On the Menu: Pancakes come in sweet and savory variations




A few weeks ago, I was wandering the aisles of the grocery store, contemplating what to cook for dinner. I wanted something light, probably vegetarian and just a little different from one of my Tuesday night standbys. A bundle of asparagus caught my eye. It conjured up a dinner of savory corn pancakes, spread with goat cheese, then topped with roasted asparagus and a fried egg.

While the asparagus roasted, I mixed together a quick corn pancake batter. By the time the asparagus was done, the pancakes were cooked, the eggs were fried, and the goat cheese was at room temperature.

That dinner got me thinking. Why aren't pancakes considered more often as part of the home cook's arsenal of quick and easy dinners?

There are so many reasons to love pancakes. They're quick to make, fun to eat and even a single, reliable recipe can be riffed on in countless ways. There are sweet pancakes for breakfast and dessert, and savory versions for lunch and dinner.

In "Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking" (Scribner, 2009), Michael Ruhlman describes a family of baked goods that includes quick bread, muffins, pancakes, fritters and popovers.

"Muffins are quick breads baked in cups. Muffin batter is different from popover batter only in that there's twice as much flour and usually includes baking powder. ... A muffin batter is essentially what holds abundant garnish together to be fried into fritters. Pancakes are really just thin muffins."

I think Mr. Ruhlman is underestimating pancakes' incredible versatility. A pancake is more of an idea, or perhaps a technique, than a strict definition of a dish. While it often relies on some of the scientific principles of baking (baking soda, in the right proportion, can be important), it's also open to freewheeling experimentation.

To get a sense of the diversity of this technique, one need only survey the amazing variety of pancake-like dishes across the globe.

In Korea, jeon or jun are a whole category of pancake-like dishes, made from coating vegetables, seafood or meat (or some combination) in a flour- or egg-based batter, then frying the batter in a hot pan.

Turkish zucchini pancakes make similar use of a batter to hold together lots of grated zucchini, which is flavored with herbs and cheese.

Some dishes dispense with seemingly essential components, emphasizing how widely the concept of pancake can be applied.

Vietnamese banh xeo are made from a batter of rice flour, water and turmeric powder, giving them a pale yellow color. They don't have eggs or a leavening ingredient, but the batter is poured into a thin cake cooked in a hot pan. Partway through the cooking process, bits of meat, seafood and vegetables are added to the top of the sizzling pancake. As with many Vietnamese dishes, they are served with fresh herbs and lettuce wrappers, as well as with a fish-sauce-based dipping sauce.

Some pancakes get their flavor and leavening from the same source. The cuisines of Southern India are particularly famous in the United States for their crepe-like dosai, made from a fermented batter of soaked and then ground rice, lentils and seasonings. The batter relies on wild yeasts and warm temperature to induce fermentation. In Ethiopia, the staple of traditional diets is injera, a pancake-like bread made from a batter fermented for several days. The combination of the long fermentation and the use of teff grain gives injera its spongy texture and distinctive sour taste.

American pioneers made sourdough pancakes so that they wouldn't have to rely on commercial yeast, not readily available on their travels. Byproducts of the starter act as leaveners but also give the batter (or dough) its pleasant tang.

This range of international pancakes is fascinating both for its diversity and for the similarities of technique and ingredients that tend to pop up along the way.

Pancakes can be leavened with yeast or a sourdough starter. They can be given an extra dose of lightness by separating the eggs, whipping the whites to soft peaks and folding them into the batter. Adding more liquid will create a thinner, crispier pancake, while adding more egg can create a spongier, more substantial mouth feel.

All-purpose flour can be supplemented or replaced with whole wheat, corn meal or buckwheat flour or an almost endless variety of other grains.

Extracts, zests and spices add flavor. Pancakes are a wonderful way to use up small bits of leftover vegetables, meat and seafood, or even leftover cooked grains and legumes.

Many pancake recipes call for buttermilk instead of milk, but one can as easily substitute yogurt or sour cream. Dairy also can be supplemented or replaced with fruit or vegetable purees or juices, such as pumpkin puree, applesauce or orange juice.

Some experiments may go awry, but unless you're adding truffles to your pancakes, little will be lost besides a few minutes of time and a few dollars' worth of ingredients.

And a great, original pancake recipe?

That is truly priceless.

Dosais

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Homemade dosais probably won't be as tender and paper thin as those you can get at Southern Indian restaurants, such as Udipi Cafe in Monroeville or Tamarind in Oakland, but these rustic versions have lots of flavor and are surprisingly easy to prepare. The chlorine in tap water can inhibit fermentation, so it's a good idea to use filtered water. Traditionally dosais are served simply with chutneys, or with more elaborate fillings such as potato masala, but they can also be filled with any kind of stew, curry or stir fry that you think will go well with their slightly sour, fermented flavor and soft, chewy texture.

-- China Millman

  • 2 cups raw extra long-grain rice (or basmati or jasmine rice)
  • 1/4 cup split urad dal
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 6 cups filtered water
  • 1/2 cup cooked plain rice
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Place raw rice, urad dal and fenugreek seeds in enough warm, filtered water to cover generously. Soak at room temperature for about 6 hours. Drain water and place mixture in an electric blender. Add about 11/2 cups of filtered water to facilitate the grinding process.

Grind dal mixture on high power for several minutes. Add cooked rice a little at a time to the mixture, as it is being ground.

Pour mixture into a large bowl. Add the salt and mix well with your hand.

Cover bowl with a plate and place it in a warm place in the kitchen overnight. The rice batter will begin to ferment and should double in quantity. If you are concerned that your kitchen is not warm enough, heat your oven to 350 degrees, then turn it off. Wait 10 minutes then place the bowl with batter, still covered, in the oven and leave overnight.

The next morning the batter should be frothy. Stir with a large spoon for a few minutes, then set aside.

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Place about 1/2 cup of batter into the center of skillet. Spread batter by moving a spoon in concentric circles, starting at the inside of the circle and working toward the outside, spreading batter thinly and evenly.

Cover and cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes. If added crispness is desired, when tiny bubbles appear on the dosai in the skillet, place about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon canola oil around the dosai. Otherwise, to make plain, soft dosais, don't add oil and cook only on one side.

Repeat with remaining batter.

Makes about 16 dosais.

-- From "Healthy South Indian Cooking" by Alamelu Vairavan and Patricia Marquardt (Hippocrene Books, 2008)

Arab Pancakes with Fresh Mangoes and orange blossom clotted cream

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This recipe requires pre-planning. It can be hard to find ripe mangoes at the market, and the clotted cream needs to be made the night before you want to use it, then chilled for a few hours. But the spectacular flavor of the orange blossom perfumed pancakes and the wonderful texture of the mango against the fluffy pancakes makes the extra work more than worth it.

-- China Millman

  • 3 eggs, divided
  • 6 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Zest of 1 orange, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 mangoes, cheeks sliced off, peeled and cut into thick slices

Whisk the egg yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar. Mix in the flour, baking powder, salt, orange zest and vanilla, and then add the milk slowly, ensuring there are no lumps. Whip the egg whites with the remaining sugar until they form stiff peaks, and carefully fold them into the batter. Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat, and lightly coat with butter or olive oil. Pour batter into the pan by the scant 1/4 cup. Moderate the heat so that the pancakes reach the desired level of browning when small bubbles have started to form over the uncooked surface of the pancake. Flip pancakes once and continue cooking until the bottom reaches desired doneness and the pancake looks fluffy.

Makes about 12 pancakes.

Orange Blossom Clotted Cream

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  • 1 cup cream
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons mild-flavored honey
  • Zest of one orange, finely grated
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom water

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and very slowly bring them to the boil. As soon as the cream boils, lower the heat and keep it at a low simmer for 5 minutes. Tip it into a glass bowl and leave it overnight, outside the fridge, wrapped in a clean kitchen towel. Then place in fridge and chill before using. Don't worry if the mixture doesn't seem terribly thick when you unwrap it, it will thicken up more in the fridge.

Makes about 11/2 cups cream.

-- Adapted from "Artichoke to Za'atar: Modern Middle Eastern Food" by Greg and Lucy Malouf (University of California Press, 2008)

Corn Pancakes

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Despite the high proportion of corn meal, these pancakes are incredibly light and fluffy. -- China Millman

  • 1 1/2 cups finely ground corn meal
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup Greek-style yogurt
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen corn

Sift together corn meal, flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in yogurt, eggs, butter and water. Add water in doses, until batter reaches desired thinness, but only stir as much as necessary. Gently stir in corn kernels.

Heat a nonstick frying pan or a well-seasoned cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add a little oil or some butter, just enough to lightly coat. Pour batter into the pan by about 1/3 of a cup, though you could also make smaller cakes if you choose. Moderate the heat so that the pancakes start to brown a little on the bottom, about when small bubbles start to form over the uncooked surface of the pancake. Flip the pancakes once and continue cooking until the bottom is also starting to brown a little, and the pancake looks fluffy.

Makes about 12 pancakes.

-- China Millman

Turkish Cheese Pancakes

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While exploring pancakes from around the world, I couldn't help but notice how often dishes that were technically flatbreads would be translated as pancakes. I'm on the fence about whether a pancake needs to be made from a batter, but these were too delicious not to include, whatever you want to call them. I served these as Ana Sortun suggested, with a lightly dressed arugula salad. They were also delicious eaten cold the next day.

-- China Millman

  • For the dough:
  • 1 1/2 cups (8 ounces) flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling out dough
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus a little extra for making pancakes
  • 2/3 cup lukewarm water
  • For the filling:
  • 1 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 4 ounces or 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated kasseri cheese (provolone is a good substitute)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To make the dough, sift the flour with the salt into a medium mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the oil and the water. Using one hand, mix together the flour and liquid until it comes together in slightly sticky dough. If it is too dry, add a little more water. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead well for about 3 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and roll them into balls. Place on a floured surface, cover them with a damp cloth and let them rest for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling by sauteing the onion in 1 tablespoon of butter. Let them cool, then combine with the cheeses and chopped herbs and season to taste.

Roll the balls of dough into flat rounds, using a lightly floured rolling pin, so that they are about 6 inches in diameter.

Heat a griddle or a large nonstick saute pan over medium heat and wipe it with a little oil. Slap one of the flat rounds onto it. Use your fingertips to shift the dough about, making sure it browns and puffs up here and there. Brush the upper side with more oil, and flip it over.

While the second side is cooking, spread 1/4 cup of cheese filling evenly over the cooked side. After about one minute, fold the pancake either in half, in quarters, or fold up the sides so it resembles a small tart. If you want to slice the pancakes into pieces, let them rest for a couple of minutes.

Makes 8 stuffed pancakes.

-- Adapted from "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean" by Ana Sortun with Nicole Chaison (ReganBooks, 2006)


China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .




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