Your Mardi Gras, My Pancake Day


Photo by erin.kkr/FlickrCC

Click here to try a recipe for English pancakes, and here for spiced ricotta and orange pancakes with warm chocolate sauce.

My Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is known simply as Pancake Day. Celebrations are generally limited to scarfing endless flat griddlecakes until the belly can hold no more, and the required costume is a batter-splattered apron.

This is not a curious, self-constructed excuse for gluttony. I spent much of my youth in England, where the day before the Christian season of Lent begins is dedicated to the mass consumption of this slim, buttery, tender cake and where Pancake Day is officially part of the nation's calendar. Brits have taken to occasionally racing with pancakes as well, flipping them with great speed whilst running toward a finishing line. The most famous of these races takes place in London outside the House of Parliament, where politicians in aprons and chefs' hats and brandishing frying pans and hotcakes compete against journalists.

I slathered the pancakes with Nutella, peanut butter, jam, and maple syrup as we talked of My Little Pony, our secret crushes, and braiding our hair.

Though it shares the same ingredients as the French crêpe, the English pancake is really a creature quite unlike any other. Flour, eggs, milk, melted butter, and a little sugar are whisked together, and the mixture is left to stand for 20 to 30 minutes for a full-bodied batter. While the crêpe master makes a large, papery thin sheet on a searingly hot griddle, the pancake chef favors a smaller hand-sized disc, a little thicker, a little chewier, and dimpled with golden blisters.

Compared to the rich potato doughnuts drenched in dark corn syrup enjoyed in Pennsylvania Dutch country on this day, or Louisiana's yeasted and braided King Cakes, the humble pancake may seem relatively innocuous. But whether covered in sugar and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice or wrapped around thick chocolate ganache or strawberry preserves, a properly cooked pancake is light, moist, crisp and wispy at the edges, and supple in the middle.

In my many years celebrating Pancake Day, the holiday has come to mean more to me than just an excuse to pig out. When as a six-year-old I arrived in London from Malaysia, where I was born, acclimatizing to my new world was an adventure both bewildering and exciting. I recall going to my first Pancake Day fiesta at a schoolmate's house. As her mother flipped away in the kitchen and decorated our plates with pancake after pancake, my "new girl" nerves fizzled away. I slathered the pancakes with Nutella, peanut butter, jam, and maple syrup as we talked of My Little Pony, our secret crushes, and braiding our hair.

My high school, Westminster, a private school in the heart of London that dates back to before the 12th Century, has held a bizarre Pancake Day ritual since the 1750s. (Incidentally, I was one of only 130 girls amongst more than 700 boys.) During the "Greaze," the school's head cook tosses a horsehair-reinforced pancake—no horses are hurt in the process, I promise—over a high bar. A group of rambunctious students then fight for the pancake for one minute refereed by the headmaster and the occasional royal visitor. The pupil who gets the most amount of pancake is awarded a gold coin. The best part is that the whole school then gets the rest of the day off. Originally, if the cook failed to get the pancake over the bar he would get stoned with heavy Latin books. This part of the tradition has long been phased out.

I immediately appropriated Pancake Day, and I made my mother tend to my schoolmates' appetites whilst I hosted annual parties. For weeks before the big day, supermarkets would feature grandiose displays of flour, eggs, sugar, and syrup, and stocks would gradually dwindle until one or two mutilated packs of flour remained, weeping onto the floor. We stocked up well in advance, and I spent hours concocting new ideas for toppings to tantalize my guests: butterscotch sauce with fresh banana slices, strawberry and vanilla compote, whipped maple butter and toasted almonds, warm fudge and crushed graham crackers.

When I moved to a new school in my teens, Pancake Day served as a mixer for my old buddies and my new acquaintances, who bonded over virgin cocktails and sophisticated mini-pancakes drizzled with fake strawberry sauce. When I lived in Italy for six months before heading to college, my local friends were enthralled by my spiced ricotta-, orange-, and chocolate-filled crespelle. When I was at culinary school, I transformed my pancakes into a chocolate and cherry gateau to impress my colleagues. Even when I became food editor at the first magazine I worked at, I brought in my cast-iron pan to treat the office on Pancake Day.

I am neither Christian nor have I ever embraced the ethos of Lenten self-denial following the feasts, but I have always been heartened by the fact that the pancakes are made and enjoyed in a spirit of goodwill, giving, and friendship. And so now I find myself in New York City, my new home of a little over a year, planning a pancake banquet so spectacular that it will knock the socks off my erm, 10 new friends. Or at least the 5 of them who will come and be utterly confused as to why we are eating pancakes on a Tuesday night and whether I'm the only Manhattanite who isn't worried about all that gluten and fat adhering directly to my hips.

But this is a tradition I am determined to continue in this incongruous city of crazed gym junkies and takeout, because like the weighty photo albums and cookery books I dragged from my shelves in London, it will make this new home feel like, well, home. Once I dispel fears with assurances that the chocolate is 70 percent cacao and that there is a Splenda-fortified alternative to the pure Vermont maple syrup, my feasting companions will share in this curious custom of mine, and our nascent friendship will no doubt flourish over forbidden flour and eggs.