Five generations of my family have been cooking, serving and enjoying pancakes. These leavened discs of deliciousness remain the top choice for weekend brunch, even when camping. What follows is my hard-earned family recipe and tips for how to make pancakes and homemade maple-flavoured syrup.
If my math is correct, we had pancakes 633 times before my boys left home to make pancakes on their own. There are 52 Saturdays in an average year, and for 42 of them, from the time my boys were three until they were past fifteen years old, we had pancakes on Saturdays. Now, pancakes are the most frequent request when we camp. The grandkids want gramps to whistle up some buttermilk pancakes with syrup made with Great Grandma Ellen’s recipe.
I first learned how to make pancakes under the watchful eye my Mother. Classes mainly were smoking Mazola corn oil in the dial-controlled aluminum electric frying pan. Sometimes we had them for supper.
Volunteering to work the 4:00 am commercial cooking shift got me in front of a professional grade pancake grill five days a week, for a couple of years, under the expert pancake tutelage of Henry and Choy––professional chefs. It was like hell’s kitchen, only it was Choy’s kitchen, and I was Henry’s flunky––a young apprentice––they were master chefs.
I parked my Yamaha two-cylinder motorcycle at the far end of a short skid at 3:55 am and sprinted the cool hundred yards from the parking lot to my uniform. Henry had the grills heating. Choy had the coffee on. He was the boss, and he knew everybody produced better at four in the morning with a solid cup of coffee down their gullet. I certainly did. We made 20 cakes per grill on each turn of four grills, for a little over 1,400 pancakes in the first two hours of the shift. There must have been 45 gallons of pancake mix per batch.
At 6:00 am we got our reward, another cup of Choy’s coffee and a plate of pancakes with homemade syrup. I never tired of it. It was a contest for perfection: perfectly round, perfectly caramelized, perfectly done. Keeping 40 pancakes on a pair of sizzling grills is a contest of its own. You load grill number one with perfect rounds of batter from the far left to the front right, spaced just right so when they expand and cook, the edges won’t touch. You wait a few minutes, then load grill number two. Now turn the pancakes from grill one, flipping the perfect rounds, bubbles no longer blinking, staring at you to turn them-again far left to front right. Repeat for number two.
When grill one’s cakes are thoroughly cooked, remove them in the same pattern, rear left to front right, reload, and redo. Repeat until an even fourteen hundred cakes are done. I probably have more than two hundred thousand near-perfect pancakes to my name, maybe more. Not a lot of folks can claim that.
Now we call those “good ol’ days.” Days where I cracked hundreds of dozens of eggs, one egg in each hand two at a time, resting alternating steel-toed work boots on the galvanized foot rail to ease back tension while working erect. We were crushing and beating the life’s work of so many hens to make peasant food for the masses.
Life was simple then.
Secrets from the Pros: How to Make Pancakes
These two guys were generous with sharing secrets, building on my home-based pancake learning. There are three of these secrets I will share with you now.
- Heat the grill slowly and evenly until sprinkled droplets of water sputter and dance, evaporating. Cast iron is preferred. Don’t think about adding batter before that sputtering stops smartly, or you will waste your first grill load.
- Lube the cooking surface with COOKED OIL, we used deep fry fat in the commercial kitchen, but coconut oil or lard on a paper towel works wonders. The surface should reflect a subtle satin sheen, not wet with oil.
- Leave the pancakes in perfect rounds until the topside bubbles remain unblinking. When they stop blinking, flip them and leave them be for about the same time.
Here is the recipe for pancakes we serve at home still. This recipe makes enough for a family of four, allowing a couple to be tossed to the dog, and a few extras to freeze and do in the toaster like pop tarts later in the week.
The Family Pancake Recipe
2 cups pastry or cake flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon of baking soda
4 tablespoons of baking power
1/2 cup of white sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
And for wet stuff:
1 litre of fresh buttermilk
1/4 cup of canola oil
2 tablespoons of natural vanilla
4 whole eggs (cracked with shells off)
Lard or coconut oil
- In a bowl twice as big as you think you need, add the dry ingredients and give it a quick stir with a whisk. Making a well in the middle and mix all the leaveners, salt and sugar evenly.
- Mix the other ingredients in a 2-litre bowl and whisk the wet stuff together, breaking and mixing in the yolks.
- Turn on the griddle and heat it to a full 350F.
- When the grill is at temperature, smear lard or coconut oil on the grill and wipe it off with a paper towel. You want just enough fat to prevent sticking.
- Pour nice rounds of batter the size you want from left to right.
- Leave the pancakes bubbling until they stop blinking. Then flip them, again from left to right.
- Here’s the hard part: cook the second side just enough. This one goes by feel. My best advice is it takes about 2/3 as long for side two as side one.
Great Grandma Ellen’s Homemade Maple-Flavoured Syrup Recipe
1 cup of white sugar
1 cup of Demerara or dark Brown sugar
1 cup of water
1/4 cup or so of light molasses – more molasses means darker syrup.
3 tablespoons of corn syrup
2 capfuls of maple extract
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Bring this to a boil, turn it down, and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Serve this hot on pancakes. It will keep in the fridge for a week or two but might start to crystalize. Reheat the syrup to a boil to dissolve the crystals.
There you have it, a recipe for perfect pancakes and how to launch an ideal family-oriented weekend.
Our, Rigby, the Gordon Setter, loves them too.