Great Britain / Ireland: Pancake Tuesday
Odds are strong that on the morning of February 12th, all over Britain and Ireland many cooks are likely to wake up with the bizarre thought, "Oh no, I forgot to buy lemons!" This is because that day is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday -- a day also known in Britain and Ireland as Pancake Tuesday.
This holiday is yet another holdover from the days when the fast imposed on European Christians during the penitential season of Lent was a "hard fast". This fast's rules required its observers not only to eat much less than they usually did, but to eat a much sparser diet -- one that completely omitted meat and other rich foods such as oil, eggs and butter. The householder therefore had to use up those foods before midnight on Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of the Lenten season.
All the great pre-Lenten festivals (of which the North and South American celebrations of Mardi Gras, "Fat Tuesday", are descendants), contain aspects of celebration that deal with this basic problem: what's the careful householder to do with all the eggs and oil and butter and so forth in the cupboard? You can't just throw them out. Therefore you have to eat them, and in a hurry.
There are several ways to do this, and different regional cultures across Europe handle the problem in different ways. Some countries like to concentrate on the oil, going in heavily for deep-fried pastries like grosti and chruscik that now routinely turn up as part of the pre-Lenten Carnival tradition. (For more info on this, see also the wonderful Fried Doughs Worldwide web page.) Others get serious about the butter: in Russia they celebrate Maslenitsa -- not just a single high-fat day, but a Butter Week, during which the traditional Russian blini pancakes get seriously soaked with melted butter, along with (it seems) just about everything else. In Ireland and Great Britain, though, the emphasis seems to be more on getting rid of the milk and eggs, in the form of pancakes.
However, the pancake in question isn't anything like the traditional North American pancake that appears in breakfast stacks all over the US and Canada. The Shrove Tuesday pancake is thin and nearly as wide as the average frying pan, more like the French crêpe than anything else. (And there may be connections to the crêpe, for the French also celebrate a pre-Lenten pancake day on the old Church holiday of Candlemas, the former Feast of the Presentation, commemorating the first time the Christ Child was brought to Temple six weeks after his birth.)
The Pancake Tuesday pancake is traditionally quickly cooked and sometimes tossed -- and there are famous connections between the day and the art of pancake-tossing, especially the famous Pancake Race which has been held yearly on Shrove Tuesday in Olney, Buckinghamshire since 1445: check out its video.
Anyway, after the cooking and tossing (and optional racing...), each pancake is rolled, laid side by side with its fellows on a plate, sprinkled with lemon juice, and dusted with confectioners' sugar / icing sugar (or granulated sugar, in older versions of the recipe).
The lemon juice, incidentally, lies at the core of just about the only attempt so far to commercialize this holiday. One particular firm (now owned by a conglomerate) has for some years attempted to rebrand Pancake Day as "X Lemon Juice Day", this being about the only time of year that there's any kind of rush on their brand of pre-squeezed lemon juice in its traditional plastic squeezy lemon. (See also Ian's trenchant comments on the subject.) Fresh lemon juice works much better.
This recipe is adapted from one in the great classic Irish cookbook by Maura Laverty, Full and Plenty.
- 6 ounces / 2 (US) cups flour
- 2 eggs
- 10 fluid ounces milk
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (or melted butter if you prefer)
- Granulated sugar / confectioners' / icing sugar to garnish
- Lemon wedges to garnish
Put flour in a large jug. Break the eggs into the flour and stir well with a wooden spoon until the mixture is a smooth paste. Add milk gradually, beating well, and then the oil or melted butter. (Change to a whisk for this stage of the beating, if you prefer.) Cover the batter and leave in a cool place for at least an hour.
Grease a pan lightly with oil or fresh butter and place over a moderate heat until smoking hot. (If you have a crêpe pan, that will work perfectly for this.) Check the consistency of the batter: it should be about the consistency of thick cream. If it's not, add a little milk, tablespoonful by tablespoonful, and whisk until the consistency is right.
Pour about two tablespoonfuls of batter into the heated pan. Tilt the pan so as to make the batter completely cover the bottom of the pan. Cook over a moderate heat, shaking the pan occasionally.
After about 1 1/2 minutes the underside of the pancake should be cooked, when it may be tossed or turned and the other side browned. Have ready a paper (or paper towel) liberally sprinkled with granulated sugar. Turn the pancake onto the paper. Roll quickly, keep warm in a covered dish and serve with sugar and wedges of lemon to squeeze over.
...Naturally there are micro-regional and family variations on this theme. EuroCuisineGuy's family always serve the pancakes with golden syrup, and sometimes his Mum would butter the pancakes as well before serving them. Also, there seems to be a difference of opinion in some areas regarding the serving configuration: some families traditionally fold the pancakes in quarters rather than rolling them.