(The recipe is at the bottom.)
I heard a kazoo outside my window. Then I heard a whole flock of kazoos kazooing at top volume. The sacred ibises were my roosters each morning in Eldoret, Kenya. My body took in a full breath of crisp morning air. Yellow morning light filtered through the sheer curtain covering the window between the beds and illuminated the tile floor and the red quilt on the other twin bed which doubled as a closet. I had been there for nearly two weeks living in a dorm room at IU House. It was a spartan existence compared to my American life, but luxurious compared to what most Kenyans enjoy. I shared a bathroom and showered in tepid water. I wrote on a simple wooden desk. I ate whatever was served in the dining hall and if I didn’t show up on time, there was little to be eaten. But, there was relatively clean piped water, purified drinking water, a variety of food, electricity, WiFi, and a private room with a lock. I was in an ecosystem of warm people and interesting ideas, both Kenyan and North American. I bought mangoes from the farm truck around the corner for $0.25 each. Lovely people washed, dried, and ironed my clothes for $3. It was indeed a rich and luxurious existence.
That morning, I felt the need to express love. Cooking is one of my love languages, and making pancakes is one of my favorite phrases. Pancakes for me are less about my own hunger and more about creating something for someone else to enjoy. When I do that, I feel a little bit less lonely. I think those who enjoy a pancake might feel the same. The ultimate pancake experience involves making it with someone else. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I’ve ever made them alone. When I was little, I made them with my mom. She would make them with Bisquick and cinnamon, fry them with crisp edges, and serve them with bacon, sausage, and Log Cabin syrup. When I was in college, I would make them in my dorm room on an electric skillet with my friends. The whole hall would smell like bacon. These days, my wife and I make them together on some Sunday mornings. We dance to music in the kitchen and joke around. I take care of the dry ingredients at my pancake station while she prepares the wet. I mix and pour the batter and she adds blueberries and warms maple syrup. We rip pieces of fresh pancakes, dunk them in syrup and devour them while the next one is cooking. It’s a beautiful thing that has almost nothing to do with the pancakes themselves.
On this particular morning, Claire, a visiting fourth year medical student from IU, happened to be in the kitchen cooking eggs when I walked in.
“Would you like a pancake?”
“I didn’t know that was an option!”
I took that as a yes and she got going on melting butter and measuring the milk. Sharon, the young Kenyan woman working in the kitchen found me some baking powder. It came in a little paper bag inside a little paper box and contained just enough. She also showed me where the vanilla was hiding. She went back to making an enormous pot of milky, sugary Kenyan chai on the stove for the IU House staff and peeling potatoes to make lunch for all of us.
My friend Dave Amato wandered into the kitchen wearing his trademark charcoal hoodie while Claire and I were cooking. He subbed in for Claire, who had to eat quickly and leave for the hospital to save lives. Dave and I experimented with high pours and low pours and degrees of doneness before flipping. We cranked out pancakes for all takers. We reserved the last and freshest cakes for our Kenyan kitchen friends and Dunya, the office manager, who arrived with her big smile and beautiful headscarf for some chai from the big pot. The rest of my friends had come down for breakfast. We ate pancakes and cut open a mango. The pancakes were good, but were merely a consequence of a beautiful morning.
This recipe makes four 7-8″ pancakes and scales up beautifully. To make a larger batch, just multiply the recipe. At IU House that morning, we made 3x this scale.
- 1 mixing bowl with plenty of room
- 1 large measuring cup or bowl for wet ingredients. For the recipe as written, I like to use a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup.
- 1 whisk
- 1 pan or skillet, the heavier the better (1)
- Oil or butter for the pan
- 1 spatula
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour (2)
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon (optional)
- 2 tablespoons of butter, melted
- 1 cup of milk
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (adjust to taste)
- Place your pan(s) on the stove to a little bit less than medium heat. They’ll warm up while you make the batter.
- Whisk together the dry ingredients in the large mixing bowl until they are thoroughly blended.
- Add milk and solid butter to the measuring cup and microwave on high until the butter is mostly melted and the milk is lukewarm to warm. You can use a saucepan on a stove if you prefer.
- Whisk the milk and butter together. If it is hot, wait for it to cool off a bit. Add the egg and vanilla and whisk until combined.
- Add about 1 tsp of oil or butter to the pan and coat the surface. If the pan is hot enough, the oil will thin out, shimmer, and flow lighter than water. Add a bit more oil if you like crispier edges.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. A few lumps are ok. Stir the mixture as little as possible. (3)
- Pour or ladle the batter onto the center of the pan from 1-2 feet above the surface and make a nice round shape. Be careful: the oil may splatter. (4) If you like to add blueberries or chocolate chips, add them to the pancake in the pan, one cake at a time.
- When bubbles cover the surface of the pancake, flip it. If it’s too dark, reduce the burner a tiny bit.
- After about 10 seconds, peek underneath and see if the pancake is cooked to your liking. When it’s done, remove the pancake to a plate.
- Tear off pieces of the hot fresh pancake with your hands and dunk them in maple syrup. Repeat 5-9 until you’re out of batter.
(1) The more pans you have, the more pancakes you can cook at a time. The heavier it is, the more heat it can hold and thus the more consistent the pan temperature remains throughout cooking.
(2) I’ve successfully used 1:1 mixtures of all-purpose and either whole wheat or cornmeal (maize flour). Cornmeal gives a beautiful flavor and texture, especially with blueberries, but less rise.
(3) Gluten in the flour “develops”, or polymerizes to form long chains when it comes into contact with water. This is accelerated with stirring. A little bit of gluten development is necessary for trapping air and gas evolved from the baking powder. This is what makes pancakes fluffy. Too much gluten development and you get rubbery cakes. So, mix wet and dry as close to cooking as possible and stir the mixture until everything is just combined. It’s a forgiving batter, though, so don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing’s gonna be all right.
(4) Dave Amato brought the “high pour” technique claiming that it made for fluffier pancakes. I was skeptical, but I have to admit, the pancakes were about 25% fluffier when we did high pour vs. pouring the batter from and inch or two above the pan. I’ll do it this way from now on!