English pancakes

Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, which much of the world celebrates with colourful parades, loud music and women baring their boobs in return for beads. In the UK, we just eat pancakes.

I don’t hold with this giving-things-up-for-Lent business. Pancake Day is meant to be a way to use up all the good things in your larder before embarking on 40 days of mealy-mouthed asceticism. Having given up giving-things-up for Lent myself, I like to eat pancakes year-round, but if you’re one of those for whom this is a once-a-year treat, here’s a recipe for some lovely, lacy pancakes flavoured with orange flower water, which makes them light and delicately floral. In the picture above, I’ve stuffed them with whipped Chantilly cream (whip the cream as usual, but add a tablespoon of caster sugar and a few drops of vanilla essence to every pint) and blueberries, then drizzled them with maple syrup, but there are plenty of other simple fillings you can try:

  • Lemon juice (or lime juice) and sugar
  • A couple of tablespoons of juice straight from an orange with a sprinkle of sugar and a few more drops of orange flower water
  • Melted butter and caster sugar
  • Sweet chestnut purée
  • Maple syrup and bananas
  • Golden syrup
  • Strawberry jam and cream

To make about 12 pancakes, you’ll need:

220g plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
550ml whole milk
2 tablespoons orange flower water
Shortening or vegetable oil for cooking the pancakes (shortening is best)

Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl, and make a well in the middle. Break the eggs into the well and whisk with a balloon whisk, pouring the milk in gradually. Eventually, you should have a smooth batter about the same consistency as single cream. Stir the orange flower water into the batter. This batter doesn’t need to stand before you use it.

Heat about 1 tablespoon of shortening in a large pan over a high heat. The pan should be as hot as you can get it if you don’t want your first pancake to be a flabby disaster. Swirl about ⅓ of a ladle of the batter around the pan (adjust the amount for smaller pans). You should have not quite enough batter to make it to the edges of the pan if you want to have a lacy pancake with a delicate frilly, crisp edge. Flip the pancake over after about 45 seconds. I always use a spatula for this operation, having experienced a childhood pancake/ceiling incident – if you are brave and strong in the wrist, toss the pancake in the pan. Cook the raw side for another 45 seconds, and slide out onto a plate.

We usually eat these one by one as quickly as I can cook them, but if you want to make a great heap of pancakes and serve them all at once, you can wrap the pancakes in foil and keep them in a very low oven, although this does some violence to the lovely crisp edges. It’s best to eat them straight from the pan for the best texture.

Chinese spring onion pancakes

(That’s Chinese scallion pancakes for those of you cooking under the weight of a transatlantic language barrier.)

When I was a kid, my parents acted as guardians to another girl at my school, whose own parents lived in Hong Kong. Wai boarded at school in the week, but used to come and stay with us at the weekends, and those weekends became positive orgies of Chinese cooking. Wai, my Dad and I sprayed the kitchen with a fine glaze of soya sauce and palm sugar every Saturday in an attempt to pretend we weren’t in Bedfordshire, but somewhere far more exotic with zinc-topped tables.

These flaky, crisp, aromatic little hotcakes are messy fun to make, and they were one of our favourites. Like puff pastry, they’re folded on themselves and rolled out several times, like a samurai sword (albeit one punctuated with onions), resulting in a glassy crisp surface and a softly flaking interior. My poor mother used to look on in horror at the mess; if you’re making these at home, I’d recommend using a glass or marble board (if you own one) to roll the dough rather than using the kitchen surface. They don’t take long, and they’re a delicious starter.

To make six (serves three people as a starter) you’ll need:

1 cup plain flour
⅓ cup boiling water
2 tablespoons lard (duck or beef dripping will also work well, but make sure you use an animal fat for the flavour)
6 spring onions (scallions)
1 drop sesame oil per pancake
Salt and pepper

Combine the flour and water in a mixing bowl, and knead the mixture hard until you’ve got a smooth, soft dough. You’ll have to work the dough to make it smooth; keep kneading for a few
minutes. Leave the dough to rest for 15 minutes to allow the gluten to develop, helping the dough to become more stretchy.

When you set the dough aside to rest, you can use your spare 15 minutes to chop the spring onions finely and take the lard out of the fridge so it’s soft when you come to use it.

Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll a piece flat, into as thin a circle as you can manage, and spread one side generously with the softened fat.Add a drop of sesame oil, and sprinkle one chopped spring onion over the top.

Roll the circle of dough up tightly like a scroll, with the onions inside. Use your hand to flatten the roll, fold it in half and use a rolling pin to make it into a flat circle again. You don’t need to flour your board; the fat from the dough will stop anything from sticking. Roll into a scroll again, then repeat the folding and flattening. You will have a pancake with many layers, each with a little fat between them. The edges won’t be very tidy; don’t worry.

Repeat for each piece of dough. Season each pancake on both sides with salt and pepper.

Melt a teaspoon of the remaining fat in a large, non-stick frying pan, and bring up to a high temperature. Slide the pancakes into the pan, and fry on one side for about 5 minutes until golden. Add another teaspoon of fat to the pan and flip the pancakes over using a spatula. Cook for 5 minutes more, until crisp and golden, and transfer to a serving dish.

If you’ve got guests, you might want to use scissors to cut the pancakes into triangles. I didn’t; we just put them on our plates and gobbled.