It’s Thanksgiving week and family are assembled. Breakfast today is “special pancake”, which my mother started making back in the sixties when we kids were picky as hell about the most important meal of the day. This we all loved, and still do.
Though I had no inkling at the time, I have since realised that this is the famous David Eyre ‘Pancake Nonpareil’, the recipe for which Craig Claiborne published in the New York Times in 1966, having eaten of it rapturously at David Eyre’s table in Hawaii, where Eyre was editor of Honolulu Magazine. Claiborne raved, “…with Diamond Head in the distance, a brilliant, palm-ringed sea below and this delicately flavored pancake before us, we seemed to have achieved paradise.”
Eyre’s version was modified from a German dish popularised by one of America’s first celebrity chefs, Strasbourg-born Victor Hirtzler, who included it in his 1919 Hotel St Francis Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the San Francisco landmark where he was head chef at the time of the 1906 earthquake (the hotel survived the initial quake and Hirtzler even served breakfast that morning, though there’s no record of whether his pancake was on the menu).
You sometimes see the dish by the name of “Dutch Baby”, though this version may include other ingredients (caramelised apple, ham and cheese, etc), so is not always the same thing. What characterises the special pancake, the pancake nonpareil, is its simplicity: eggs, flour, milk and air.
I’ve also realised since living in England these past many years that the special pancake is actually a Yorkshire pudding with lemon juice and icing sugar, but no less special for that. This dish has a surprisingly complex provenance for such a simple creation. I love that about recipes: you can pretty much guarantee that anything really good made with ubiquitous ingredients shows up in many cuisines by many names.
There’s an amusing footnote to the story of this oven-baked pancake. Craig Claiborne’s first publication of the recipe had a typo, calling for eight tablespoons of butter instead of four as intended (I reduce it further to three). My mother’s recipe must have been recorded from the original newspaper clipping because it still calls for the excess amount. As Amanda Hesser describes in her 2007 article: “Life was good if you were a food writer in the 1960s. Even when you made mistakes (Claiborne doubled the butter in his recipe), paradise never dimmed. Bloggers did not burn him at the stake. He was not dragged in shame through the corrections column. A few weeks later, he simply mentioned airily, “’The food editor was in such reverie on his return from Hawaii he did not notice the gremlins in his measuring spoons.’”
My mother relied on Craig Claiborne’s nearly infallible culinary guidance for many of her most treasured recipes. We both still have the 1961 Original New York Times Cookbook, mine a reprint given to me by my sister Amy in 1982. It does not include David Eyre’s oven-baked pancake recipe, but it does have a stellar recipe for Sour Cream Pancakes, which I’ve made ever since, maybe as much as the baked masterpiece. I take some credit for passing on the recipe for these tender, rich, but cloud-light hotcakes to English friends who thought they didn’t like “American pancakes”, but discovered they did, very much indeed. These friends in turn have made converts of other Brits more accustomed to English pancakes, which are thin crêpes more usually served for a later meal than breakfast and invariably for “Pancake Day” (the day before the start of Lent) in both sweet and savoury versions, as the French do.
I once served these sour cream pancakes with a surprise ingredient — a surprise to all of us including me. I thought I had added a handful of frozen blueberries to the batter, but noticed as I was cooking for each of us in turn that our overnight guests had accumulated a collection of what looked like cherry stones on their plates as they made their way through their modest stacks. I was perplexed, to say the least, and not a little alarmed, and reached for the bag from the freezer for a closer look. To my chagrin, I had fed them sloes intended for a batch of sloe gin.
The pancakes are so good that even those sour wild fruits weren’t enough to spoil them — not with the sweetness of maple syrup, anyway — but what a palaver with all those tooth-cracking seeds. Having never eaten a sloe before (and I’m not sure one should) I was more than thankful no one suffered stomach ache or loss of a filling. It’s not an experiment I will repeat, though someone invariably enjoys bringing up the story as part of the repertoire of kitchen mishap tales, along with the rice cooker that didn’t get turned on and the dog that made off with the steaks.
I’ve never served my English friends Eyre’s baked pancake as I don’t want to push my luck: they would definitely see it as Yorkshire pudding with inappropriate embellishments, and disapprove. Yorkshire pud is for gravy here, so I’m not sure it will catch on. I’ll keep it my special secret.
I. David Eyre’s pancake nonpareil
(adapted from Craig Claiborne’s recipe published in The New York Times 10 April 1966)
serves 1 hungry person or 2 willing to share
- 65g plain flour (½ cup sifted before measuring)
- 2 large eggs
- 45g butter (about 1½ oz or 3 tablespoons)
- 85ml (⅓ cup) whole milk
- pinch salt
- Optional: a grating of fresh nutmeg
- juice of half a lemon to squeeze on top
- sifted icing /confectioner’s sugar to taste
- Heat oven to 210C/425F. Put the butter in an oven-proof skillet or 20-23cm/8-9 inch casserole dish and place in the oven to get hot and melt the butter (but don’t let it burn).
- Whisk the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix the eggs and milk together in a measuring cup and pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients, whisking until fairly smooth (some lumps are fine).
- Carefully pull out the oven shelf and pour the batter into the hot dish. Close the door quickly and bake for 20-25 minutes or until puffy, golden-brown and crisp on the bottom and edges. Serve immediately on warmed plates; sprinkle liberally with lemon juice and icing sugar.
(adapted from Craig Claiborne, The Original New York Times Cookbook; Harper and Row, 1982 edition)
(*I’ve never had 14 5-inch pancakes from this amount of batter as the recipes says I should. I find it makes 5 or 6.)
- 130g plain/all-purpose or soft “00” flour /cake flour (1 cup sifted before measuring)
- ½ teaspoon cooking salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 375 -400ml (1¼ to 1⅓ cups) full fat sour cream
- 1 large egg
- Optional: a handful of fresh or frozen blueberries** or other berries
- a little butter for the pan
- melted butter and maple syrup for serving
- Put a large skillet or frying pan onto medium heat on the stovetop. Put serving plates somewhere warm in readiness.
- In a large bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together. In a measuring cup, mix the sour cream and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, folding lightly until just incorporated. If adding berries, do that now. Don’t overmix; it’s better to leave lumps. The batter will be thick, but if too thick, add a splash of milk. Let the batter sit for just a couple of minutes if you can before cooking: this allows the moisture to spread without further mixing, and gets the rising agent going.
- Brush a little butter in the pan (not too much or the pancakes will be brown and crisp instead of golden and soft). Spoon the batter in, making sure you leave space to turn the pancakes; cook them in batches rather than crowd them. They should cook at a medium heat, gently enough not to brown too fast, but not sluggishly. When the top appears slightly set and you can get a spatula under without sticking, flip them over and cook until puffed up and firm to the touch.
- Serve immediately on warm plates with melted butter and maple syrup. (**Alternatively to adding blueberries to the pancakes, add them to maple syrup and butter in a saucepan to heat through.)
Craig Claiborne, The Original New York Times Cookbook. Harper and Row, 1961.
Amander Hesser. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/magazine/25food.txt.html?_r=0