I’m an Episcopalian.  We celebrate (or maybe “recognize” would be a better word) Shrove Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday, which kicks off Lent, which in turn is the countdown to Easter.

Personally, I think Easter is more significant than Christmas, so I take Shrove Tuesday pretty seriously (as seriously as I can take anything).

To the Catholics and the fraternity/sorority crowd, the day before Ash Wednesday is, of course, Mardi Gras or Carnaval, which gives them license to go hog-wild and act like a bunch of fools before the austerity of Lent is intended to begin.  They dress up, have parades, get naked, drink like fish, pass out, and generally behave like there’s no tomorrow.

Episcopalians make pancakes.

The idea, originally, was that having pancakes was a good way to use up all those decadent pantry items rather than let them spoil over the course of Lent–things like eggs, butter, and milk.  They don’t sound too terribly decadent here in the 21st century, but apparently, in the old days, you were expected to survive Lent on a diet of pond-water and potting soil.  For a devout Episcopalian looking down the Lenten barrel, a communal pancake supper was quite the hootenanny.

For a long time, I regarded pancakes as not much more than a Butter and Syrup Delivery System.  Eventually I figured out how to make the cakes to my liking–thick, tender, fluffy, a little tangy–and now I can forgo the butter and syrup.  I almost never do, but I can.

Technically, pancakes and waffles (and related griddlecakes) are a type of “quick bread,” meaning that they are leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda rather than yeast (although there are some yeasty pancakes out there).

Here are a few guidelines, regardless of what kind of griddlecakes you’re making:

  1. Make the batter.  If you want your cakes to be kind of thick–like I do–use a tiny bit less liquid than the recipe calls for.  It doesn’t take much of a liquid deduction to make a big difference, so when I say “tiny bit,” I’m serious.  Also, let the batter sit for ten minutes or so after you’ve mixed it, so that the flour can “autolyze”:  soak up the liquid and begin to break down, which results in a beautifully soft and tender cake
  2. Heat up a big griddle or sauté pan over a pretty high flame and add your clarified butter or pan spray
  3. Pour the batter in one spot, where it should spread into a pretty even circle.  Drop the batter so that no two pancakes touch sides after the batter has spread out
  4. Keep an eye out for bubbles on the surface of the cake–that’s your cue to flip it over (verify that the bottom of the cake is set and lovely golden-brown first)
  5. Spray the business-end of an offset spatula (both sides), and then, swiftly and decisively, slide it under the cake.  Don’t be hesitant or wishy-washy; you run the risk of sloshing uncooked batter off the surface and/or squishing the cake up against the side of the pan.  Flip it over
  6. Cook it until the bottom is that beautiful golden-brown we all know and love.  Don’t flip it more than once, as that will make the cake deflate

That said, here’s a recipe for:

Buttermilk pancakes

This recipe will provide you with about two dozen.

1 lb. flour

2 Tbsp. sugar

1 Tbsp. baking powder

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 pt. (24 oz., or 3 c.) buttermilk*

2 oz. butter, melted

3 beaten eggs

*–If you’re like me and love thick pancakes, use a tiny bit less.

Sift all the dry stuff–the first four ingredients–together.  Mix the remaining ingredients–the liquids–and add them to the dry ingredients, just until they’re combined.  Don’t go nuts with the mixing; lumps are perfectly okay.  It’s better to undermix than overmix.

Let that batter sit, covered and unmolested, for about ten minutes.

Everything I just said applies to quick breads in general–soda bread, muffins, banana bread, scones, whatever.  Mix the dries, mix the wets, just combine the two, and let the batter sit.

Anyway, back to the pancakes:

Coat your griddle with a bit of clarified butter or pan spray.  Once it’s pretty darned hot–375ºF, let’s say–drop two-ounce portions of batter onto it.  If you have a ladle with a two-ounce capacity, that’s cool.  If you don’t (I don’t), feel free to eye-ball it.  Just don’t let the edges of the cakes run into each other.

When you see bubbles bubbling through to the pancake’s surface, slide your sprayed spatula underneath it, lift up an edge, and have a look at its underside.  If it looks done, flip it over and let the other side finish cooking.

Once you lift the cake with an air of authority and decisiveness, you can back off.  Try not to flip and slam the cake back down onto the griddle–“Bam!”–because that can make the batter splash off into odd and inappropriate directions.  Just turn the spatula over, not too high off the surface of the griddle, and let the cake fall on its own.

A note on maple syrup:  look for Grade B Dark.  Grade A is thin and flavorless, and Grade B Light isn’t much better.  I suspect that the great bulk of Grade B Dark goes to high-end hotels and restaurants, so it’s practically impossible to find at an ordinary grocery store, but you can get it online if you dig around a little bit.  It’s worth the effort.

Anybody who knows anything about me knows that I am an absolute sucker for blueberries.  Hence, I feel that I would be remiss if I did not include:

Blueberry pancakes

You should get about a dozen silver dollar pancakes with this recipe, or eight at four inches each.  You can dole out the four-inchers with a 1/4 cup measure, if you like, and the silver dollars with a tablespoon.  I can’t promise absolute accuracy, but they should get you pretty darned close.

1 1/4 c. sifted flour

3 tsp. baking powder

1 Tbsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1 egg, beaten

1 c. milk (tiny bit less if you want them thick)

2 Tbsp. oil

As before, stir the dry ingredients together.  Combine the wet ingredients, and stir them into the dries just until they’re combined; the batter will be lumpy.  Let it sit for ten minutes, and then cook as before.  Right before you flip them, sprinkle about two tablespoons of drained blueberries over each cake.  Now flip ’em, and let the underside cook.  Done.

There are all kinds of variations for pancakes, but that should be enough to get you started–enough to get you through Shrove Tuesday, at least.

You have any Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Carnaval/Lent traditions?

I’m curious, so feel free to share.

Noteworthy addendum:  I have recently learned that adding a bit of malted milk powder (widely available and generally next to the Nestle’s Quik® type-stuff) to your dry pancake ingredients is a beautiful thing.  Try it.

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