Dripping with butter and maple syrup or topped with fruit and whipped cream, the humble pancake is at once so decadent and comforting that it is right that it should have its own holiday.
Pancakes are the traditional food for the last meal before the start of Lent, the Christian season of fasting that starts next week. Whether it is known as Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, this day was used by our penitent ancestors to consume the last of the sugar, butter and eggs before the traditional 40 days of denial began.
"Denial" doesn't seem to be in Sarah Simington's vocabulary. The chef and owner of the Blue Moon Cafe in Fells Point, so famous for its weekend breakfasts that patrons wait hours for a table, thinks pancakes, like disco, should be danced to.
"My secret is to sing and dance to it," she said as she tossed ingredients into a bowl. "Have fun with it, get your boyfriend into it, get your husband into it, get your kids into it. It's a good thing."
The best thing about pancakes, she says, is their versatility. Fruit or sweets like chocolate chips are no-brainers. Her favorite way to vary the recipe is to caramelize apples and bacon and add them as the pancake begins to cook. But she is open to anything.
"Ham, broccoli and cheese pancakes? Why not? Just feel it."
Pancake recipes often require the cook to combine the wet and dry ingredients separately, to mix them gently and let the batter "rise" before ladling it onto a griddle. Other recipes call for cake flour to give the pancake more density. Simington is having none of it.
"Separating wet and dry is just a hassle," she said. "Throw it all in together, stir it up and you are ready to go.
"And I don't like to use cake flour. Too many glutens."
The result is a slightly thinner pancake, but one that is more than just a way to serve fruit or syrup. Simington's secret is vanilla. A lot of vanilla.
"Most recipes call for maybe a tablespoon. I like to add two or three. I want you to be able to taste the vanilla," said Simington, a "Mama-trained" cook who has operated the Blue Moon for more than 12 years.
A favorite dish among her diners is her oatmeal-and-brown-sugar pancakes. "Or if you want to be healthy, throw in a handful of buckwheat. They'll never know."
She has made savory pancakes as well, substituting salt for the sugar and adding herbs.
But pancakes from a box? Never.
"Pancakes are so easy to make on your own, why would you bother with a box?" she said.
Besides, you can't dance to a box.
* Is your griddle hot enough? You can tell if a drop of water skitters across the pan.
* Lightly coat the pan with vegetable oil or clarified butter. Regular butter can burn too easily.
* Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup to dispense the batter, or a turkey baster to make shapes.
* Pancakes are ready to be turned when they are dry around the edges, the top is covered with bubbles and the underside is golden brown. Make a sacrificial first pancake to make sure your griddle is not too hot.
* After flipping the pancake, resist the temptation to press down on the pancake as if it were a hamburger on a grill.
* Pancakes are best eaten right off the griddle. But if you must keep them warm, arrange them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, uncovered, in a 200-degree oven. Never stack or cover them. The steam will make them soggy.
* For her oatmeal-brown-sugar pancakes, Sarah Simington, chef and owner of the Blue Moon Cafe, adds 1/2 cup oatmeal and substitutes brown sugar for the white sugar in her basic recipe.
* Add on at the end. Even when making her favorites, caramelized-apple-and-bacon pancakes, Simington simply scatters the ingredients on the wet side of the pancake while it cooks.
* Make a toppings buffet and include fruit, granola, chopped nuts, chocolate chips, jam, honey, powdered sugar and whipped cream as well as syrup and butter.
Sources: Interviews, cookbooks and Web sites
blue moon pancakes
Makes 4 to 6 five-inch pancakes or 12 to 14 silver-dollar pancakes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 to 3 tablespoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
Combine all ingredients and stir until lumps are gone. Ladle onto a hot (350 degrees) griddle coated with vegetable oil or clarified butter.
If you would like to add extra ingredients, such as chocolate chips or berries, sprinkle them on the wet side of the pancake now, while the underside cooks.
Look for bubbles on the wet surface (a sign that the air is cooking out of the pancakes), or use a spatula to peek underneath, making sure the pancake is golden brown. Flip and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
Serve with syrup, whipped cream and more berries or chocolate chips.
Courtesy of Sarah Simington, chef/proprietor of the Blue Moon Cafe in Fells Point
Per pancake (based on 6 large pancakes): : 255 calories, 7 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 34 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 91 milligrams cholesterol, 232 milligrams sodium