Pancake Day: How This Pre-Lent Tradition Came About + 2 Delicious Flapjack Recipes

Mardi Gras is in full swing, which means food and festivities are top priority. (When are they not?) The holiday's translation — “Fat Tuesday” in French — cues indulgence, specifically, enjoying all of the food and drinks you'll give up for Lent. Ahead of this abstinence, tradition dictates eating high-fat, culturally significant fare like gumbo, beignets, donuts and pancakes. The latter is easy to make and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It's also the reason Fat Tuesday is often called "Pancake Day." Here's more on the history of pancake day, plus two easy pancake recipes you can whip up to partake in this yummy food tradition!

What is Lent?

Many Christian denominations observe Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter. There are various rules for what should and shouldn't be eaten during Lent. Though, it's common to see foods that contain indulgent ingredients like sugar butter given up as a form of sacrifice. This religious practice dates back centuries and has birthed one unique food holiday: pancake day.

The history of pancake day

Each year, pancake day occurs 47 days prior to Easter on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It began in Europe during the Middle Ages as a means for Christians to use up pantry staples like eggs, milk and flour before Lent by making pancakes. While pancake day is a popular name for this tradition, it's also called by its older nickname "Shrove Tuesday."

“The name ‘Shrove Tuesday’ derives from the practice of Anglo-Saxon Christians giving confession the day before Lent, and being ‘shriven’ (absolved of their sins),” writer Flora Hughes-Onslow says. “A bell would be rung to call people to confession, which became known as the ‘Pancake Bell’ and is still rung today.” Over time, hearing the pancake bell ring at noon on Shrove Tuesday became a sign for households to start making their pancakes. Today, this holiday — regardless of what you call it — is celebrated across the world simply by eating pancakes. However, competitions called pancake races provide another way to commemorate the holiday.

The origins of the pancake race

Pancake races are an opportunity to celebrate this occasion with a twist. The goal of a pancake race is to cross the finish line carrying a frying pan with a cooked flapjack. This isn’t an easy task, but it’s a fun Shrove Tuesday activity that began in the 15th century. The Olney Pancake Race, which originated in England in 1445, is the world's oldest and most renowned competition.

Competing versions of the tradition's origins abound. One involves an Olney woman running to her church with skillet in hand after hearing the pancake bell. Another claims that pancakes were given as a bribe to the person ringing the bell — encouraging them to ring it earlier.

Wherever it came from, the contest's popularity caught the attention of residents in Liberal, KS. After seeing magazine photos of the Olney race, the US town adopted the tradition in 1950. Soon after, the two towns turned the race into a yearly international competition, wherein participants run 415 yards holding a pancake skillet. Afterwards, both towns compare their fastest race times to determine which community won. The historical results of this international race show Olney winning 31 times, Liberal securing 39 wins, and two races declared a draw. Watch the video below to see the 1951 Olney Pancake race.

How to celebrate pancake day at home

Even if you're not participating in a pancake race, you can still celebrate the occasion by making a batch of flapjacks at home! Below, you can find two recipes we’ve selected and think you'll love. One is a thick and buttery pancake that’s well-suited to sop up maple syrup. The other is a crêpe (thin French pancake) covered with salted caramel sauce and almonds. Choose the one that makes your mouth water, and have a wonderful pancake day! (Click through for tips on how to reheat pancakes the morning after.)

Fluffy Pancakes

A plate of freshly made pancakes as part of a guide on the history of pancake day
Bhofack2/Getty

This recipe comes from the online platform MasterClass and takes 20 minutes to make.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • ¼ cup sugar

  • 4 tsp. baking powder

  • ½ tsp. salt

  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 1½ cups milk

  • 1 large egg

  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted

  • Vegetable oil or clarified butter

Directions:

  • Yield: 12 medium-sized pancakes

  1. In large bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt.

  2. In separate bowl, whisk together milk, vanilla extract, and egg.

  3. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Gently whisk to combine, until no floury bits remain. Add melted butter and stir well. (Pro tip: Avoid overmixing the batter as causes gluten to form in the pancakes and makes them tougher.)

  4. Heat drizzle of vegetable oil or clarified butter on non-stick skillet over medium heat, then reduce heat to medium-low to avoid scorching your first round. Using measuring cup, ladle pancake batter into medium-sized rounds; use back of measuring cup to spread them out evenly. Cook until pancakes firm up around edges, and little bubbles begin to appear on top side of batter.

  5. Flip to second side, and cook until golden brown, adjusting heat as needed. Repeat with remaining batter, greasing pan with more butter or oil if too dry.

  6. Serve with drizzle of maple syrup or honey.

  7. Bonus: Place fresh berries or chocolate chips onto each pancake while they cook on the first side before flipping.

Salted Caramel Crêpes

The cookware brand known as de Buyer shares their yummy recipe for Salted Caramel Crêpes — which puts a decadent spin on pancakes!

Salted Caramel Crêpes
Courtesy of de Buyer

Ingredients:

Crêpes:

  • 1½ cups flour

  • 3 eggs

  • 2 cups whole milk

  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 3½ Tbs. unsalted butter

  • Pinch of salt

Salted Caramel Sauce:

  • 1½ cup powdered sugar

  • ⅓ cup salted butter

  • 1 cup + 1 Tbs. heavy cream, room temperature

Directions:

  • Yield: 8 servings

  1. In mixing bowl, sift flour and add salt.

  2. Pour in eggs and vanilla extract then mix using whisk.

  3. Gradually add milk and continue to whisk until smooth paste forms. Finally, add melted butter.

  4. Leave mixture to stand 1 hour.

  5. Prepare caramel by melting sugar in pan over medium heat. When browned, turn off heat, and add butter (cut into pieces), and mix. Add cream, stirring constantly. Resume heat to thicken caramel, then allow to cool.

  6. Cook crêpes in lightly oiled non-stick round pan like Blue Carbon Steel Crepe & Tortilla Pan (Buy from deBuyer-USA.com, starting at $25).

  7. In another pan, toast flaked almonds 5 minutes, stirring periodically.

  8. Serve crêpes on plates. Cover with salted caramel sauce and crunchy almonds.


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