I've always found it slightly bizarre that we have one, just one, official day in the calendar where we unite to celebrate a specific foodstuff...and we decide that that foodstuff should be pancakes. The one day where you can legitimately invite loads of people round to stuff their faces with a single specified food, the sort of day that demands to be celebrated with a crowd...and we choose pancakes.
Pancakes are possibly the least crowd-friendly dish on the planet.
Sure, there's great drama to be had in the failed flipping of a pancake with a not-so-quick thrust of the wrist. Or, equally, in the surprise success of a flipped pancake, prompting a squeal of delight from the flipper and admiring 'oohs' from the spectators. It's a spectator sport, really.
And yes, they're a great communal food - everyone can fill, stuff, roll and eat theirs as the whim takes them. Do you put the filling into a quarter of the pancake then fold it into a neat little cone shape? Do you arrange your choice of stuffing in a wobbling line down the centre then roll everything around it and devour it like a baguette or sausage roll, hands only? Or do you spread the filling luxuriantly over half the whole thing, then simply fold it over and attack it with a knife and fork?
And of course, they're pretty darn easy to make. All you need is a bowl, a whisk (preferably electric, though - I'm pretty sure a lump-free batter using only a hand whisk is a mythical holy grail of cooking), some flour, eggs and milk. Ingredients that won't break the bank and will cohere into a satisfyingly squidgy vehicle for whatever delicious interior you choose to adorn it with. You don't really need to be able to cook. You just need to be able to turn on a whisk, measure ingredients, and get good with the ladling of things into a hot pan.
(Unless, of course, you want to flip them using only that deft wrist movement, in which case you'll need slightly more skill).
But really, pancakes are not practical for crowds. They're barely practical for two people, let alone more than that. Sure, you can make them all in advance and keep them in a warm oven, separated between layers of greaseproof paper, until you're ready to eat them. Recipe books often tell you this. What they fail to mention is that said greaseproof-oven process will cause those luscious crispy edges to turn sad and soggy, and the whole pancake to turn somewhat pale and flabby, like Britain in winter.
Don't get me wrong. If you want to cook pancakes for a crowd without driving yourself mad in the process (standing slaving at the hob armed with a ladle and a hot pan while all your friends make merry in an adjacent room, their gleeful laughter ringing, sounding in your ears and inducing a curious desire to rudely dismiss them all from your house, because why on earth did you invite them over anyway?), you can use the keep-warm-in-oven method. You could, of course, just flip them to order, with people bringing their plates to the hob as and when the pancakes are ready. But then you miss out on the joy of a communal meal, and everything ends up somewhat sadly disjointed.
So yes, I do find it a curious paradox that we celebrate this foodstuff that is so fundamentally unsuited to celebration.
(I am also aware of the reason we do so, and the historical tradition of using up ingredients before Lent, et cetera...but I'm just pointing this out).
I found this out to my cost this weekend, when I decided to make breakfast crêpes for two people in my undergoing-refurbishment kitchen that currently has the grand total of one square foot worktop space. It wasn't pretty. Everything, including my hair, ended up dusted with flour. There were a few frustrated tears. A burn. Enough used utensils to suggest Henry VIII had been banqueting there. Items of cookware perched precariously on chairs, shelves, and I did contemplate the floor before I settled for on top of the toaster instead.
The flipside, of course, as with all (or most, anyway) pancake scenarios, is that you end up with something delicious. In this case, a big pile of squidgy crêpes stuffed and dolloped with a gorgeous warm, spiced compote. There are pears, caramelised in butter and brown sugar. There are cranberries, which simmer down into sticky red globules of tart juiciness. There are warming spices: ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. There is a scattering of nutty toasted pecans for crunch. The compote has all that delicious warm sweetness of Christmas cranberry sauce, with the added bonus of beautiful fragrant caramelised pears, sweet with perfumed juice. It is the perfect accompaniment to pillowy crêpes, stuffed inside them and spooned over the top in a dramatic profusion of scarlet stickiness.
I made this for breakfast, to serve two very greedy people (one, obviously, being myself). It would also make an excellent dessert, though in substantially smaller quantities. While I do believe it's hard to beat a good simple crêpe with lemon and sugar (or, my skiing favourite, crème de marrons - French chestnut and vanilla jam), sometimes it's nice to do something a bit different. This compote has texture, flavour, and colour. It's sweet yet tart, substantially fruity and delicious. It's perfect tucked inside these crêpes, a delightful mixture of squidgy batter and fruit pieces in every mouthful.
But if you're planning on making this for more than one person, in a small kitchen...I'd advise deep breaths, a box of tissues handy, and preferably one or more minions on hand to prepare fortifying cups of tea (or gin, but preferably only if these are dessert rather than breakfast. And preferably in glasses, not cups).
Happy pancake day!
Crêpes with spiced pear, pecan and cranberry compote (serves 2 for breakfast; 4 for dessert):
- 5 medium pears, ripe but firm
- A knob of butter
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 150g fresh cranberries (you can also use dried, but add a little water to the compote too)
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- A handful of toasted pecans, chopped
For the crêpes:
- 200g plain flour (or 100g plain and 100g wholemeal)
- 2 eggs
- Pinch of salt
- 500ml milk
- Butter, to cook
First, make the compote. Quarter and core the pears, then slice lengthways into 1cm slices. Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan until bubbling, then add the sugar. Add the pears and cook on a medium heat until starting to soften and caramelise, then add the spices and cranberries. Cook over a low-medium heat until the cranberries have burst and released juice, and the compote has a thick, jammy consistency. If it starts to dry out, add a splash of water. Taste and add more sugar if you like. Set aside.
For the crêpes, sift the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre then crack in the eggs and add the salt. Using an electric whisk, start whisking the eggs into the flour, adding a little milk. Keep whisking, gradually incorporating more of the flour, and add the rest of the milk as you go until you have a smooth batter the consistency of double cream. (You can do this the night before and leave the batter to rest in the fridge, whisking it up again just before you need it).
Put the oven onto a low heat (around 120C) and put a plate in it, ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan very hot. Add a knob of butter, and wipe it around the pan with kitchen towel. Ladle in enough batter to form a 3-4mm thick crêpe, tilting the pan so it spreads evenly over the surface. Cook for a minute or so on each side - adjust the heat so that the crêpes are golden brown but not scorched or pale and flabby. Put each crêpe on the plate in the oven as you make them, separated with sheets of greaseproof paper, to keep warm.
When you have 8 crêpes (there might be a bit of batter left over), spread each one out and spoon a little compote onto a quarter of it. Fold in half and then into quarters. Repeat with the remaining crêpes, reserving some compote to spoon over at the end. Arrange the crêpes on a plate, then spoon over a little more compote and scatter with the toasted pecans. Dust with icing sugar, if you like, then serve immediately.