Winter has been thankfully mild in Chicago this year. While we’ve had a few frigid, single digit days and the occasional bout of heavy wet snow, we’ve mostly been blessed with temperatures in the upper 20s and above, snow that melts within a few days, and even some sun. This may not seem like a blessing to some of my Texas and New Mexico based friends, but trust me when I say it is.
Of course, having such temperate winter weather means there’s little excuse for me not to go running on the weekends. Even if I try to roll over in bed or pick up a book and read a few chapters, there’s a little nagging voice saying, it’s sooo warm…you should be running. Such was the case this Sunday. When possible, I like to get up and go running right away and then treat myself to a nice breakfast. So, after a quick three mile run down the lakefront, I came home and set about making these pancakes.
I am forever on a search for a replica of the most wonderful lemon ricotta pancakes I had at Bongo Room so many years ago. I have never found it, nor have I ever made it, but I have to say that these pancakes are probably the best that have ever come out of my kitchen and, with a little finagling, I bet I can work out some lemon flavored goodies in the future.
These pancakes are based on concept 42: Two Leaveners Are Often Better than One. Chemical leaveners, i.e. baking powder and baking soda, work by reacting with acids to produce carbon dioxide which makes baked good rise. When baking soda and an acidic ingredient, such as buttermilk or sour cream or yogurt, interact, they immediately begin to produce carbon dioxide and form bubbles in the batter or dough. Baking powder, on the other hand, is a mix of baking soda, a dry acid, and cornstarch (to absorb moisture), that produces the carbon dioxide in two steps: when introduced to liquid and when raised to a temperature over 120°. (This is for double-acting baking powder, which the author say includes most supermarket brands.) Baking powder is typically used when there is no other acidity in the batter. Why use two? Using both baking powder and soda gives you more control over how fast the CO2 is released as well as the alkalinity of the mixture – if it’s too acidic, the baking powder will be neutralized. Additionally, more alkaline doughs brown faster and are more tender. This is all very interesting to me because I’ve always loved the bit of tang you get from adding buttermilk to pancakes and always wondered why they tend to cook up higher and fluffier than their plain milk counterparts.
The dry ingredients were pretty standard*: 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, ½ teaspoon baking powder, ¼ teaspoon baking soda, ¼ teaspoon salt. I mixed these together in a large bowl, then in a medium bowl combined 1 cup buttermilk, 2 tablespoons sour cream, 1 egg, and 1½ tablespoons melted and cooled butter. Now, the sour cream is an unexpected ingredient. The authors’ reasoning here is that because commercial buttermilk is skim milk processed with bacteria, it lacks the flavor of real buttermilk. Adding more buttermilk makes the batter too acidic, but adding a little sour cream adds a lot of tangy flavor without compromising structural integrity.
The wet ingredients went into a well in the center of the dry, I mixed them just until there were no streaks of flour showing (leaving the batter quite lumpy), and let things rest for 10 minutes. Why the rest? Because even with minimal mixing, which we do here by leaving the batter lumpy, gluten starts to develop. Let it rest and the gluten begins to relax, leaving you with a more tender end product.
Now, I really think you have to play around with your own stove to figure out the perfect heat settings for pancakes. Stoves can vary wildly, and the type of pan you use can also affect pancake cook times. All I can say is, you have to burn a few pancakes to get things just right. Luckily, I’ve already done that. I used my trust nonstick skillet, poured in a little vegetable oil and wiped it out when hot, as instructed, then dropped in ¼-cup portions of the batter, flipping them when bubbles came to the surface and the edges started to look dry.
Here’s another trick I learned: to keep the pancakes warm while you’re cooking the rest, set them in a single layer on a lightly oiled wire rack placed on a baking sheet in a 200° oven. The wire rack will keep them from compressing and steaming from their own heat and the oil will prevent them from sticking.
The result: lovely, fluffy, tasty pancakes. I frequently get pancakes when I go out for brunch because I’m never convinced that I can make them as good at home. But these pancakes shattered that preconception for two reasons. One – there wasn’t a terrible lot of sugar in them. Although I love getting pancakes, I often find them to be too sweet and little more than flat layers of dessert cake of which I can only eat a few bites. These were far more balanced in flavor, allowing the maple syrup to act as a complement instead of treacly addition. Two – I can make these whatever size I want. Gone are the pancakes the size of dinner plates that could easily serve me for two or more meals. What a waste those are. I served these with an apple I had sauteed in butter and cinnamon, and a couple strips of bacon and it was just enough – a perfect treat after a Sunday morning run.
*I halved the original recipe and came out with 7 pancakes, perfect for two, or just for me with some leftovers to be toasted up for future breakfasts-for-dinners.