It's something many of us learn at a very early age: There is breakfast, and then there are pancakes. The humdrum crawl of the typical week brings us the usual cereal, toast, maybe eggs. But on certain days -- holidays, weekends if you're lucky -- the griddle comes out, the batter gets mixed, and pretty soon you're tucking into a steaming stack of hotcakes, preferably dripping with pure maple syrup and melting butter.
At least that's the American approach.
But pancakes are a far more universal proposition than most people suspect. There is a rendition of the pancake in almost every culture. In some locales, they're a breakfast food; in others, a midday snack. Some places feature them as a savory part of dinner; others, as a sweet dessert. But the idea of a basic batter, perfectly cooked and embellished, often remains the same.
Pancakes are an ancient food; cooking on a griddle or other flat, hot surface is a far older technique than oven cooking. There are recipes for pancakes, in fact, that appear as far back as the height of the Roman Empire, in the culinary compendium "Apicius." In it, cooks found a version with honey and pepper. Flour, eggs, milk -- such simple ingredients were also mixed, fried, and flipped to create a traditional Shrove Tuesday treat, before the Lenten fast.
What truly defines a pancake, though, is a bit hazy. (Why is it the socca, made from chickpea flour and olive oil, seems clearly to be a kind of pancake, while the corn tortilla, made from masa and water, seems to be more of a flatbread?) Common pancake characteristics include a crisp exterior and soft, airy interior. They're made from thinner batter than actual cakes, and a little hot grease sets the outer surface quickly; this allows the inside to remain fluffy and light. And they're usually unleavened, so they don't rise like bread dough.
Exceptions to all such general rules exist. Toad-in-the-hole, from England, and pannukakku, from Finland, are baked rather than fried. Russian blini are leavened with yeast. The best French crepes are too thin to have much of an interior. No matter, they're all equally delicious.
If there's any crucial tip for cooking perfect pancakes--from different countries' cuisines, for any time of day -- it's to use a good pan that conducts heat evenly all the way out to the edges of the cooking surface (think cast iron) or that is easy to work with (think nonstick). Another good idea is to put your pancake batter into a jug or pitcher, making for an easy pour into the pan, with even portions and without much of a mess.
Then, of course, there's the art of pancake flipping, which transcends borders but has probably gotten the most unusual nod in Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. There, Pancake Day races have been run on Shrove Tuesday for more than five hundred years. Women run the 380-meter church-bound race in aprons, flipping pancakes in frying pans at least three times as they go. First prize is a kiss from a church official -- though, in truth, a hot plate of pancakes and a fork to eat them with sounds a lot more appealing.
Flapjack -- from America
Good old American fluffy flapjacks, dotted with blueberries and drizzled with syrup, are sweetly enticing for their flavor and their familiarity. Get the Flapjack recipe.
Buckwheat Blini -- from Russia
In Russia, blini, seemingly similar round, flat cakes, are a world apart. These savories were originally crumbly pancakes with a strong buckwheaty, yeasty flavor. Nowadays, a blin -- what you'd be eating if you had just one, nearly impossible to do -- tends to be more cohesive, subtle, and sophisticated. Served with spoonfuls of creme fraiche and sevruga caviar, blini make wonderful hors d'oeuvres alongside glasses of chilled vodka.
Rava Dosa -- from India
A speciality of southern India -- though dosa shops are popping up in U.S. cities, including New York City and Los Angeles -- dosas are thin pancakes with a crisp exterior and a slightly spongy interior. The traditional dosa is made with a batter of rice and lentils, fermented overnight. Ours is a rava dosa, made with semolina and yogurt; it rests for only an hour before cooking. Often, dosas are filled with spiced vegetables or potatoes; we serve our spicy ones unfilled, with sweet, piquant coconut chutney and steaming chai tea.
Toad-in-the-Hole -- from England
Sausages and pancakes just seem to go together, and, in fact, they've been a popular pairing since at least 1787, when the first reference to toad-in-the-hole appeared in an English provincial glossary, for "meat boiled in a crust." That sounds a bit less appetizing than what this entree has evolved into: pork sausages (called bangers in England) baked in a savory eggy "crust." Ours is flavored with fresh rosemary and a touch of mustard, and served with an onion gravy intensified by Madeira.
Scallion Pancake -- from China
These crisp oniony pancakes are familiar to anyone who has set foot in a Chinese restaurant -- or an open-air market in Beijing, where they're cooked on hot griddles. They're unusual in that they're pancakes made with a firm, kneaded and rolled dough rather than a thin, poured batter. Still, they're light as air and not too greasy, especially if you fry them in vegetable oil rather than the traditional lard. Dip them in a sauce, like the one we made with rice-wine vinegar, soy sauce, hot chiles, and sesame seeds. Get the Scallion Pancake recipe.
Wein Palatschinken -- from Austria
These fluffy, lightly sweet stuffed crepes can be found throughout Vienna at its myriad coffeehouses and konditorei, or pastry shops. Ours are piped with a wine-cream filling that is flecked with poppy seeds and dusted with confectioners' sugar. We used Gewurtztraminer, but any other lightly sweet white wine, such as Riesling or Tokay (a Hungarian wine), would also be delicious.
Crepes Suzette -- from France
These crepes are among the most famous pancakes in the world, but their origin remains mysterious. Henri Charpentier, who was a chef at Monte Carlo's Cafe de Paris, lays claim to their invention in his 1934 autobiography. As the story goes, he inadvertently set fire to cordials in a chafing dish while serving these crepes to the Prince of Wales, who then suggested that they be named after a young lady at his table. But the first mention actually appears in "Escoffier," published in 1903. Either way, these filled pancakes, with their intense orange flavor, should be in every cook's repertoire.
Socca -- from France
These crisp chickpea and olive oil pancakes are local to Nice, on the Mediterranean coast, where cooks in markets prepare them in large round copper pans (and, ideally, in the high heat of a wood-burning oven) and serve them in paper cones. Also known as farinata in Italy's Liguria, where chickpeas are a staple, these are savory pancakes. We sprinkled our variation with black pepper, coarse salt, and chopped rosemary. Serve them with a green salad as a light lunch or with an aperitif as a late-afternoon snack.
Pannukakku -- from Finland
Unlike most pancakes, this cardamom-scented version hailing from Finland is baked rather than fried or grilled, giving it a soft, puffed-up interior and a delicately crisp crust. It's particularly versatile: For breakfast, it's delectable with lingonberry jam (or cloudberry, if you can find it); for a more savory, late-day meal, try it with the traditional accompaniment of yellow-split-pea soup. By the way, if you happen to be in Finland and want to order this pancake, the name is pronounced "bannugaggu."
Roti with Caramelized Bananas -- from Thailand
In the Far East, some of the best food comes from street vendors. Among the offerings in Bangkok are sweet rolled roti, which fall somewhere between pancakes and flatbread. There, cooks caramelize local bananas -- sugary and tiny, and no bigger than your thumb -- but regular bananas will do just fine. We drizzled this roti with condensed milk and served it with a bowl of rambutans. Get the Roti recipe.