- PHOTO BY KEN SAMUELS
- SUGAR SHOCK: A trifecta of chocolate chips, whipped cream, and syrup takes these cakes into the next dimension.
My mother often made pancakes on Saturday mornings. They were dollar sized and featured whole wheat flour, soured milk (milk with vinegar), eggs, baking powder, brown sugar, and melted butter added to the batter. The deal was if I ate so many of these plain pancakes I could have some with chocolate chips—mini chips worked best with the smaller cakes.
On a cold morning there was nothing like pushing away from the table with a belly stuffed with 15 warm pancakes. It was as good and comfortable a feeling as a kid could have after a morning of watching cartoons. My wife, Erin, an excellent cook, remembers that pancakes were the first dish she learned to make, because she wanted to flip them. Those are our pancake origin stories, and I am sure many of you have one of your own. As Rust Cohle says in True Detective, “Time is a flat circle.”
Pancakes are a primal human comfort food, likely stretching back to prehistoric societies. Sweet and savory versions of the pancake are staples of cultures throughout the world—from good ol’ fat American griddlecakes to delicate French crepes to the tangy, spongy injera of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine, and so on.
A quick online search reveals at least three different National Pancake Days in the United States, and that’s not even mentioning Pancake Day in Britain when thin, crepe-like pancakes are eaten to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent begins).
I have eaten pancakes all over this great land: a Baltimore diner at 1 in the morning, a Cracker Barrel in Nashville, the ever changing Miracle Pancakes at Zazie in San Francisco, not to mention various IHOPS and Denny’s.
- PHOTO BY KEN SAMUELS
- SPECIAL SPECIAL: A cross section of sweet and savory.
In that hungry spirit, Erin and I hit three downtown San Luis Obispo breakfast spots on Memorial Day weekend to get our pancakes on.
First stop was brunch at Big Sky Café. They regularly offer both buttermilk and whole grain pancakes on the breakfast menu, featuring their own natural blend of maple syrup with filling choice options that run the sweet-savory gamut: pecan-banana, chocolate chips, Swiss cheese, or whichever fresh berries are in season. You can get them in either the short stack (two cakes) or tall stack (three cakes) version.
I usually go for the extremely filling whole grain cakes with the fresh berries and add a light drizzle of syrup. This morning however I felt nostalgic for chocolate chips and had them as my filling option instead. Visually, the dark brown of the melted chips were pleasingly complimented by the lighter brown of the cake. I reasonably settled for a short stack of these sweet, filling beauties, and accompanied them with a couple of scrambled eggs on the side for protein. That’s the beauty of the versatile pancake—it makes good company for more savory breakfast fare.
On the following morning I took sweet and savory to the mountain top when Erin and I headed over to the Del Monte Café to attack my personal Everest: The Pancake Special—three buttermilk pancakes layering two slices of ham. This mountain of carbohydrates and protein has been on Del Monte’s menu since they opened in 1981.
I must admit that I love a good food challenge, especially if it hits all my culinary pleasure centers. I have made several attempts at finishing the Pancake Special, even skipping dinner the night before, swimming a mile first thing in the morning to prepare my body and soul for the task ahead. I shouldn’t make this sound like a Sisyphean task though—with this dish, the journey is as important as the destination.
- PHOTO BY KEN SAMUELS
- DR. CHOCOLATE: Whole grains give these pancakes the veneer of health.
A few words on syrup use seem apt at this point. For many of my pancake eating years I shunned syrup. I shocked many a friend with my dislike of the sweet, sticky pools so many of them drenched their cakes in. I preferred a drizzle of powdered sugar and pat of melted butter to sweeten and moisten my flapjacks. In recent years, with the wisdom of experience, I have changed my thinking on syrup, realizing that it can enhance rather than engulf the pancake. This was demonstrated as I poured a modest amount of it on my stack so that it slowly cascaded over each layer of pancake and ham, mingling with a dash of melted butter to create a small pond of sugar and salt.
As I worked my way through the dish, Erin had the seasonal blueberry pancakes, the fruit serving as both filling and topping. The berry juice deliciously explodes with each bite, proving that old adage from grade school that fruit is indeed nature’s candy.
With a little bit of Erin’s help I finished the Special and headed home for a nap to rest up for the final leg of our pancakeathon.
Memorial Day morning found us waiting in line at Louisa’s Place. By this point in my three-day odyssey I was favoring one of Louisa’s four-egg omelets rather than downing another pancake, but I had a job to do, a vision to achieve. Louisa’s menu features four kinds of pancakes: buttermilk, sourdough, buckwheat, and honey wheat.
I opted for the buttermilk with (surprise!) chocolate chips, which is topped by a generous dollop of whipped cream and just to gild the lily comes with a small jar of syrup on the side. Anticipating the sugar shakes I opted for the short stack of two cakes, but in the interest of science I added a splash of the syrup. The sponginess of the cakes, the gooiness of the chips, the pillowy sweet whipped cream, and the sticky syrup put me into a slightly altered state, but after a few sprints around the block I calmed down. Now that’s what I call a breakfast.
I may have to lay off pancakes for the next month or so, but I know I’ll be back. In the meantime, there’s a plate of waffles out there with my name on it.
When he’s not storming the pancake barricades, contributor Ken Samuels can be reached via Arts Editor Erin C. Messer at email@example.com.