I’m going to have to ask you to use your imagination on this photo. Scads of berries are indeed always attractive, but what this is really supposed to be is a teetering pile of berry laden pancakes topped with birthday candles. Well, it was originally supposed to be a birthday cake.
I’ve never been one to blame Mercury being in retrograde for what ever is going awry in my life. But these past two rounds of it have very nearly made me a believer. All of January has been made up of increasingly bizarre delays and missed connections. And the autumnal round of mercury was particularly challenge filled as well. We had headed up to the cabin for L’s birthday. Under normal circumstances it’s a brilliant and beautiful place to be, but in the midst of months of moving and home renovations it was particularly exciting to be someplace where I wouldn’t be dealing with boxes or covered with packing tape or plaster dust. The plan was to spend the week celebrating the birthday, getting some photography projects done, do lots of writing, and copious amounts of sitting on the porch drinking coffee and craft beer while watching the neighbor’s alpaca graze.
The alpacas aside, the cabin is really quite remote. A few miles before you get to our place there are warning placards where the state of Pennsylvania reminds you that they are not responsible for maintaining the roads should you be so foolhardy as to continue on. The nearest town was probably very bustling in the 1940s, but not so much in the ensuing decades — the restaurant/saloon there has been for sale for as long as I can remember, and I’m always tempted to figure out a way to buy it and become a tiny town saloonkeeper. The closest groceries are 45 minutes away, down the steep and winding “road.” So we bring the bulk of the staples from home, stopping at farm stands along the way, and then make a stop for the super perishables that we haven’t come across during the journey before the last leg.
We were about an hour into the drive before Mercury started causing his mischief. I took my camera out to start shooting some of the scenic vistas and realized that the battery chargers were not in my camera bag. So a week away with only 1 fully charged battery. At the most scenic time of the year.
We got to the house and I went to hide all of my baking supplies so that the birthday cake would be a surprise. Only to realize that we had no cake pans in the cupboards. I spent the next little while trying to figure out if the pie plate or lasagna pan was the better substitution, but it turned out not to matter because I had left the eggs at the checkout at the grocery store. You know, the one 45 minutes away. I never do that sort of thing. The week was filled with weird mishaps like that. None of our cell phones got a signal, nor would they connect to the wifi. When the wifi wasn’t out that is. The power went out. I dropped things continually. Computers crashed, stories were lost. I cut myself more while chopping this week than I have in a decade of cooking. Coffee grounds went flying around the kitchen one day, and while making these very pancakes I managed to spray batter all over the kitchen. All over. Damn you Mercury, damn you.
Since I couldn’t figure out how to make a cake from the solitary egg I had thrown in my cooler from home (zero waste kitchen), the birthday cake was going to have to wait until the next trip to the store, I decided that on the morning of the birthday itself we would have family breakfast. Normally at the cabin, we all keep our own morning schedule and meals. The first person up puts the coffee on, and we all sort of graze our way through yogurt or fruit or avocado toast. I had a vision of pancakes as a representation of cake, fluffy and brown, piled high, with candles blazing. It was going to be a freaking Pinterest page come to life. I piled those pancakes high, already planning the Instagram post in my head. I placed the candles on top and lit them, and took a wee moment to be ever so pleased with myself. Before I realized my complete and utter folly. Because, of course, I was putting wax candles into HOT pancakes and then lighting them. They were very quickly melting from both the top and the bottom. I dashed out to the porch where the table was set, screeching “Happy Birthday, blow them out, blow them out, no, stop singing, no time, stop singing, blow them out.” Not my most graceful culinary— or life — moment.
My pancake recipe, like many of my basics is a riff on one from a Fannie Farmer recipe, the cookbook that was our kitchen bible when I was growing up. I beat ¾ cup of milk, 2 tablespoons of melted butter, a squeeze of orange, and one egg in a mixing bowl until frothy.
In another bowl, 1 cup of flour gets combined with 2 teaspoons baking powder, 2 tablespoons of sugar, a generous sprinkling of sea salt, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, and a teaspoon of ground cardamom. Then the wet and the dry come together. They key to great pancakes is to not over mix. In this instance, lumps are totally cool. Over mixing causes the gluten in the flour to develop so you will get pancakes that are more toothsome than tender.
I cook very nearly everything in butter. Except pancakes. Since the pan stays hot for so many rounds of batter, the milk solids in butter will brown and burn. I have a friend who uses clarified butter, which is a great idea, but honestly making pancakes from scratch is fancy enough for me in the morning. I just use vegetable oil. I know that there are all sorts of tricks to keep your berries or fruit from sinking to the bottom of the bowl and being evenly distributed throughout the batter, but my solution is to not put them in the batter at all. As the batter cooks, I quickly place berries on top. If you move quickly enough you can get it so they sink in just a little. Once the berry laden top is beginning to bubble, wait for the bubbles to begin popping. If they fill up with batter right away, it’s too soon to flip. You want the holes to stay open on the surface. Then flip and cook for another 2 minutes. Top with maple syrup, never birthday candles.