The Quest for the Perfect Pancake

One man’s quest for the perfect pancake will likely send you back to your own kitchen, searching for a cake with the perfect fluff and a good splash of top-notch maple syrup. We’ve rounded up three recipes that deserve a spot on the table.

Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Suppose you do something long enough, in my case, fly-fishing; sooner or later, you consider yourself an expert — not only in the activity itself but in all things connected with it. The connection may appear tenuous at best to the general public, but the expert sees the direct correlation. I, for instance, consider good food, especially a wholesome breakfast after a long morning on the water, as an integral part of the fishing experience. Also, as it so happens, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. The conclusion is obvious; I must be one of the world’s leading experts on breakfast.

Given this inescapable fact, I am sure the general readership of this fine publication can hardly believe its luck that I am willing to part with my invaluable insight into the most enticing breakfast option on the menu — pancakes. Here in the South, we are passionate about our stacks. In terms of our affection, they rank somewhere between barbecue ribs and cocktails.

Over the last 45 years or so, I have had the privilege to sample pancakes in countries throughout the world. Incredibly, in some countries, I encountered cooks who had no idea what American-style pancakes were, much less how to make them. I am proud to say that I was able to rectify this deplorable situation wherever I could — making the world a better place, one griddle at a time. Not that native pancakes are inferior; they are simply a different epicurean experience, much in the same way that veggie burgers and hamburgers are two different types of food that happen to share a shape and a name. 

Regardless of what country I happen to be in, several things annoy me about ordering pancakes in restaurants: For one thing, pancakes need to be served hot — not warm, and certainly not cold; syrup should be warm or hot, and the butter should be kept at room temperature. Who wants a rock-hard puck that shreds rather than coats the pancake? Far too often, my hopes for a sumptuous breakfast are dashed by a plate of lukewarm pancakes sprinkled with butter that will not melt and drenched in syrup that has been kept in the fridge and acts like an icy blanket.

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How the pancakes themselves are prepared is often enough to drive the poor expectant connoisseur to tears. Some may wonder what could possibly be tricky about preparing pancakes; the ingredients are simple and generally much the same between the countless variations known to man. The salient point is that the outcome is based on preparation and cooking techniques. 

Let’s start from the beginning. In my “humble” opinion, only two ways to cook a fantastic pancake exist: one is in a cast-iron skillet, the other is on a griddle. The cast-iron skillet works well at home and in the field. Because it is made of cast iron and relatively thick, it retains heat well, and, thus, the heat remains constant throughout the cooking process. Therefore, the unvarying temperature during cooking is essential. The electric griddle works well at home but falls short on field-practicality — unless one chooses to travel equipped with an electric generator, in which case the outcome might be stretching the concept of camping just a trifle.

In summary, the perfect pancake needs to be cooked on something that stays uniformly hot. Furthermore, it needs to be topped with a fine, dark amber maple syrup — preferably, for me, from Maritime Provinces of Quebec — and harvested with the traditional method involving a spike and sheet metal buckets. 

Most American pancake recipes call for the same few simple ingredients. It is the proportions of each, and the methods, that make some recipes shine and others fall flat.

Now, on to the texture, which is where arguments usually start. Options are: thick, thin, fluffy, dense, light or dark. Everyone has his or her preferences, but to this “expert,” the proper American-style pancake (not the entirely different food the French call crêpes) must be fluffy with more than just a kiss of a tan. I like thin, dark, plate-sized pancakes (although dimensions are another topic that can get people all red-faced with indignation). They should be soft on the inside but firm on the outside. I do not like pancakes that soak up the syrup — if I wanted to eat a sponge, I would order that instead of pancakes. When I look down on my pancakes, I want to see syrup on my plate, not a bunch of soggy pancakes.

The trick is to cook the outside fast on both sides without destroying the inside. Traditionally the rule of thumb is to wait for the batter to start bubbling and then flip the pancake. Most people take this a little too seriously and wait until there are bubbles everywhere before they begin to turn the pancakes. Given that the goal is to make relatively thin pancakes using a very wet batter, the pancake needs to be turned quickly. Pancakes are delicate and can be overcooked just like anything else. No one likes tough, dry pancakes. In some ways, creating the perfect pancake is like using the Pittsburgh method to prepare a good steak — a screaming hot pan should sear the steak on both sides until the outside is charred, but the middle remains rare.

At the conclusion of this critical discourse, let me describe the perfect pancake topping. At one time not too long ago (that is, if you lived outside of New England and Quebec) your only choice of syrup was something akin to Miss Butterworth or Log Cabin — serviceable, of course, but not very memorable. Today, we live in a “foodie” world, and gourmet markets offer refined maple syrups of multiple grades such as light amber, medium amber and the ever-so-expensive dark amber. 

The difference between forgettable and life-changing syrups stems from the time and energy that went into refining them (i.e. reducing the syrup before it was bottled). The longer the syrup is reduced, the darker the color and the richer the flavor will be. It takes a tremendous amount of maple sap to make maple syrup. The darker the syrup, the more sap was cooked down to produce a viable amount for the markets — hence the reason it’s so expensive. Still, I, for one, believe that it is worth splurging on syrup, given that pancakes themselves are a relatively economical food option.

For those of you who share my pancake passion, let me tell you about a few places I have found that do, indeed, serve the perfect pancake. Sadly, such epicurean gems are rare and difficult to find. Interestingly enough, the two best places I have discovered are dive bars that happen to serve breakfast. One is relatively close to the entrance to Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a notorious biker bar. Thus, it is not someplace you would take your wife for a lovely brunch, but then again, if she happened to like a great pancake, she might be willing to overlook the ambience. For me, the climate and flavor of the bar are part of the charm. The other Nirvana-like pancake destination is a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar that caters primarily to commercial fishermen in a little town called Matlacha on the west coast of Florida. Sadly, it is no longer there, which means that my best advice is really to stay out of chain restaurants that supposedly specialize in pancakes — you know the ones I mean — and to sample the offerings off the beaten path.

3 Top-Notch Pancake Recipes To Try

Amanda Gibson | Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

It was clear to Amanda Gibson at a young age that she cared more about food than most. Her parents once came home to find a 12-year-old Amanda wrapping shrimp in snow peas — something she saw in Martha Stewart’s “Entertaining.” Today, she is a published author who also writes an award-winning food blog called Lemon Baby, chronicling her adventures in seasonal food along the Gulf Coast. She makes these Lemon Ricotta Pancakes for her family as a cure for the Sunday blues. “The ricotta makes the pancakes as light as air (with an added protein punch to boot). I grate a little lemon zest into the batter and add some juice to be sure the flavor comes through.” The blueberry compote stores well in the fridge and is good on just about anything.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
1/2 cup full-fat ricotta cheese
zest from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup blueberries

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar and salt. Set aside.

2. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the vanilla extract, milk, eggs, ricotta cheese, lemon zest and lemon juice until smooth.

3. Gradually add the wet ingredients to the dry mixture and gently whisk until incorporated. 

4. Heat skillet or griddle on medium high; grease with butter. Pour 1/2 cup batter onto hot griddle, place 3 – 4 blueberries on top of pancake, and cook for 3 minutes, until the edges start to firm up and bubbles appear on surface.

5. Flip the pancakes and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes on the other side.  Repeat with remaining batter. Serve hot with blueberry compote (see below). Serves 4

Blueberry Compote

2 cups blueberries
zest and juice of one lemon
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the compote first by combining blueberries, lemon zest and juice, and sugar in a small saucepan and heat on medium until about half of the blueberries burst and sauce thickens slightly. Turn off heat, add vanilla and stir. Let cool while you make the pancakes.

Bill Thompson | Bill’s World-Famous Pancakes 

More than 25 years ago at a hunting camp in north Alabama, a friend of Bill Thompson treated those gathered to the fluffiest, most perfect pancakes they had ever tried. The recipe was shared and written down, and it stayed at the camp to be made by Thompson for all future guests. These days you will find him instead with an electric griddle under his boathouse on Ono Island, flipping flapjacks for friends and family while his granddaughter splashes in the water. This former owner of a yacht brokerage firm, and now head of Santa Rosa Shooting Center, is more commonly known by his family as the “pancake king!” 

Bill’s World-Famous Pancakes

Bill’s World-Famous Pancakes

1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 egg
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons more for skillet

1. Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, mix wet ingredients together. Combine wet and dry ingredients in the large bowl and use a fork to get the lumps out. Do not overmix. 

2. Let sit for at least 5 minutes until it has risen. Do not stir after it has re-risen.

3. Drop on a hot, greased skillet. Brown on both sides. Serve with hot maple syrup and enjoy! Makes 4

For years, Thompson made a habit of collecting a bottle of high-quality maple syrup wherever he traveled, and he amassed quite a collection! He enjoyed letting guests try them all and find their favorites.

These days, he says buying the best Vermont maple syrup you can get at the local grocery works just great, but don’t forget to warm it! Fill a mixing bowl with hot tap water, set the entire bottle of syrup inside and let it warm while you cook the pancakes.

Theresa Lacey | Southern Applesauce Pancakes 

In the wake of Hurricane Sally, Fairhope’s Theresa Lacey wanted to do something nice for the power company workers who had come from across the South to help her community. “We only had the gas cooker on our outdoor porch working, so cooking was definitely an experiment,” she laughs. Even so, every morning she made these applesauce pancakes and delivered them to the workers around town. The easy recipe has become a staple in her repertoire ever since. When not flipping short stacks, Lacey is an accomplished author who specializes in history and travel writing, having contributed to the popular “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. Her pancakes are good for the soul as well.

Southern Applesauce Pancakes

Southern Applesauce Pancakes

Lacey uses monk fruit sweetener instead of sugar to reduce calories. The sweetness of these pancakes means they work well on the go, even without syrup!

2 cups self-rising flour
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup organic two percent milk
1 cup monk fruit sweetener
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, beaten

1. Set oven to warm (170 degrees). In large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients until well-blended.

2. Spray skillet or electric griddle with nonstick. Over medium heat, bring skillet / griddle to 375 degrees.

3. Using a small serving spoon, ladle about 1/4 cup batter into skillet or griddle. Let cook until pancake edges are brown and centers are bubbly. Gently flip with a spatula and cook other side.

4. Place pancakes on rack centered on a cookie sheet. Place cooked pancakes on rack and in warm oven as you cook the rest. Serve warm with your favorite syrups, fruit or other toppings. Serves 6

James Stenson writes about fly-fishing, surfing and the unique culture of South Florida. He is the founder of Sweet Waters Adventure, an international adventure travel company catering to fly fishermen and wing shooters, based in Mobile.

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