What does the world’s leading pancake expert think about flipping? And which country makes the best? Vicki Robinson had a chat with Ken Albala to find out…
Ken Albala knows everything there is to know about food. As Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in California, he has written about everything from banquets in Renaissance Europe to the history of beans. One of his most fascinating subjects, however, is pancakes.
Who would believe the humble Shrove Tuesday favourite could have such an interesting history? In his book, Pancake: A Global History, part of the Edible series by Reaktion books, Ken explores the huge impact of pancakes on global food culture across the centuries. From their early beginnings in Ancient Greece and Rome, to the modern US and Canadian breakfast feast smothered in maple syrup, pancakes have made mouths water for years.
Ken says, “Pancakes mean so many different things to different people, and there’s a lot of variation in the recipes. In the UK, you use more eggs and they’re thinner, whereas here in the US they’re thick and fluffy. Maybe you can tell a country by its pancakes!”
Weird and wonderful creations
Ken has found himself making some unusual pancakes over the years. He’s even made his own flour for them – from a tree across the road.
“Oh yes, I’ve made some strange pancakes! I made some with acorn flour. There’s an acorn tree right across from my house with sweet acorns – really delicious. I processed them into flour and made pancakes at a museum presentation. There was a slight technical hitch, though. The children were terrified because the pancakes were dark brown,” he laughs.
As you can imagine, he’s travelled the world researching pancakes, but who makes the best? Djerban crepes, Egyptian katayefs? Oh no. “The Dutch are crazy about pancakes. US pancakes are a bit cloying, but the Dutch get everything right – consistency, proportion of eggs to flour.”
Ideal pancake partner
Of course, I had to ask him who he’d most like to share a pancake with. Interestingly enough, Renaissance Italy’s most famous artist was the answer. “It’s got to be Leonardo da Vinci,” says Ken. “He’d explain the physics of the pancake!”
And everyone in the office was bursting to know the answer to one question – why does the first pancake always turn out so badly? And he had the answer.
“It’s all about the fat. The first one fails because people often put a lot of butter in the pan, so the heat does not distribute well. You’re usually okay after the first one, because it absorbs all the butter.”
And is there a way to prevent this? Yes. And it’s healthy, too.
“Use just a little butter. Put the heat up as high as it’ll go – then put the batter in and turn it down to medium. If you’re making crepes, you need a looser batter. Pour it right in the centre and swirl it around to the edges.”
To toss or not to toss, that is the question
So, where does he stand on tossing pancakes?
“I see no reason to toss it,” exclaims Ken. “Some things need tossing – vegetables, stir-fries, stuff like that. With pancakes, just turn it over with a spatula. It makes more sense.”
Lastly, the big question is, what will he be eating this pancake day?
“Not pancakes! I got so pancaked out writing the pancake book. I’m now writing a book about nuts at the moment – for the Edibles series – so I’ll probably be eating a whole pile of those…”
How do you eat your pancakes? Let us know in the comments section.