Friday, February 22, 2013

On pancakes, flapjacks, hotcakes, griddlecakes, hoecakes, johnnycakes . . .

Last week marked two holidays associated with food: Valentine’s Day, when, as they have since the 15th century at least, lovers regale one another with sweets and flowers; and Shrove Tuesday, the day when one feasts on the rich foods one won’t taste again until the lean days of Lent have come and gone. In New Orleans, it’s called Mardi Gras, literally “Fat Tuesday,” and but I’m partial to the British name, Pancake Tuesday (or just plain Pancake Day), which has always struck me as a bit silly (sorry all you Brits!). Think of it: of all the foods you could indulge in if you were to throw caution to the wind, would it be pancakes that came first to mind?

But apparently the British have long loved their pancakes. The word first appears in a 15th century cookery book, but I doubt the recipe would feature at your local IHOP: it called for pepper, mace, cloves, saffron, and "if thou wilt," a little minced pork or veal. By the time of the 1615 The English Housewife (the full subtitle of which is “Containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman; as her skill in physic, cookery, banqueting-stuff, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household”), Gervase Markham provides a more familiar recipe, with the addition of some sweet spices, for what he rather immodestly calls “The best pancake”:

To make the best pancake, take two or three eggs, and break them into a dish, and beat them well; then add unto them a pretty quantity of fair running water, and beat all well together; then put in cloves, mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and season it with salt: which done, make it thick as you think good with fine wheat flour; then fry the cakes as thin as may be with sweet butter, or sweet seam [fat, grease, or lard], and make them brown, and so serve them up with sugar strewed upon them. There be some which mix pancakes with new milk or cream, but that makes them tough, cloying and not crisp, pleasant and savoury as running water.

Markham may have preferred pancakes made with water, but his recipe would be self-defeating as far as Shrove Tuesday is concerned when the point is to eat up as much butter and cream as possible (it isn’t called Fat Tuesday for nothing). And such pancakes aren’t only eaten; they’re also tossed in the air in a custom known as “pancake races,” held in villages throughout the UK since long before Markham put pen to paper and continuing to this day. The most famous such race, according to Ronald Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, “is confined to adult women [who] run from the market square to the church, using standard-sized frying pans in which each pancake must be tossed at least three times en route.” Regulations are strict: all contestants must wear aprons and headscarves, and the course run must measure exactly 380 meters/415 yards.

I’m not aware of any such custom here in the US, but what we lack in the way of pancake racing we more than make up for in the quaint and quirky names we give our pancakes. Flapjacks, for instance, for which The Dictionary of American Regional English provides the following synonyms: "Flapjack. 1. A pancake. Also called clapjack, flapcake, flapover, flatcake, flatcjack, flipjack, flipper, flopjack, flopover, slapjack.”

And that’s not to mention the more familiar hotcake, griddlecake, hoecake (perhaps cooked on hoes propped over an open fire), or johnnycake (traditionally made from Rhode Island’s Narragansett white-cap corn and often believed to have evolved from “journey cake”). 

All this history aside, my own personal pancake preference tends toward a heartier batter than the one Markham touted in his English Housewife. I’d rather my pancakes not be quite as flat as, say, a pancake. Since I've almost always got a container of buttermilk in the fridge and a box of baking soda in the cabinet, I can stir up thick batters at a moment’s notice. Like the following one, which is sort of Scottish (the oats and the buttermilk) and sort of American (the maple syrup) all at the same time, and so should satisfy eaters on either side of the Atlantic.

                                                   Oatmeal Pancakes
(makes about 12 4” pancakes)

              1 cup rolled oats                                  2 tablespoons sugar
              1 cup buttermilk                                  1 teaspoon baking soda
              1 egg                                                    1 teaspoon baking powder
              1/2 cup water                                       2 tablespoons maple syrup
              1 cup all-purpose flour                        3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Pour the buttermilk over the oats & let stand for 15 minutes or so. Add everything else and stir until incorporated. Ladle about ¼ cup of batter onto a hot griddle (which I don't bother to grease) & when the the edges look firm & the bottom is golden-brown (you can peek under to check), flip to cook the other side. You don’t need me to tell you to serve the pancakes with whatever you like—syrup, jam, cinnamon & sugar—but I will say that oatmeal pancakes are especially good with warm apple sauce or apple slices sauteed in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon & sugar.

Friday, February 15, 2013

On Biscuits

For those who enjoyed unraveling the vexed matter of why limes are green but limas are yellow (if you missed it, click here), here’s another post dedicated to the wonderful world of confusing culinary nomenclature.

Biscuit. The more you think about it, the less you know what it is you’re thinking about.

Has your mind’s eye conjured up a dry crisp baked good crying out for some sort of rehydration—whether in tea, coffee, or milk (as in the case of Shredded Wheat Biscuits)?

Or are you envisioning a soft flaky quick bread, sliced latitudinally and slathered with butter and jam—or doused in country gravy, as they do down south)? 

If it’s the crispy meaning of biscuit that comes first to mind, then you might also be the sort of person to call trucks lorries and elevators lifts. You’ve got a bit of the Brit in you. After all it’s the Brits who love their digestive biscuits and who tend to use the word to refer to what we Americans call cookies.

If it’s the biscuits-and-gravy sense of the word that comes to mind, then you’re not likely to have Hovis Digestive Biscuits in your larder (which you’re not likely to call a larder in the first place) and you’re far more likely to call cookies cookies.

History hardly helps. Literally the word means “twice cooked” (from the Latin bis (twice) and coctus (past participle of coquere, to cook) because that’s what biscuits once were. Intentionally dessicated little flour-based baked goods meant to sustain one during long journeys and endless wars. Think hardtack, oatcake, and rusk.

Or, more palatably, think biscotti—the twice-baked diagonally cut almond-studded bars from Italy which are best softened by a brief dip in a glass of vin santo. Or there’s zwieback—from the German zwei (twice) and backen (to bake)—the twice-baked sweetened crisp bread more likely to be moistened by the aching gums of the teething toddler for whom they’re marketed these days in the US.

What was it about that transatlantic crossing that transformed dry-as-a-bone ship’s biscuits into meltingly tender beaten biscuits?

Seems the answer has something to do with the Dutch, whose koekje (“little cake”) referred to hard little baked goods like today’s speculaas, those crunchy spice cookies often cut into the shape of a windmill. It was the Dutch koekje, rather than the English biscuit, that took root in the New World and thus on this side of the Atlantic we eat cookies, while on the other side they eat biscuits. 

As for biscuit in the southern sense? Well, hold the gravy, add some currants, and all of a sudden they reveal their resemblance to scones—the favorite teatime treat of Britain and which, in the northeast part of Scotland are sometimes called “sweet biscuits.” Why soft buns should be called biscuits is another story.

Still another is why the company that manufactures some of America’s favorite cookies—Chips Ahoy, Oreos, Mallomars, and Fig Newtons—should be called Nabisco, from National Biscuit Company.

Monday, February 4, 2013

What makes shortbread so short?


Mama’s little baby loves short'nin', short'nin',
Mama’s little baby loves short'nin' bread.

Funny how you don’t stop to think about words you use everyday. Like elevator. If you stopped to think about it, you’d realize that it comes from elevate. So how, I ask you, can something that’s named after its ability to go up be called the same thing when it comes down?

By the same token, not too many people stop and wonder about how shortbreads, shortcakes, and shortening itself got their names. What’s so short about shortening? What are shortbreads being distinguished from? Longbreads?

Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. It’s just we don’t call them longbreads anymore than we refer to descending elevators as descenders. 

A picture speaks a thousand words, so picture to yourself, on the one hand, a shortcake—as in a strawberry shortcake before it’s been filled with strawberries and topped with whipped cream—and, on the other, picture to yourself a rustic Italian bread, one of those nice round crusty loaves all dusted over with flour. Cut into the shortcake and you know what’s bound to happen: it’s going to crumble into moist little crumbs. Cut into your country loaf and, although the crust is likely to shatter, you’re not going to end up with any crumbs on your countertop. You’re far more likely to end up with a slice that’s more hole than bread. But rather than feeling cheated, study that hole more closely. See those strands stretching from side to side? That’s gluten, the protein in the wheat that, when combined with water and kneaded, becomes elastic and stretchy enough to surround and support the air pockets that make the dough rise. The bigger the air pocket, the longer the gluten has to stretch—and long, as we all know, is the opposite of short.

Which takes me back to shortening. As in shortbread and shortcake.
For reasons that chemists explain with words like hydrophilic and hydrophobic, when you add a fat to your wheat and water, the gluten spurns other gluten molecules in favor of the fat, which means no long stretchy strands and, consequently, no air pockets. When baked, the dough becomes cakey and crumbly rather than stretchy and bready. In other words, it becomes what’s known as “short,” which did once have the secondary meaning of  “easily crumbled,” as in a 15th-century recipe that instructs us to “Take warm barm  [yeast], and put all these together and beat them together with thy hand till it be short and thick enough."

Any fat technically qualifies as shortening, but especially those that remain solid at room temperature, like lard, which was the traditional shortening until the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented margarine in 1869 and the German chemist Edwin Cuno Kayser hydrogenated cottonseed oil in the early twentieth century, resulting in the product most often thought of today as shortening: Crisco.

So much, so good. But there's still something funny about the word. For a reason that I can't figure out, it almost never refers to butter, even though it's all but impossible to conceive of shortcake and shortbread made with anything else. What would be the point of Walker’s Pure Butter Shortbread without the butter? 

And “short’nin’ bread,” as in the one Mama’s little baby loves? Well, here’s a recipe from the lovely Charleston Receipts, America’s Oldest Junior League Cookbook. You’ll note that its name notwithstanding, it’s butter that makes that short’nin’ bread taste so good.

Short’nin’ Bread

1 ½ cups flour
¼ cup light brown sugar
¼ lb butter, soft

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Roll out quickly on a floured board, about ½” thick. Cut shapes with small biscuit cutter. Bake on lightly greased and floured shallow pan at 350° for about 20 minutes.