before bed. No rules. I’ve been using the mix from the restaurant Salt’s Cure in Los Angeles. They’re made from oatmeal, which gives them this incredible texture. Also, they’re slightly salty, which is different.” She attributes her newfound interest in pancakes to nostalgia, recalling memories of her faraway mom making Dutch pancakes—flattish popovers the size of your face—on weekends.
The humble pancake balances a golden ratio of photogenicism to tastiness to relative healthiness (if you opt for one of the unconventional and flourless vegetable- or fruit-forward recipes). If I were their spokesperson, I’d give flapjacks this slogan: “Easy to make, and easy to make look cute.” Pancakes don’t need a publicist, though. Take it from the recipe next up on my griddle’s queue: this fluffy Japanese souffle number.