I know – I’m late to the party. It seems the world and its wife have been posting about pancakes and their histories recently but work has been busy and I missed the chance to cook them all yesterday, so I hope you’re ready for another Pancake Opinion Piece today instead.
Let’s be honest right from the start – there are two types of people in the world: those that like their pancakes thin with sugar and lemon, and those that are wrong. You were all thinking it (and if you weren’t you need to take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror.)
Oh, pancake fads may come and go – and yes, I’m counting Nutella in this, deal with it – but the eternal Queen of pancakes is a paper thin lacy crepe absolutely drowning in fresh lemon juice and rapidly dissolving mountains of sugar. I have known people who swear by abominations such as fresh fruit and cream or melted chocolate with a glug of Baileys or Cointreau and have even met truly twisted souls who say they enjoy a ham and cheese pancake (it’s pancake day not galette day!) Since I don’t have time for that sort of nonsense in my life I try to spend as little time with these people as possible and will deny all friendship with them if directly asked. Sorry, mum, but some of us have standards.
I didn’t want to add to the mountain of information about why we celebrate pancake day – Shrove Tuesday – as there’s really only a limited amount to say about it but you know the drill: last day before Lent to use up all the food you actually want to eat before embarking on a miserable 40 days of hiding in the pantry secretly stuffing crisps in your mouth when you should be fasting instead. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that all this is in preparation for gorging on chocolate at Easter as a celebration of the time Jesus returned from the dead as a man-sized bunny and performed the miracle of handing out candy eggs to children who happened to be visiting Golgotha that day on a school trip. Or something like that.
Shrove Tuesday may be a distinctly Christian celebration but it has roots that are much, much older. There’s evidence to suggest that before Christianity arrived in Britain, pagans enjoyed pancakes at the start of spring (because the round shape symbolised the returning sun) in a celebration a bit like the Eastern Slavic tradition of Maslenitsa. Before that, pancakes were enjoyed by Ancient Roman soldiers as they ate their breakfast before returning to their station to keep guard over the portions of Britain they’d conquered. And before that too, high up in the Italian Alps the 5,300 year old Stone Age man Otzi enjoyed pancakes as part of his last meal – traces of charcoal in the grain found in his mummified stomach indicate that he cooked and ate something that may have resembled a pancake before he died.
So you’d think that this foodstuff – which spans millennia, religions, countries and customs – would have undergone some pretty radical changes. The pancake Otzi munched on as he hunkered down from the snow and tried to dodge skiers must have looked unrecognisable to the one my daughter kindly left festering on the floor under the table, right?
And yet, not so. Okay there may be some differences in thickness and the laciness so evidently required for a pancake to be truly worthy of its title, and some of the basic elements may have become more refined over the years, but the fundamental principle of what a pancake is doesn’t seem to have changed: flour and liquid (and sometimes eggs) mixed together and fried in a pan in fat.
For this pancake day I had planned to do something spectacular – attempt the original Crepe Suzette. Despite having no previous experience of flambéing or the ability to speak French beyond ‘le weekend, je vais à la piscine’ (a phrase I haven’t needed to use as much as my French book made me think I would) I did not immediately foresee a problem with this. No, it was only when it became apparent that there was no definitive first Crepe Suzette that I began to question whether it was possible.
One of the most popular origin stories of Crepe Suzette relates to a teenage waiter Henri Charpentier in 1895. The story goes that whilst working at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Cafe de Paris, he was called upon to prepare a dish of pancakes for the Prince of Wales and his entourage. As he sensibly mixed the alcohol together next to a naked flame, it accidentally caught fire and he thought the dessert was ruined. Fearing the loss of his job, he tasted it in the hope it could be salvaged and to his delight found it was “the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted.” The Prince thought so too, and when he asked what it was called the suck-up Charpentier told him that in honour of His Royal Highness he had named it Crepe Princesse (because like chairs, police stations and socks, all French pancakes are apparently girls.) The Prince asked that since there was a lady present in his entourage, could Charpentier rename the dessert after her – and so Crepe Suzette was born. Soon after Charpentier published this tale in his autobiography, the Maitre restaurant released a vehement response calling his version of accounts a lie because, given his young age at the time, there was no way he’d be let loose as the waiter to royalty. Other less self-aggrandizing stories tend to give versions that link Crepe Suzette to the French actress Suzanne Reichenberg, or the chef Monsieur Joseph’s desire to wow his diners and keep the food warm at the same time.
Whatever the truth was, it was clear that I was going to struggle with this one. Actually, it’s probably good that I didn’t attempt it as one restaurant critic wrote that the flames reached heights of 4 foot – and that was in the hands of an expert. So instead I decided to look at pancakes from three distinct time periods: Ancient, Medieval and Georgian.
Teganitai: 2nd century
Our first pancake comes courtesy of Galen, a man who’s well known as a 2nd century physician and philosopher in the Roman Empire but who somehow manages to escape the well-deserved title of ‘twit who helped halt medical advancement for a thousand years’ thanks to his promotion of the 4 Humours. History is full of twits like this so to be fair it’s not solely Galen’s fault that for years people thought that if someone was really sickly draining them of their blood would somehow cure them, but he definitely had key role in the tenacity of this belief.
When he wasn’t inadvertently contributing to humanity’s demise, Galen liked to write his thoughts down. He liked it a lot. In fact, he wrote so much down that even though an estimated two thirds of his works have been lost, the surviving texts we do have account for almost half of all the extant works of ancient Greece. One of these texts is called On the Properties of Foodstuffs and is a sort of treatise on various foods and their perceived attributes and abilities to cure or cause illness. For example, Galen advised boiling lentils once and seasoning with garlic to give a laxative effect (known as ‘purging’ in Humoural Theory) and that onions should be eaten by people with colds to thin the phlegm and restore the balance of the Humours.
On the Properties of Foodstuffs also contains one of the earliest written pancake recipes which Galen calls ‘teganitai’. It’s a very simple dish of wheat flour and water mixed into a paste the consistency of thick cream and then fried in olive oil. Galen mentions that there are two main flavourings that people added to the mixture – sea salt and honey. So, once my daughter had hoovered up her pancakes and set a new world record for stickiest toddler, I set about making my own teganitai.
eaten binned my daughter’s rejected floor pancakes (as well as being deeply disappointed that the two flavourings weren’t lemon and sugar), I only made enough to make one of each type of teganitai. The batter was a doddle to mix up and heating the oil wasn’t exactly a minefield either. It’s interesting, then, that Galen writes about the production of these as if it were intricate surgery, going so far as to give detailed instructions on how to flip the pancake once it was cooked: “…the cook turns it, putting the visible side under the oil, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or three times till they think it is all equally cooked…” I mean I know I complain about a lack of detail in older recipes but that was too much.
After my basic kitchen competency had been sufficiently challenged, I tasted them. They. Were. Delicious. I take back everything I said before about Galen being a twit – who cares that his party piece was performing live dissections on squealing pigs? – the man knew how to make a pancake. I had been a bit wary of frying them in olive oil because I thought, given how few ingredients there were, that fried oil would become the dominant flavour and they would be limp and greasy but they weren’t at all. They were very reminiscent of doughnuts in that they were soft on the inside but crunchy outside but because of their smaller and flatter size they weren’t as greasy or heavy. Because they had been fried all over they weren’t soft and flexible, and of the two I preferred the honey pancake (the sea salt one was a little bland) because I naturally associate pancakes with sweeter tastes. The sea salt pancake cooked quicker and easier than the honey one because the batter was thicker whereas I found the honey one dripped a bit when I first flipped it (thus bringing the sufficiently fried side, which had been underneath at first, up to the top – cheers for the tip, Galen.) Although they cooked for the same amount of time, the honey one came out a couple of shades darker than the sea salt one, but it didn’t affect the flavour; I would genuinely make them again.
And so on to the medieval pancakes. Or should that be crepes?
I still really wanted to pay homage to my original idea of Crepe Suzette, but I also wanted to keep my eyebrows in tact. It was then that I was struck by the pancake gods of inspiration – why not make the first documented version of French crepe instead?
Enter the Goodman of Paris – a man who needs to thank his lucky stars he’s been dead several hundred years because the #MeToo movement would definitely want to have words with him. Written in 1393, Le Menagier de Paris (‘The Parisian Household Book’) was written by an anonymous 60 year old man for his very new and very young bride – an anonymous 15 year old girl. The central purpose of the book is to instruct the young girl on how to run a household and perform her wifely duties (gross) and, surprise, surprise, it comes off exactly as nobbish and pervy as you’d expect.
“Each night, or from day to day, in our chamber [I would] remind you of the unseemly or foolish things done in the day or days past, and chastise you, if it pleased me, and then you would strive to amend yourself according to my teaching and corrections, and to serve my will in all things, as you said.”The Goodman of Paris to his wife
Dodgy relationships aside, one of the things the Goodman of Paris is concerned with is making sure his wife knows how to supervise and instruct her cooks in the correct preparation of fine food. Being a woman of some means (no, actually, a girl of some means – again: he is sixty years old, she is fifteen), she wasn’t expected to cook the food herself but should ensure her cooks knew how to. One of the many things her cooks should be able to prepare was ‘crespes’ and it appears that this is the first recorded recipe of something resembling modern day crepes.
This recipe was a step up from Galen in that it contained eggs and wine, but the general method was still the same: mix flour and liquids together and fry in sizzling butter. The difference was that this mixture was clearly meant to have higher quantities of liquid to flour, given that the Goodman says the mixture should “run around the pan”.
In an uncharacteristic bit of forward planning, I checked the recipe before I went out for the morning. I had to take my daughter to the dentist and figured that I could stop off at the shops beforehand to pick up anything I needed. Unfortunately it turned out the only thing I needed for this was white wine. No matter, I thought, I think I can style this out. Let me tell you now – I couldn’t. There can be little that’s more awkward than sitting in a dentist’s waiting room at 9:30 in the morning clutching a single bottle of Sauvignon blanc in one arm and a wriggling, shouty toddler in the other; I’m pretty sure that the receptionist called social services when we left.
In spite of the slight embarrassment, the wine was necessary because the recipe didn’t use any milk and only called for enough water to ‘moisten’ the egg and flour mix if it got too thick. I measured 150ml out and added it to the flour and eggs, which had been beaten into a smooth paste. The consistency was exactly the same as modern crepe batter and it cooked exactly like a crepe too, in a blob of butter. I felt delighted at the prospect of getting some real pancakes after all! Maybe, like his name implied, the Goodman of Paris wasn’t so bad after all?
These were also lovely. I could definitely tell there was alcohol in them but because they were so thin it was a background flavour rather than a key element. They had the texture of modern crepes and were just as satisfying. The only disappointment was that the Goodman served his with powdered sugar and made no mention of going one step further to add lemon juice, without which they were slightly dry.
I’d like to imagine that after a couple of years of putting up with him his young wife wrote her own version of Le Menagier de Paris filled with amendments and notes for him to improve on, but I suspect she didn’t. Maybe she just spat into his batter occasionally.
Rice pancakes: 1755
Someone who would have dished out criticism to the Goodman of Paris with the same relish as my daughter eating pancakes, was the English writer Hannah Glasse (of Curry ‘the Indian Way’ fame.) Hannah Glasse does not seem to have suffered fools gladly and wrote against French cooks specifically for being (as she saw it) wasteful and pretentious in their cooking: “I have heard of a [French] cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when everybody knows…that half a pound is full enough, or more than need to be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age [people] would rather [use] a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!” Yikes. Also, what were 18th century French cooks getting up to in their kitchens?!
Glasse first published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy with the modest tagline ‘which far exceeds any thing of the kind ever yet published’ in 1747. It sold quickly and went on to run to over 40 editions, each with new recipes in it. Lots of these recipes were plagiarised, but Glasse was on to a good thing and simply swiped criticism away with a well manicured hand.
The 1755 version of The Art of Cookery contains several recipes for pancakes ranging from “a fine pancake” which contained an insane 18 eggs and which Hannah ensures us “will not be crisp, but very good” to an equally decadent pancake containing orange blossom water and sherry. The one that caught my eye, however was rice pancakes.
I’d never cooked with rice flour before but expected these to be very gelantinous and imagined they’d be reminiscent of scotch pancakes in their thickness and size. Hannah implied they should too as she described the mixture as being the consistency “of pap” and just as appetising. A quick analysis of the pap batter in more depth shows that it’s based on exactly the same principle as the previous two pancakes – the main ingredients are flour and a liquid (eggs and cream or milk in this case) fried on a pan. The one difference with this recipe is that the fat is incorporated into the batter before frying.
Okay – these do look like the quintessential fluffy American pancakes – all that’s missing is a blob of butter and syrup. I admit they’re the most photogenic of all three pancakes and are probably what most people incorrectly think of when they think of pancakes. However, they were a pain to cook.
The recipe started off well enough and smelled lovely, kind of creamy and semolina-ish, thanks to the rice flour. As someone who loves a milk pudding, I was all over the idea of them at this point. I also found the rice flour really pleasant to work with, it just sort of dissolved into the milk as I stirred – unlike its temperamental plain flour cousin who always throws a hissy fit and clumps if I take my eye off it for even a second.
The trouble came when it was time to cook them. I don’t know if the measurements were off slightly, but it was hard to flip these. They kept disintegrating, so what you see in the photo is actually only about two thirds of the total, the rest ended up in fluffy piles in the corner or shovelled into my daughter’s mouth who now thinks it’s pancake day every day.
Taste wise, they were also the most disappointing of the three. Because I’d only put in a little sugar and Hannah doesn’t suggest serving them with any accompaniments they were a bit bland and underwhelming. Very fluffy and light, but just a bit…meh. Unlike American ones, these rice pancakes wouldn’t hold up against maple syrup – the liquid would just make them disintegrate even more. Amazingly and against all my natural instincts, I found myself thinking that would would really work would be melted chocolate and fruit, so I guess that in that respect they were a success.
Overall, it’s easy to see why the basic recipe for pancakes is so unchanged – they’re easy and quick and can be adapted to be as classic or as flamboyant as needed. I may not quite have achieved pancake nirvana in any of these recipes, but I’m glad they paved the way for my beloved lemon and sugar variety – and to anyone reading who still thinks there’s a better topping: flip off.
120g plain flour
225ml of water
2 tablespoons of honey or a pinch of sea salt
Olive oil for frying
- Heat enough oil to cover the base of a pan
- While the oil is heating, mix flour and water together. Add either honey or sea salt.
- Spoon two tablespoons of mixture into the oil at a time, or until you have a pancake the size of your palm. Fry on one side for 1 minute.
- Flip the pancake and fry on the other side for 1 minute.
- Continue flipping over until evenly cooked.
3 dessert spoons of plain flour
150ml of white wine
Dessert spoon of water
Butter to fry the pancakes
- Mix flour and eggs together.
- Mix water and wine and gradually add to the flour and egg mix.
- Melt butter in a pan and when it is bubbling, add enough batter to the pan, making sure it thinly covers the entire base.
- Cook for 1 or 2 minutes and flip the crepe over.
- Cook for 1 minute and then serve. Makes 5 or 6.
500ml whole milk
5 dessert spoons of rice flour
Sugar to taste
- Slowly heat the milk and 4 spoons of flour together until the mixture has thickened completely.
- Stir in the butter and let it melt.
- Grate the nutmeg into the mixture.
- Beat the eggs.
- Leave the mixture to cool a little before stirring in another spoon of flour and the beaten eggs and enough sugar to suit your taste.
- Cook in thick dollops on a hot frying pan for a couple of minutes on either side, turning when bubbles form and pop on the surface.
5 thoughts on “Pancakes through time”
Great post. Loved your overview of Galen, especially.
Thank you! 🙂
How much is a dessert spoon?
I am enjoying your writing very much. I can’t even think when I’ve laughed so much!
It’s about 10ml/0.4 fl oz. Sorry – silly Brit measurement (although I’m not sure it’s a standard unit even here.)
Thank you very much, I’m so glad you’re enjoying it!