Make perfect pancakes

James P. DeWan
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

There are precious few foods that slip easily under a door. Lettuce leaves come to mind, along with matzo and veal scaloppine. But as tempting as a kosher veal and salad sandwich sounds, it will never replace my favorite from the flat food group: pancakes.

These little discs of deliciousness have more names than Satan: pancakes, flapjacks, hotcakes, griddle cakes. Whatever the moniker, what they have in common are four ingredients: wheat flour, eggs, dairy and a leavener.

As you probably know, the gluten in wheat flour allows the pancakes to rise and become fluffy and light. All-purpose (AP) flour is dandy, though some cooks with palates more refined than mine prefer softer flours. Seriously, though, AP is fine. It’s a pancake, for cry-eye. (If you’re gluten-intolerant, I suggest you leave this article. Leave it now. It will only bring you despair, cramps and bloating. Come back another day, when we explore other, more exotic and non-gluten-containing grains.)

There are just two basic parts of the pancake process: mixing and cooking.

1. Mixing: Don’t overmix your batter. Use the “muffin method” of mixing: Put all your dry ingredients in one bowl and your wet ingredients in another, then pour the wet into the dry. Mix only enough to incorporate.

Overmixing develops gluten too much, giving you pancakes that are as tough and leathery as George Hamilton’s forehead. Leave some lumps, and your pancakes will be as soft and tender as a Michael Buble ballad.

2. Cooking: Pour your batter onto your griddle. If you don’t have a griddle, use a cast iron pan. If you don’t have a cast iron pan, use whatever wide, flat pan you have. If you don’t have a wide, flat pan, carefully scrape your batter into the garbage and go out to breakfast.

I never grease the pan, but, if you want, you could add just a bit of oil or butter, then pour the batter. After about a minute, when the pancake bottom is golden brown and bubbles form and begin to pop on the top, flip and brown the other side to cook through. Yum.

Variations: Even if your constitution can handle gluten, you still might like a little change of pace. In that case, you can add grains to the mix, dress up your batter with a more novel dairy element than milk or impress your chimp butler with some banana pancakes. For a change of pace, take my basic pancake recipe (at bottom), and make the following tweaks.

Oats: Grains such as oats have been shown to be good for your heart. Eat lots of oats and, while you may not live forever, like some crazy vampire horse, you just may notice that your arteries feel a bit less cloggy. Generally, you can’t go wrong with a 50/50 mix of wheat flour to grain in your batter; the flour still gives your pancakes that nice fluffiness, while the oats add texture and nutritional value.

Mascarpone in the batter and between layers makes for a richer and more luxurious pancake.

Mascarpone: Milk is the most common dairy used in a pancake, but the more fat your dairy has, the richer and more luxurious your final product. Try 1 cup mascarpone with 1 cup milk and 4 ounces butter, plus the dry ingredients from my basic recipe.

Once cooked, stack up your pancakes and spread mascarpone between layers.

Mix banana slices and chocolate chips straight into the batter, but save some for a pretty topping. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Bananas, blueberries or chocolate chips: Here’s the thing: Add pretty much whatever sweet treats you like to your batter, and cook it up the same way you would otherwise. It’s all good. Now, grab the syrup and dig in.

Dress up a simple pancake recipe with apples sauteed in brandy. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Excellent Pancakes With Apples

Use less liquid for thicker batter and pancakes, more liquid for thinner. You’re the boss.

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 5 to 8 minutes

Makes: 12 servings

2 cups all-purpose flour

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch salt

11/2 cups milk

3 eggs, beaten

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, melted

Butter, unmelted, as needed

Maple syrup, as needed

Sauteed apples, see recipe

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, combine milk, eggs and melted butter.

Pour liquid into flour mixture, and combine with a rubber spatula or whisk until just blended. Do not overmix.

Pour desired amount of batter onto a greased hot griddle or cast iron skillet and cook until bubbles form on top and just begin to pop. Flip pancakes and cook on other side until done, 1 to 2 minutes.

Serve immediately with butter, maple syrup and sauteed apples.

Nutrition information per serving: 182 calories, 10 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 5 g protein, 216 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Sauteed Apples

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 5-8 minutes

Makes: about 24 ounces (about 12 servings)

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter

4 apples, peeled, cored, cut into medium dice

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 ounce brandy, optional

Cinnamon, as needed

Salt as needed

Melt butter in a skillet over medium high heat. When foam subsides, add apples and sugar; cook until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.

Remove pan from heat, add brandy, then return pan to heat and tilt to flame. When flames subside, season with cinnamon and salt to taste; serve immediately.

Nutrition information per 1/2 cup serving: 64 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 0 g protein, 1 mg sodium, 1 g fiber