Fluffy vs floppy: Why American pancakes are far superior to British... just ask my children

Fluffy American or delicate British?
Fluffy American or delicate British? Our writers discuss the qualities of a perfect pancake

A stack of fluffy American pancakes might well be on the menu in many British households tomorrow, as demand for the thicker variety rises. Ahead of Shrove Tuesday, searches for American pancakes are up by over 50 per cent compared with 2023, according to Waitrose, but have these oversees interlopers (prized for their partnership with maple and bacon, not to mention fresh berries and cream) really replaced traditional British pancakes in our hearts?

Impossible, argues Xanthe Clay – but for Ed Cumming (and his children) the American way has become the only way.

The perfect Pancake Day serving is without doubt a British plate-filler, broad but thin, tender and delicate. Don’t get me wrong, fluffy American pancakes, stacked up in a teetering, bloated tower, have their place: in a diner, for brunch. And in fairness, we have honourable versions of our own – drop scones are identical, albeit a bit smaller, and make an excellent post-walk tea slathered in butter, while if you’re north of the border, Scotch pancakes, the Gaelic version of drop scones, may well be right and proper.

But for me, Shrove Tuesday means skinny, crepe-like pancakes. They are what I ate as a child, as my mum did and her mother before that. That’s the point of these food traditions; eating the same things links us with the past. Doused with sugar and the juice of lemon halves squeezed over, these pancakes scent the air with zest. For a few mouthfuls, we share an experience that’s been the same for generations.

Not that you have to be hidebound about the toppings. A few lemon and sugar pancakes are obligatory for me, but after that there’s plenty of room for adaptation. And British pancakes are endlessly adaptable. Unlike their puffy, cake-like cousins, there’s no sugar in the mix meaning they work for savoury toppings as well as sweet.

And yes, I know the Yanks like theirs with bacon alongside the maple syrup, but that’s down to an intense sweet-salt obsession. Our soft, foldable pancakes are the perfect wrap for real grown-up food. Fill them with a cheesy béchamel and leeks, or smoked haddock and spinach. Or layer them with a meaty ragu and white sauce, lasagne-style.

Clay advises to get the frying pan 'shimmeringly hot' to make British pancakes
Clay advises to get the frying pan 'shimmeringly hot' to make British pancakes - iStockphoto

Something crisp on top or inside the folded layers is a good idea; pancakes are soft, yielding and bland, which is why the crunch of granulated sugar and the sour, fragrant zing of lemon juice is so good. Try trickling the mix over the hot pan to make a lace-like crepe (or pancake scribble) which will have a biscuity quality to the edges.

Chewy and nubbly works too – roll a thin British pancake around spoonfuls of mushroom risotto, like cannelloni, and heat them through in the oven with a sprinkling of parmesan and butter, so the edges of the pancakes curl and darken crisply. Toasted nuts are gorgeous with a squeeze of honey and cinnamon-spiked stewed apple. My favourite? Fold the pancakes over a filling of thick custard (homemade or from a tub), sprinkle with sugar and grill until the sugar melts, like a Shrove Tuesday creme brûlée.

Good, thin pancakes make a difference. Readymade aren’t bad, and they are fine for an after-work quick fix. But the best pancakes, the silkiest, most tender ones, are homemade. Partly that’s because the pouring, tipping and flipping are part of the ritual. But also because you can add a magic ingredient: an extra egg yolk. It’s this little boost that will make your pancakes silky, delicate and – frankly – better.

The recipe is straightforward. Mix 200ml milk, 50g melted butter, a pinch of salt, one egg and one egg yolk in a jug, and pour this gradually into 100g flour, whisking all the time (or just whizz them together with a stick blender). Sometimes, if I’m feeling fancy, I might add a little grating of lemon or orange zest.

Leave for at least an hour in the fridge to rest. You can make the mixture a day ahead if you like, pouring it into an empty milk bottle. Give the bottle a shake (don’t worry about any grey colour that might have developed; it won’t show in the pancakes) before using. The consistency should be thin, hardly thicker than milk, single cream not double cream, so add more milk if necessary or your pancakes will be thick and stodgy.

Make the frying pan shimmeringly hot before you melt in a nut-sized lump of butter. Pour in a spoonful of batter, tipping the pan as you go, so the mixture spreads as thinly as possible to cover the whole base. Once the surface starts to rise in little air pockets like a moonscape, you can loosen the pancake with a spatula and turn it over to cook the other side or give it the big flip. A proper British tradition.

On a subject as fraught as pancakes, it is almost impossible to find an impartial judge, at least among adults. Anyone who has spent even a few years eating will have clear prejudices.

Some of the thinking is jingoistic. The French swear by their rugged buckwheat galettes or gossamer-thin crepes, either bulging with melted cheese and egg, flambéed in Grand Marnier, or subjected to all manner of other ordeals up to and including being covered in Nutella and banana.

This is before we get into the near-infinite varieties available internationally: blinis (Russia), boxtys (Ireland), pannukakkus (Finland), jeons (Korea), crespelles (Italy) and aebleskivers (Denmark).

In the UK, the most radical schism is between English (read: French) pancakes and American interlopers. As an honest son of Albion, my natural leaning was once towards the British version that I grew up with: yellowish, slightly flabby and served once a year, soused in sugar and lemon, invariably made by inexpert chefs and piled up cold on a plate by the frying pan, so by the time they are served the ones at the bottom are so soggy – they have more or less reverted to being batter. Happy memories.

Still, when my own children came along I was determined not to inflict my preferences on their blameless palates. Let them make up their own minds. They were offered British and American-style pancakes. The verdict was clear: the Americans have it. Now, when they request pancakes, they are not asking for the British version.

Cumming: 'The American-style pancake, when it comes off, is a thing of fluffy joy'
Cumming: 'The American-style pancake, when it comes off, is a thing of fluffy joy'

And I have come to agree. A properly made crepe, light and crisp, is delightful but can be hard to pull off at 6.30am on a Saturday with a hangover and Peppa Pig blaring in the background. The American-style pancake, when it comes off, is a thing of fluffy joy and much better suited for most domestic kitchens.

All you do is swap the flour for self-raising or dollop some baking powder in the mix. They are easier to fry, because they have more structural integrity. There is no culture of flipping them, you simply turn them when they are ready. You can make more than one in the pan at a time and they stay warm for longer, making them better suited for large numbers.

You can make them into entertaining bear or Mickey Mouse shapes, depending on your household’s tolerance of Disney. The more interesting texture means they are less reliant on their toppings than the British (again, I mean French) ones, which in the hands of the inexperienced chef, which is almost everyone, can become little more than edible plates.

A pancake or two is perfect for children; a stack, loaded with blueberries and maple syrup, makes for a more indulgent breakfast than a floppy British thing could ever aspire to. In fact, the most worrying thing about the superiority of the American pancake is that it leads inexorably to an even greater sacrilege: their streaky bacon, cut from the belly, gorgeously fatty and cooked to a delightful crisp, is better than our thick, meaty back-style version. But that’s for another column.

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