Pamela's pancakes rise to the Obamas' occasion


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Gail Klingensmith was sitting yesterday morning inside the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., and hyperventilating -- "breathing into a bag."

Her business partner, Pam Cohen, was "comatose" and staring at a magazine.

Didn't sound as though these ladies actually were enjoying "the top thing that could ever have happened" during their successful careers of making arguably Pittsburgh's, even the nation's, best pancakes.

Both pancake-makers made it sound as though they were flattened and battered by their Memorial Day flapjack situation. But, in truth, it's a warm and fluffy story stacked with excitement, filled with syrupy passion and buttered with tasty plot lines.

Ms. Cohen and Ms. Klingensmith, owners of six Pamela's P&G Diners, are working feverishly this morning inside the White House kitchen to prepare their thin, plate-sized, crispy-edged pancakes for President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and 80 military veterans for a Memorial Day extravaganza.

Yesterday, their chief worry was the White House kitchen.

"We use stainless steel flatiron griddles, and our concern is to see what we have to cook on at the White House," said Ms. Klingensmith, 54, of Ross.

From preliminary reports, the two women would be required to make 300 frisbee-sized pancakes on two tiny 2-by-2-foot grills. The problem is, the White House kitchen isn't a short-order operation.

"It will be like trying to pour a milkshake into a thimble," Ms. Klingensmith said.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, Ms. Klingensmith, 54, was driving through Bloomfield when the White House reached her on her cell phone. She said she suspected problems when the caller identification was blocked. At first she thought the White House request was a joke. Finally convinced it was for real, she pulled into a gas station. That's when the hyperventilating began.

And it worsened when the White House called back several times with details, updates and travel plans. Ms. Klingensmith called Ms. Cohen, 54, in their Strip District diner. She, too, thought it was one big joke.

But yesterday, there they were in Washington, D.C., a day early because, they said, they cannot just throw together their special recipe and slap it onto a grill. While the recipe remains a secret, key details reveal why their hotcakes appeal to presidential taste buds.

Ms. Cohen said three elements are necessary for good hotcakes. No. 1: Who makes them. No. 2: The batter. But No. 3 is their big concern: the grill.

"I don't know where we'll be cooking them. We've had some real disasters," said Ms. Cohen, recalling an event at Frick Park where they tried making pancakes on a makeshift grill with people lined up around the block. That event was a fiasco. No pancakes were served that morning.

Ms. Cohen's recipe evolved in the early 1980s after a waitress inside the original Squirrel Hill diner told her, quite frankly, that her thick, fluffy, pasty pancakes were awful.

So Ms. Cohen began tinkering with the recipe, eventually settling on a thinner pancake that required a secret process that included leavening and spices.

"You let the batter rise and sit for a couple hours, then you beat it down, let it rise again and beat it down," she said. "They are light but not fluffy. We don't want them to rise much when we put them on the grill."

Their special flatiron grill restores heat levels quickly once the batter is poured onto it. That's important to making them brown with crispy edges.

When Mr. Obama's campaign called their Strip District diner the morning of the Pennsylvania primary election in April 2008, the two ladies had only 10 minutes to fret and prepare for a famous customer.

Mr. Obama arrived with his campaign while the press corps poured in through the kitchen. U.S. Secret Service agents stood beside their chefs to watch over food preparation. Ms. Klingensmith sat at the table with the Obamas and Steelers owner Dan Rooney with Ms. Cohen standing close by.

When the future president left the diner that busy morning, he said, "We'll be back for them" -- them, of course, referring to their thin, crispy pancakes.

And, for sure, he thought enough of those pancakes and the diner's lyonnaise-style home fries that he chose Ms. Cohen and Ms. Klingensmith to cook breakfast for his first Memorial Day in the White House.

"This really is an honor," Ms. Cohen said. "This is a time when I wish my father [Stan Cohen] were here. He would be proud of this."

But, in yet another plot twist in this flapjack tale, her father -- a tail-gunner during World War II who passed away in 1998 -- never would order pancakes at her diners in Oakland, Squirrel Hill, the Strip District, Mt. Lebanon, Shadyside and Millvale.

"My father hated them," Ms. Cohen said, still perplexed by his dislike for her hotcakes. "He liked those thick, fluffy, pasty pancakes. So he always ordered eggs, home fries and sausage.

"But I'm glad I never listened to him."




David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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