Pancakes: They’re Not Just for Breakfast

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on April 22 2013

Pancakes: They’re Not Just For Breakfast

While I look forward nearly every day to going to work, every now and again, I’ll look forward with greater anticipation to the drive home. I know of no job that is void of any stress of one sort or another. Adam’s curse, I suppose. It seems I need a little stress to remain focused and efficient.

In order to avoid bringing the stress home with me, however, I’ll imagine stripping off the various events of the day and leaving them along the roadside as I drive — much like a weary mechanic, or farmer, or factory worker might discard his grimy salt-stained clothes as he makes his way to the shower.

“I’ll pick up the mess tomorrow morning on the drive back.”

I’ll pull into the driveway and walk through the door, where I’ll be warmly greeted by the nearest of my two teenagers with something like, “HiDadhowwasyourdaywhat’sfordinner?”

Taped to the inside of one of my kitchen cabinet doors is a collection of tattered paper scraps with tried-n-true recipes scrawled in cryptic codes. When the pantry’s low, or I forgot to thaw the chicken, or I simply don’t want to resort to another trip through the drive-thru, I’ll fall back on my favorite recipe for pancakes. After all, pancakes aren’t just for breakfast.

Sure, there are a few who scoff at the idea of eating pancakes for dinner, but if we look beyond the confines of modern North Americanism, we’ll discover that I’m actually in good company. The elevation of the fluffy flapjack to the status of quintessential breakfast food is, for the most part, a recent development in worldview.

The word, “pancake,” according the Oxford Companion to Food, seems to have first appeared in the English vernacular in the 13th century, and it was used then in such a fashion to suggest it was a familiar term.

The Apicius, a 4th-century A.D. collection of Roman recipes, includes instructions for a griddle cake made with egg, milk, and flour, sweetened with honey and pepper. 5th-century B.C. Grecian poets sang of the “Tagenite,” a flatbread made of flour, honey, and milk curds; the name for this ancient Greek dish is derived from the word meaning “frying pan.”

Who knows where and when the pancake originated. One thing is certain however, today pancakes exist on menus around the globe. Wikipedia lists around 70 variations, some of which I can’t spell with this keyboard of mine, let alone pronounce without laughter in the distance.

A Quire of Paper

So it’s not unreasonable at all for me to imagine tattered “receipts” for pancakes pinned to the walls and cupboards of 18th century kitchens…both English and American. Pancake recipes are included in nearly every 18th century English cookbook. The few early American cookbooks also include them. Amelia Simmons’ 1796 cookbook “American Cookery,” for instance, includes recipes for “Indian Slapjacks” (a pancake using corn and wheat flours), yeast-based “Buckwheat cakes” (also included in Susannah Carter’s 1803 revised cookbook,  “The Frugal Housewife“), and “Federal Pan Cakes” (using corn and rye flours).  Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife” includes a recipe for the ultra-thin pancake, “A Quire of Paper” seen in earlier English cookbooks.

It’s William Ellis’s 1750 book, “The Country Housewife’s Family Companion” that gives a clear picture of how pancakes were enjoyed by gentry and commoners alike. For some, pancakes were dessert; for others, they were the entire meal. Ellis includes a range of pancake recipes from those made by the poor using water or ale instead of milk, to those that used such extravagant ingredients as cream, sack, and orange-flower water. Ellis also perpetuates to the long-standing debate over whether water is better to use than milk. He references Gervase Markham’s 1615 cookbook “The English Hus-Wife” which suggests that using milk or cream instead of water produces a much tougher pancake. Judging by the number of 18th century recipes for milk pancakes, however, it’s apparent that milk edged out water in the end.

Google the phrase “English Pancake Recipe” and you will find stacks of recipes that have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. Commonly served with sugar and a squeeze of lemon (a Maria Rundell suggestion in her 1807 cookbook), pancakes were and still are associated with Lent. They are prepared on Shrove Tuesday (commonly called “Pancake Tuesday”) in anticipation of Ash Wednesday, when such luxury ingredients like cream begin their temporary Lenten prohibition. The thinner unleavened English pancake was also enjoyed in America until the use of chemical leavening agents took over in the late 1800s.  The pancake recipe in the 1854 “The American Home Cook Book” is for an English-style pancake. 

After comparing a number of 18th century pancake recipes, I was frustrated once again by the lack of precision in these old instructions — a sentiment shared by Karen Hess in her annotations of “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery.” But a little leeway is needed when interpreting and reproducing these old recipes. Hess had much to say about differences between such things as 18th century wheat flour and modern wheat flour that can dramatically affect outcomes. Consequently, the focus of our interpretation needs to be more on the viscosity of the pancake batter than the precise measure of ingredients.

Having said that mouthful, let’s get started with our recipe. I’ve written this delicious one down myself and taped it up next to my other favorite pancake recipe — just for a little variety.

18th Century English Pancakes

18th Century Common Milk Pancakes


2 c All-Purpose Flour
1/2 t Ground Nutmeg
1/2 t salt
1 t Powdered Ginger
1 Egg
2 – 1-1/4 c Milk
Butter for frying


Combine the dry ingredients. Add the egg and about half the milk. Stir this until the batter is well incorporated, albeit thick.  continue to add additional milk, whisk well, until the batter is slightly thicker than heavy cream.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat and melt about 1/2 to 1 T of butter. (Some of the old recipes suggest coating the pan with clarified butter, then pouring any excess butter out before adding the batter.) Ladle in about 1/4 cup of the batter. Tilt the pan so to swirl the batter around to distribute it evenly. Cook for a minute or two until the pancake is golden brown on the bottom side. Flip and cook for about 30 seconds.  Repeat.

Sprinkle a little sugar between each of the pancakes as you stack them. If you like, a little cinnamon can be mixed with the sugar as well.

Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice on the pancakes to serve.

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