Pancakes were, I think, the first dinner I ever made for my family. I'm not sure what set me off on the idea, but somewhere during my childhood I was shown how to turn a simple mixture of milk, flour and eggs into something magical, ideal for stuffing with all sorts of delicious things. Every now and again, when the whim took me, I would ask my mum if I could cook that night. Naturally, she was always delighted and assented without further ado. I'd find myself at the hob flipping pancake after pancake, feeling a rather satisfactory sense of pride at the notion I was both giving her a break from cooking and getting to eat delicious fare at the same time. Perhaps the thrill of it appealed to my inner drama queen - the sizzling of the batter as it hits the hot pan and starts to set immediately; the theatrical flick required to flip the pancake in its pan rather than chickening out and using a palette knife; the frenzy of bringing crêpe after crêpe to the table, replenishing empty plates as soon as the last mouthful has been swallowed.
Back then, I would without fail stuff these crêpes - for that is what they were: the thin, delicate French kind, although my clumsy child hands probably made them far more dense and rubbery than should be allowed - with bacon and cheese. Just that - bacon fried until crisp in a hot pan, and loads of grated cheddar. I have to say, although it doesn't have quite the same finesse as some of the flavour combinations I come up with on this blog now, you can't really beat a thin, squidgy crêpe stuffed with crispy bacon and oozing, tangy cheddar.
But, of course, only half the pancakes ended up this way. The rest were always reserved for that happy fate, the destiny of most milk-egg-flour mixtures: a liberal sprinkling with pure white sugar, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
You just can't beat it.
I used to have a very particular method of dessertifying my crêpes. I'd spread one out on a plate, then scatter sugar all over it. I'd then follow with lemon juice, until no white snowy patches of sugar remained - it was all saturated with sweet, tart juice. I'd fold the crêpe in half, and repeat the process, before rolling it into a cigar shape. No area remained untouched by my sugaring and lemoning activities. The result was a sublime mixture of squishy pancake, crunchy sugar, and juicy lemon. I'd find these completely addictive, sometimes eating four or five - and that was after the cheese and bacon feast.
(If you're a lemon-and-sugar purist, try serving your pancakes with this incredible Earl Grey ice cream, as I did last year. The flavours work gorgeously together.)
However, in the spirit of doing something a little different for pancake day, here's what I made this year.
Inspired by the deliciousness of caramelised russet apples, which I recently used in a wild rabbit salad, I decided to pair them with goat's cheese. This is a really underused flavour combination, but it works so, so well. The chalky tang of the cheese is perfectly suited to the soft, sweet apples. Add some crunchy walnuts for texture and earthy flavour, and a handful of crisp spinach leaves for a refreshing snap of greenery, and you have something that works perfectly nestled in the soft, pillowy curves of a light, golden crêpe.
I used wholemeal flour for these crêpes, mainly because I wanted to use buckwheat but I couldn't find it anywhere, so wholemeal was the next best thing. It's great because it gives the pancakes a slightly nutty, stronger flavour, perfect for standing up to flavoursome fillings.
Incidentally, I also discovered another amazing filling for crêpes this evening. Cook some mushrooms with a little garlic in butter over a high heat until golden and toasty. Pour in a splash of white wine, allow to reduce a little, then stir in a few spoonfuls of creme fraiche. Add some black pepper, salt, and fresh thyme, then bubble for a minute or so until you have a lovely creamy mushroom sauce. Spread over pancakes, top with grated Gruyere cheese or parmesan, then fold the pancake and devour. Aren't you just salivating at the thought?
But back to the main event. This is a wonderful and unusual savoury recipe for pancake day, ideal for lining your stomach in preparation for the inevitable sweet crêpes to follow. The combination is just beautiful sitting between those golden layers; it has all the right differences in texture, sweetness and tartness. Give them a go.
But obviously, make a double batch of mixture so you can eat the rest with lemon and sugar. That's what I did.
[For other pancake recipe ideas, see the first section of my Recipe Index]
Crêpes with goat's cheese, walnuts and caramelised russet apples (makes 4, probably enough for 2 people as a main course):
110g wholemeal flour
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs
2 tbsp melted butter
3 russet apples (or any apples), thinly sliced
Butter, for cooking apples and crêpes
2 tsp brown sugar
200g soft goat's cheese
A handful of spinach
A handful of walnuts
Fresh thyme leaves, for finishing
Sift the flour into a large bowl, add the salt, and make a well in the middle with a spoon. Pour the milk and water into a jug. Crack the eggs into the flour, then gradually whisk, slowly incorporating a little flour into the eggs. As you do so, add a little of the milk and water mixture. Continue whisking, gradually adding liquid and incorporating flour, until you have a smooth mixture - avoiding lumps is easiest if you use an electric whisk. However, you will get a more bumpy texture than if you used plain white flour, so don't worry about this. Add the melted butter at the end and whisk in.
If you have time, allow the mixture to rest for half an hour, or if not, at least let it rest while you make the filling. Heat the knob of butter in a pan and add the brown sugar. Add the apples and cook on a medium high heat for 5 minutes or so until golden and caramelised. Set aside.
Pre-heat the oven to around 60C. Get a large, non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan really hot and add a knob of butter. Swirl it around the pan to coat, or use kitchen paper to wipe it over the bottom of the pan. Pour in a ladleful of batter, just enough so that you can swirl it to coat the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or so, then check with a palette knife to see if it has formed golden bubbles on the bottom. If so, flip over and cook for another minute.
Make all the crêpes in this way. As you go, put them on a plate with layers of greaseproof paper between them and put in the warm oven, ready for filling.
When you are ready to fill the crêpes, simply spread the goat's cheese over half of each crepe, then scatter over the spinach, walnuts, caramelised apple slices and a sprinkling of thyme. Fold in half over the filling, then into quarters. Serve warm - you can put them back in the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese, if you like.