Nearly every country cooks its take on what we call pancakes. France has its crêpes; Eastern Europe, their blinis. With those, we are familiar. But with Finland’s pannukakku or Hungary’s palacsinta, not so much. Likewise, by and large, for Ethiopia’s teff flour-based injera or Colombia’s corn meal-based cachapas.
Nonetheless, cakes cooked in a pan are worldwide.
Korean cooks make pajeon, a pancake savory with scallion and often kimchee or seafood. It is favored not only for its flavors but also for its texture, soft and chewy on the inside, crisp at the edges and on its surfaces. No maple syrup for these pancakes, only a chile-hot dipping sauce, salty with soy.
The American (U.S. and Canadian) buttermilk pancake is similar, nearly ingredient for ingredient, to the Russian oladya, our pancake’s forebear by several centuries. We use buttermilk. In Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, cooks use that or, more often, the fermented milk drink called kefir, or sometimes yogurt. In Ukrainian, “oladya” is “oladka,” the basis for the word “latke,” the Jewish potato pancake.
I, a non-Jew, learned how to make the best latkes from Gerard Rudofsky, the “zaidy” of the Denver delicatessen, Zaidy’s. (“Zaidy” or “zayde” is Yiddish for “grandfather.”) Whereas most latke-makers bind their grated potato with mere egg, Rudofsky also binds the mash with a sort of mortar made of egg, matzo meal and a potato/onion mix. The fried latkes merely hint at onion and pick up a beautiful tawny crust out of their pan. They are what a pancake wishes it tasted like.
In me, the American buttermilk pancake wells up waves of happy nostalgia. When I was growing up and nearly every Saturday morning, my father made his buttermilk pancakes for us kids. With the batter, he would write our names in capital letters: Billy, Mary, Betty, Kay and on and on. There were nine of us and we all had short names, but still, that’s a lot of pancakes. I am sure that my father was glad that no one of us was named Bartholomew or Jacqueline.
Each August while my dad was growing up, my grandfather, the bookkeeper for the former Fort Lupton Canning Company, would take my father to Denver for baseball games at the old Merchant’s Park ballfield on south Broadway.
They always attended the annual semi-pro baseball tournament that sported teams with names such as The House of David (all the players had beards). Before the game, my grandfather took my dad to a small diner where the cook made their favorite pancakes. That’s where my dad’s recipe got its start.
Pancakes recipes from home and around the world
My dad’s pancakes
Serves 1 to 9. The liquid measurements are as stated even if they seem overmuch.
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 quart cultured buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten with a whisk
1/2 cube unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Mix well the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix well the remaining ingredients. Gradually and gently add the dry ingredients to the liquid mixture with a wire whisk. Gently mix together, but do not remove all the lumps.
Bake the pancakes in any form that you wish on a lightly greased, hot griddle set to 375-400 degrees, if electric, or medium-high if the griddle is set over a gas flame.
Note: If you write a name on the griddle with the batter, it helps to write letters such as “C,” “L,” or “N” backward because they cook more uniformly on the first side and hence will look better on the plate.
Pajeon (Korean scallion pancakes)
Makes 6 to 8 or more
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup very cold (if possible, refrigerated) water
1 small bunch scallions, ends trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths, then sliced in half longways
3/4 cup kimchee, diced if in chunks, and its juice
Vegetable oil for pan-frying (2 to 4 tablespoons total)
Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, add the egg, water and kimchee juice and blend until the batter is smooth and runny, as if for making crêpes. (If too thick, add very cold water 1 teaspoon at a time.) Gently fold in the scallions and diced kimchee.
Over medium-high heat, in a non-stick skillet, add 2 tablespoons oil, swirling to coat. Ladle in enough batter and vegetables to form cakes 5 to 6 inches in diameter, each without touching any other. Cook until browned on one side (about 2-3 minutes), then flip and brown on the other side. Keep flipping until both sides are well-speckled brown.
Keep the pajeon warm on a plate covered in paper toweling while using up all the batter and vegetables, adding more oil to the skillet if necessary. Serve with a dipping sauce made of your favorite chile paste or sauce thinned with a bit of soy sauce.
Cook’s note: Pajeon mix is available at some Asian groceries, usually sold as “Korean pancake mix.” If using, the mix substitutes in this recipe for the egg and all the dry ingredients. Also, for this recipe, you may use whatever other vegetables, cut up into small pieces, that suit your taste, even leftover vegetables, or fish or meats.
Makes 6-8, depending on size.
3 medium- to medium-large russet potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup white onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
A few grinds white pepper, to taste
1/4 cup matzo meal
1 large egg, whisked in a small bowl
Canola or other neutral oil for frying
Sour cream and applesauce
After peeling the potatoes and before proceeding to grate them, be sure the whole potatoes are soaking in cold water. (For example, you may peel them ahead and keep them in the refrigerator covered in water.) When ready to cook, set up a wire cooling rack over a brown paper bag in a baking tray near the heat source.
Pat the potatoes dry and grate them on the large holes of a box grater, keeping back 1/3 of the grated potatoes. (If they are particularly moist, squeeze handfuls of them of excess liquid.) Proceed quickly with the remainder of the recipe so that the grated potatoes do not oxidize (turning grey or red-brown).
To a food processor, add the 1/3 of reserved potatoes, the onion, salt and pepper and matzo meal and pulse 7-8 times to mash them coarsely together; do not purée the mixture. In a large bowl, add the contents of the processor bowl to the remaining 2/3 of grated potatoes. Add the egg and fold in everything well, but do not overwork.
Meanwhile, over medium-high heat, warm a heavy-bottomed skillet (cast-iron or stainless steel are best for browning) and into it pour 1/4-1/3 inches of oil. Heat the oil until it shimmers. Drop a small bit of the potato mixture into the oil to see if lively bubbles form around it as a test of the temperature.
Scoop 1/2-cup portions of the latke mix and gently slide them into the hot oil. With a spatula, flatten each into a patty no more than 1/2-inch thick. Do not crowd the pan; you will cook more than one batch. Fry until the edges begin to brown, 3-4 minutes. Flip and fry for another 3-4 minutes. It may be helpful to use two spatulas to flip or move the latkes.
Watch the temperature of the oil: too hot and the edges will darken before the middles cook through. Too low and the latkes will become soggy with fat. Also, you may find it helpful to wipe off the back of the spatula, from time to time, on paper towels.
Before making the next batch, check the oil. If it smells “off” or is dark brown or is filled with many small bits of cooked latke, pitch it, wipe out the skillet with paper towels (taking care not to burn yourself) and begin a new batch with fresh oil.
Serve sour cream and chunky applesauce, perhaps made pink with a dollop of strawberry jam.
Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]