By Rupert Titchmarsh
So here we are again, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, Pancake Day, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras call it what you like, it’s the annual battery celebration for the start of Lent. The origins of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday seem to derive from the need to eat up fatty and rich foods before Ash Wednesday which is the official start of Lent, when Godfearing folk would adhere to the Spartan and functional diets espoused by the church during this period of fast. Shrove Tuesday therefore represented the last chance to have a blow out and to use up perishables such as eggs, butter and milk before the self-flagellation began in earnest.
Pancake races, where the (traditionally female) participants run down a course flipping the pancakes in a griddle or skillet, characterise Shrove Tuesday for many communities. This practice is believed to have originated in the English town of Olney in 1444, when a housewife late for her Lenten church service, ran down the street towards church, flipping her pancakes as she went. Whatever the origins and I find myself a little skeptical of a 550 year old eye witness account, the practice continues today all over the English speaking world. The most high profile of these races, other than the Olney race, involves the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the ‘Fourth Estate’ (members of the press to you and me). This race is held in aid of charity and normally passes off in good humored fashion, despite reports during to the expenses scandal that certain MP’s claimed for dry cleaning bills and treatment for Repetitive Strain Injury to the wrist.
Pancakes come in many different shapes and sizes from the thin crispy Crepes favored by the French, to the thick leavened varieties achieved using self raising flour, common in the U.S and Scotland where they are known as Drop Scones, Pikelets or Griddle Cakes. They can be made using wheat flour, buckwheat flour, spelt flour, rice flour, chickpea flour, chestnut flour, in fact almost every culture seems to have it’s own take on the humble pancake, from India to Africa, from Scandinavia to Brazil. They can be eaten with meat, cheese, fish, vegetables, pulses or sweets – versatile is the word.
The traditional English pancake, and the one we will be getting stuck to the kitchen ceiling on Shrove Tuesday, is made from a batter containing milk, eggs and plain flour and is essentially the same recipe as that used for Yorkshire Pudding. Proportions of eggs, flour and milk vary a little depending on the desired result but a good basic recipe is as follows.
110g or 4oz of plain flour
275ml of milk or milk and water if a less rich batter is wanted
Pinch of salt
Sift the flour into a bowl, make a well and crack in the eggs. Whisk together, with the liquid added gradually until a smooth batter is formed. Melt a knob of butter into the pan and spoon in the desired amount of batter and tilt the pan to coat the base. Leave to cook for 30 seconds or so and then flip and cook the reverse for a few seconds. Everybody has their own take on this recipe and it is difficult to end up with something inedible… except of course that one on the ceiling.
They are essentially a base for ingredients and whilst the simplest and most traditional serving suggestion which is of course lemon and sugar or golden syrup takes some beating, experimenting can yield satisfying results. Bananas and chocolate, jam and cream, cinnamon and sugar are all delicious and would all be popular on Pancake Day. That said, for many people myself included, Shrove Tuesday represents the only day of the year when pancakes are eaten. This is a shame as their versatility and the fact they can be cooked in advance and refridgerated (I don’t know if they freeze, anyone?), means that they lend themselves well to entertaining. Try making a seafood pancake by stuffing with shellfish, smoked fish and parsley in a béchamel sauce and baking with Gruyere sprinkled over the top. Roasted Mediterranean vegetables and haloumi or prosciutto and mozzarella would make great starters. Every year whilst gorging myself I vow to eat them more regularly and never do……. but then again, perhaps that is why I will enjoy them so much on Tuesday.
Rupart Titchmarsh is a writer living in North Yorkshire, England.
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