Pancakes are everyday magic. There is something about a puff of flour rising to the occasion of an otherwise dull morning that makes me want to eat pancakes all day long.
My dad invited me into this dedication more than 40 years ago, letting me tend the griddle. Each time I hold the spatula in my hand, waiting for bubbles to break and tell me it’s time to flip, I am in that second when he surrendered the tool and the task.
An early love of pancakes
This was never about the syrup. We had the fake stuff growing up, and I didn’t develop a taste for the real. My love is for the cake. For the way something comes from almost nothing, and carries so much — butter, maybe some berries, and always a delicious, soft bite.
“My name is Amy Halloran. I am 7 years old. I have a new baby brother and I like pancakes.”
So I declared in my second-grade autobiography. My interest bloomed into a curiosity about baking, and throughout my childhood I made sure our cookie tins were full. In my 20s a blue cornmeal pancake at a restaurant, served with salsa and crème fraîche, directed my attention back to the griddle. I studied old cookbooks and baking powder pamphlets, scouting the perfect formula for corn cakes, savory and sweet.
Using locally grown grains
When I met the man I would marry, the first meal I made him was pancakes. There were ears of cooked corn in the fridge and nice cornmeal in his pantry. I debated about whether I should make them sweet, savory or both? Should I add flour? I wanted them to be perfect because I really liked him. I wanted him to know the self I made toying with recipes for oatmeal cookies and making my father’s favorite chocolate cake over and over again. The pancakes would be a tour of me.
We’ve been together 20 years, and most mornings, we have pancakes. Once I discovered freshly milled, locally grown grains, my devotion stretched over every corner of my mind. I started following these tasty flours back to the field and meeting the pioneers who are growing and using grains outside of the wheat belts. Farmers, millers and bakers let me watch them work and answered a gazillion questions. When I met the people who started the first malt house in New England in 100 years, I also met malt. Adding this sweet grain to my pancakes took them to another level.
Room for change
Pancakes are my sun rising each morning, and I want to make a constellation of them for family, friends and crowds. Occasionally, people suggest I should try theirs, and the idea makes me cringe. I know the offer is generous, and that my rejection is not, but other people’s pancakes are just that: not mine. I might as well live in someone else’s house and try to have her dreams.Yet within my reluctance, there is room for change, as baker and cookbook author Peter Reinhart showed me a couple of weeks ago in Maine, at the Kneading Conference.
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“Bread has a story to tell, and we wouldn’t be here if bread didn’t touch us in some special way,” Reinhart said in his keynote speech. Part of that captivation is the transformation of grain that was once living into living dough. Another part is the oven turning that dough into a currency that feeds more than our bellies.
His words were really hitting home for me. The translation of grains from ground to loaf requires the cooperation of farmers, millers and bakers. I love being the pancake chef and delivering a piece of me through food. That stitchery of baking fascinates Reinhart as well.
While researching his book about pizza, “American Pie,” he interviewed Chris Bianco, the poster boy of the artisanal pizza movement. The man, Reinhart said, was shy as he tried to get him to discuss what made his pizza so special. The unique ingredient, he eventually admitted, was him. Although he had been approached to make products or franchises, he couldn’t bottle himself to make any replicas represent what he did. When the author asked what connection Bianco wanted to make with people, he said, “I want them to experience my soul.”
Trying others’ recipes
This is what made pancakes my beloved. I have been staring at the griddle forever. I’ve given little else in life the same energy. I have arrived at an expression of my ideal pancake, a fluffy whole-grain loft, and I’m reluctant to taste anyone else’s estimation of the food.
However, I so admired Peter Reinhart and his ideas that when he announced he would be making pancakes from his latest book, “Bread Revolution,” I wanted to help.
The next morning, I was excited for a pancake date, but I had to fight the urge to bring my own pancake mix as an offering. I knew such an offering would prevent me from experiencing his recipe and method, so I left my mixes in the car and had a great time working with him and a few work-study students at the griddle. Plus, I actually liked the cakes!
Mixing it up
The next day, I had another person’s pancakes, and loved them also. Father Paul Dumais spoke last year at the Kneading Conference about his family’s Acadian flatbread, and now he’s making a mix. I was still reluctant to receive pancakes I didn’t make, but I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of biting into the soft, yellow buckwheat cake he’d curled into a roll.
This was him. His family had grown and milled the grain, and he had worked and worked to find a formula to re-create his mother and aunt’s ployes. He gave me mix to take home, and I’m serving it to my family and friends. They love these cakes, and I can’t wait for them to try the ones in their true form, made by Father Paul. He is missing from his food, but at least I get a reminder.
Making pancakes, making connections
The dish that escorted me into a five-year, book-long exploration of flour is bringing me into a new appreciation of people and food. While this is a surprise, it is also in keeping with the main thing I learned about grains. Other foods can go from ground to mouth without as much handling. Farmers, millers and bakers are collaborating with the seasons, soil and tools to feed us. I have been stunned by their work, and very appreciative of it. Now that my walls against other people’s pancakes are crumbling, I can feel connected to flour in another, equally enchanting way.
(Full disclosure: Peter Reinhart wrote a beautiful blurb for my book after he read it, but otherwise we have no connection.)
Main photo: Pancakes are a breakfast (or lunch or dinner) food that never gets old. Credit: Copyright 2013 Ellie Markovitch