Everything can have drama if it’s done right.

Even a pancake.” – Julia Child


FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, PANCAKE DAY – or ‘Shrove Tuesday’, as it’s also known – has been a much-anticipated date in my diary. This year it falls seemingly early on Tuesday 28 February, but I’ve already checked to see that the all-essential milk (soya), plain flour and eggs stored safely in my cupboards. And I’m not alone. Today, the hoards of people who failed to shop over the weekend will be crowding into their local supermarkets, buying up these vital ingredients like there’s no tomorrow. And why? Because we all love a pancake … or whatever you choose to call it.

There are two things that I find interesting about the pancake:

  1. That every culture has a variation of it in its cuisine, whether it be the Russian blini or French crêpes – and
  2. That there are so many different recipes and varying methods for making a basic plain-flour-based pancake. Perhaps the humble pancake’s not so humble after all.

Probably the first reference to the pancake in literature dates back to c.500 BC when the Greek poet Cratinus wrote about tiganites, ‘a pancake hot and shredding morning dew’. The Greek pancake ‘tiganites’ is eaten for breakfast, usually served warm with honey, nuts and fruits. Yum.

In medieval times, pancakes became increasingly linked to the observance of Lent, when Christians abstained from eating fats, sugars and other luxury ingredients. Thus, the first Tuesday before Ash Wednesday came to be known more colloquially as ‘Pancake Day’, when Christians used up such ingredients to make pancakes.

The first noted recipes for pancakes date back to the 16th century when they appear in the French cookbook Livre fort excellent de cuysine (1540s) and in the English Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin (1594/97). The pancake became an important staple in the households of the New World, where it was a cheap and filling, easy-to-make foodstuff. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1740) gives five pancake recipes (the first for a basic pancake; three for ‘fine’ ones, using cream and nutmeg; and the final one for ‘a quire of paper’, which uses orange flower water and sounds rather delicious). Native Americans also had a form of pancake made with coarse cornmeal.

While the Greeks, French, English and Americans were eating their variations of the pancake, others were also. Russians consumed ‘blinis’ (yeasted pancakes made with buckwheat flour); the Ethiopians ‘injera’ (fermented yeasted pancakes made with the gluten-light ‘teff’), southern Indians papery ‘dosas’ (fermented pancake made with ‘gram’ or chickpea flour and filled with spiced potato and chilli) and the Austrians/Hungarians made the sweet Kaiserschmarrn (‘shredded pancake’), which food historians believe was first served to the Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I in the late 19th century.

The thickness of the ‘pancake’ is also an issue and varies from culture to culture. Generally, the thinner or finer the end result, the more likely it is to be used as a wrap or even as a utensil! In Ethiopian culture, injera is both the plate on which other foodstuffs are served and the eating instrument as pieces are torn off and used to scoop up whatever the eater wants.

And as for recipes, well … just google ‘pancake recipe’ and see what comes up. I have my own tried and tested recipe (see below), which I bring out at the drop of a hat, not just for Shrove Tuesday. Pancakes are the quintessential social dish, easy and fun to make and really, really easy to dress up or dress down. That’s why they’re so popular.

Here’s my staple recipe, based on the pancakes I watched my mother make, as I perched on the kitchen counter, feet dangling, oh so long ago.


110g/4oz plain flour (we use Dove’s)
1 egg (free range, organic preferably)
290ml water/milk mix (we use soya milk)
pinch of Himalayan salt
1 tbsp olive/rapeseed oil

Makes: about 6 x 20cm thin pancakes

  • So, first of all, sift the flour into a bowl and make a well in the middle.
  • Break the egg into the space and add about a fifth of the water/milk mix. Mix well with a wooden spoon or balloon whisk. Gradually add in the rest of the liquid. Stir until smooth and lump free. It should be the consistency of thin cream.
  • Cover the bowl and put in the fridge to rest for about an hour.
  • Take it out just before you want to use it.
  • Take a clean frying pan/crêpe pan and wipe with the oil so that the whole of the pan’s base is covered. Put on a high heat and then carefully put a tablespoon of the batter mix in the middle of the pan. Swirl the pan around until the batter coats the base evenly.
  • Return to the heat and after about a minute ease a fish slice under the pancake and flip it! Return to heat and when it’s brown remove it from the pan and place it on a hot plate.
  • Then make the next one. And the next. And the next…

Alternative ingredients: use gram (chickpea flour) instead of plain flour and add in chopped green chilli, mustard and ajwain seeds – or substitute half of the plain flour with fine polenta, which will make a heavier pancake.

Serving suggestion:
Lemon and sugar’s traditional I know, but I’m a savoury person so here are a couple of my favourites:

  • 200g fresh spinach and 1 tub (250g) of ricotta. Wilt the spinach and mix in the ricotta, spicing it up with a large pinch of chilli flakes, a generous pinch of herbs de provence, nutmeg and a squeeze of lemon and pinch of salt and pepper. Serve hot.
  • Or 250g good brown mushrooms, 1 chopped red onion, 1 garlic clove. Fry the onions in a frying pan/skillet on a medium heat until soft. Add in the mushrooms, a pinch of mustard powder, a pinch of dried chillis, a handful of chopped parsley, a dash or two of balsamic vinegar and the garlic at the very end. Turn the heat off and mix in a large dollop of crème fraiche, fromage frais or soya cream. Place in the centre of the pancake and roll it. Really good with the polenta/plain flour pancake. Also good on toast!

If you want a sweet pancake, I don’t think you could go far wrong following one of Hannah Glasse’s recipes from 1740.

Anyway happy Pancake Day. Enjoy the day!