There aren’t many foods that taste better when you pile them up in a big stack, but somehow pancakes do. That serving technique would never work for pizza or fried eggs, and only works for enchiladas in New Mexico, but is part of the DNA of pancakes.
In a “short stack” (diner shorthand for an order of two pancakes) or a tall tower, for breakfast or supper, the appeal of pancakes never flatlines.
Almost everyone has a childhood memory of pancake breakfasts or pancake suppers, whether at home, at church or in the community. Even people who didn’t eat pancakes are likely to have childhood memories of them, because they appear so often in children’s literature.
Pippi Longstocking was an intrepid pancake-maker, but nobody flipped as many flapjacks, johnnycakes and pancakes as the Ingalls family of “Little House on the Prairie” fame. In the first book in the series set in Wisconsin, the family makes their own maple syrup in the spring to pour over cornmeal johnnycakes. The corn-maple combination is just as delicious today as it was 150 years ago.
Later books in the series describe hearty breakfasts of pancakes, buckwheat pancakes, hoe cakes and griddle cakes, depending on the season. Of the many depictions of pioneer life, eating pancakes was one of the easiest to relate to, and certainly preferable to some of the natural disasters that plagued settlers on the plains.
Cornmeal combined with flour makes a tender-crumbed pancake, with a cake-like texture that comes from buttermilk and careful mixing. To make the fluffiest pancakes, it’s always important to mix dry and wet ingredients together as little as possible. Once the flour is wet, the gluten proteins begin to bond together, creating a web of proteins that traps the air bubbles and prevents rising. Overbeating pancake batter results in the batter spreading outward in the pan rather than upward.
There are other techniques for creating light, fluffy pancakes. Since most pancake recipes call for baking powder, it’s tempting to just add extra baking powder for a little more lift. While that will add height, it comes at the expense of taste and texture: too much baking powder will produce a dry, tough pancake with an unpleasant metallic taste.
Instead, separating the eggs and reserving the whites until the end of mixing time boosts the pancake batter to rise higher. The whites don’t need to be beaten; in their natural, viscous state, they add some scaffolding to help the pancake rise. According to Rose Levy Beranbaum, the author of “The Baking Bible” and other cookbooks, “Adding the white unwhipped at the end gives more support.”
Of course, there’s more than just height to a good pancake. Added ingredients, from the classic chocolate chips to bacon, make a memorable breakfast or dinner.
Zucchini bread pancakes are even more moist than their namesake loaf. Carrots would work just as well in the recipe and are sweet enough to be eaten unadorned by syrup. Oat pancakes have a wholesome nutty flavor that’s like a portable bowl of oatmeal. The variations are endless.