Coffee Klatsch, Cuisine, Memories, Stearns, Wobegon Trail

Pancake Wisdom

I can’t speak for other states, or the whole state, or the whole of Stearns County, or even the whole of St Cloud, Minnesota.

But I can say that in our large extended Tri-County family, the humble pancake was a daily staple.

Pancakes were cheap and quick to make and filled a lot of bellies – valuable attributes then and now.

Minnesotans might be pancake judges without peer anywhere in the world. That’s a bold statement to make, especially for a Minnesotan, as we don’t like to brag. But I’d wager it’s true.

My mother made pancakes from scratch and also from box mixes.

The box mixes had the same ingredients as those she made from scratch, plus additives and preservatives I don’t like to think about given how many we ate, and the absence of ingredients monitoring then.

Whatever was in the boxes, the pancakes they yielded propelled my weedy little brother to well past six feet (for he ate little else, except for Kemps ice cream, Cheerios, and Wheaties).

His implements of choice were a large bowl and a spoon, and this may still be true. But I suspect that the pancakes he now eats in Penang, Malaysia, where he lives, are of the gourmet variety.

Jeff is also partial, when back in Minnesota, to a Tombstone pizza, filling my sister’s freezer with them when visiting.

But that’s another story.

What happens in Minnesota stays in Minnesota.

When making pancakes with Mom, she said she loved their versatility, speed of manufacture, and how she’d never met anyone who didn’t like pancakes.

There may be some who don’t eat them now, in this era of carb aversion, but in our town of large families it was bread, potatoes, and pancakes all the way.

Mom’s top tip when making pancake batter was to add enough water for a porridge-like consistency – not too thin, not too thick.

Pancakes that were too thin would become unsatisfying crepes, and batter that was too thick would make a stodgy cake that sat uncomfortably in your stomach all day.

Once you ladle batter into a lightly greased pan you need to watch closely to prevent burning.

Pancakes, she said, are ready to flip when you see bubbles covering the surface.

Flip a pancake too soon and it will have a pallid, unappetizing color, and you will have to keep flipping until both sides have been properly browned. Too much cooking and flipping makes a pancake tough.

Mom would make pancakes until all of the batter was gone, stacking them for her shift-working husband and whichever kids were up early enough or at home to eat their share. There were never any left, and they never sat long enough to get cold. She rarely ate any of her own pancakes, preferring a cup of black Folger’s from her percolator.

I think of Mom when I make a pancake, watching the bubbles bubble and stacking two, three, four to savor by myself, along with my own cup of black coffee.

New Zealanders don’t make pancakes.

They make petite versions called pikelets, which they take on road trips, picnics, or decorate on a plate with butter and/or jam and whipped cream to take to morning and afternoon teas.

Pikelets taste the same as pancakes to me. But I don’t make pikelets. I make pancakes.

Back in St Cloud we would occasionally dig out the waffle iron and use our pancake batter to make this crunchy patterned cousin of the pancake. But not often.

We were always happy with pancakes as they were, straight from Mom’s pan, not too thick or too thin, embellished with chunky strawberry jam or grape jelly or sugar or Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup from the Piggly Wiggly.

Thinking about pancakes reminds me of the berries, jams and preserves of childhood, and a sweet story about Grandma Mina Hilsgen.

Long after Grandpa Pete died in the Anoka State Hospital (for that was the sad fate of Minnesotans who had dementia back then), Grandma continued living in their house in Waite Park with its aromatic cellar and massive garden.

Waite Park is the starting point of the Wobegon Trail.

Mina was a formidable preserver and vintner of thick dark wine. Her house smelled of apples, fermenting grapes, and recently baked spice cookies, and the cellar where so much of her bounty was stored.

When she was dying she asked my father, her youngest boy, to lean down so she could whisper something in his ear.

“Don’t forget about the strawberries in the freezer.”

When Dad looked for the strawberries, he found Grandma’s thick roll of dollar bills, and others in preserving jars in her cellar. Mina’s generation had learned the hard way not to rely on banks.

Recently I emailed cousin Lois Thielen who lives in Grey Eagle and each year wins county and state fair ribbons for her baking, alongside her friend Candy.

(I don’t know any Candys apart from Lois’s friend. Do you? The world has lost something now that hardly anybody is called Candy.)

I was sure Lois would have plenty of pancake tips.

Lois says she and her parents had pancakes every Friday when she was growing up, as religious observance required meatless Fridays.

“From the time I was about 11, I was in charge of making them. This is my favorite recipe. Be sure to sift in the baking soda, or you might have horrid little lumps in your pancakes!”

Lois Thielen’s Buttermilk Pancakes

  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 2 cups buttermilk (room temperature)
  • 2 tbsp melted butter

Method Sift flour, baking soda, salt and sugar into a bowl. Combine eggs, buttermilk and melted butter in a separate small bowl. Stir into flour mixture just to moisten flour – do not overmix. The batter will have a few lumps.

Spoon onto a hot, lightly greased griddle. Turn cakes when bubbles appear and break over the top and around the edges. Serve hot with butter or maple syrup or your favorite topping.

Buttermilk substitute “My old standby was to put 1 tbsp white vinegar or 1 tbsp lemon juice in a measuring jug and add milk to make 1 cup. Let stand 5 minutes, then stir and use, or add 1/4 cup milk to 3/4 cup plain or Greek yogurt.”

 Photo istock

6 thoughts on “Pancake Wisdom”

  1. Cherie says:

    I do know of a woman named Candy, and I kid you not, her last name is Cane. Birth name, not married name. Her parents had to be a bit cruel. To this day I rarely eat pancakes or oatmeal because we had them so often for breakfast. What a problem to have. What I remember most was wishing Mom never got sick as then Dad would make us fried eggs that were somehow crunchy.

    1. Editor says:

      Oatmeal is the other staple. Grandpa Hilsgen said that was his secret of living a long life. Dad liked hard yolks in his fried eggs; I do too!

  2. Lois Thielen says:

    Actually I said “sift” the baking soda because it always had those little lumps. We had the pancakes for noon dinner every Friday and then for supper my mother made pancakes soup with the leftovers. Simply cut the pancakes in quarters, add water to cover and a little salt. Simmer until tender. I thought my mother made this recipe up to use up the pancakes, but years later I discovered this identical recipe in a German cookbook.

    1. Editor says:

      Have never heard of pancake soup! Waste not want not.

  3. Lois Thielen says:

    Part Two of the pancake story. There was always a lot of discussion about the appropriate topping for pancakes. My dad was of the butter school and never used anything else. My mother was of the syrup school. Again, nothing else. I am a butter person myself; sweet toppings just don’t seem right. As I got older, I expanded my repertoire of pancake recipes and got some buckwheat flour to make buckwheat pancakes like those of my dad’s youth and also buckwheat waffles. I made a lot of waffles in my 20s when my friends came over and my dad liked them. That’s also when I discovered sorghum syrup, another item from my dad’s youth when they grew sorghum and used it to make a dark syrup good in cookies and other baking. You can substitute it for molasses and you can still buy it today.

    1. Editor says:

      I am a butter person too Lois. However I do like syrup in moderation. As I get older, I favour the syrup, or maybe some runny jam. I like apple syrup and blueberry syrup but don’t have pancakes often enough to experiment wildly. Perhaps this should be a project for next winter and you are heading for cold weather and can make some pancake soup.

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